Role-playing is an opportunity for students to grapple with material in simulated real-world environments. It forces students to apply their knowledge, reflect on key issues, and consider alternate view-points.
Have students acknowledge multiple sides of an argument. Have students face concepts they might disagree with. Bring life and personality to key figures/concepts from course material.
Ensure students have required background information to complete the task
Role-playing requires students to have a basal understanding of some information. Assigned reading, attendance of lecture, or guided research may be required for students before they are ready to take on a new role.
Establish classrooms norms that promote community and inclusivity
Role-playing requires students to commit to an unfamiliar role and can push them past their comfort zone. It is important before the activity begins to talk about classroom etiquette and establish rules that promote student involvement and enthusiasm. You may consider having a longer explicit discussion in which you write out class rules on a board or you may just mention your expectations of student behavior briefly before the class begins.
If needed, distribute prompt and determine student groups
Some role-playing activities require students to prepare ahead of class as an individual or group. If this is the case, assign students their groups before class begins and give them the assignment with clear instructions on how they should prepare – Do they need to do research on a character or time? Do they need to understand specifics of a topic? Do they need to bring props or a costume?
Create a “real-world” environment
Simulations and role-playing work best when it is as close to the real-world as possible. This may mean having a particular classroom set-up or alternate location. Students may also need to wear particular clothing (costume, business attire, etc.) or refer to each other in a different tone (casual, formal, singing, etc.)
Really commit to the setting! Students are more likely to buy into an uncomfortable situation and role if they see you are enthusiastic.
Clearly define the role each student should portray
Make sure each student has a clearly defined task. If students are working in groups, establish how they should work together. Are they a team? Competitors? Debating? Is there a hierarchy to roles? Do individual roles have different rules they should follow?
Ensure students have required information (or change the information as the role-play evolves)
If necessary, pose questions to the class or have a review before starting the simulation to ensure everyone is on the same page
If the task evolves with time, the information students need may change. Prepare how the information might change throughout the course of the role-playing and how the students will learn this information. Will the instructor give it to them? Will different students have to communicate with each other? Etc.
Keep track of time
Often, role-playing requires strict time constraints to be effective. Limit student’s time depending on the role/task
Have a moment for the student to get feedback on their performance, either from the class as a whole, their partner/group, or from the instructor directly.
Allow students to reflect on their role-playing. Some potential questions to ask:
What challenges did you face taking on these new roles? What was harder or easier than expected?
If you had to do it again, what would you change?
How did you plan for your role? What lead to the decisions you made in your role?
Role-play is a pedagogy that been used in a wide variety of contexts and content areas (Rao & Stupans, 2012). Essentially, it is the practice of having students take on specific roles - usually ones in which they are not familiar - and act them out in a case-based scenario for the purpose of learning course content or understanding “complex or ambiguous concepts” (Sogunro, 2004: 367). The guidelines for the role-play are usually modeled on realistic criteria so the students can get as close to “the real thing” as possible. Research on role-play’s effectiveness and best practices exists as far back as the 1970s; recently however, role-play has been touted as a tool better suited for the needs of today’s college student than more traditional teaching methods (see Rosa, 2012, and Bobbit et. al., 2001).
Role-play pedagogy has been shown to be effective in reaching learning outcomes in three major learning domains: affective, cognitive, and behavioral (Maier, 2002; Rao & Stupans, 2012). By making students take on the role of another person, they practice empathy and perspective taking. This can lead to more self-reflection and awareness on the part of the student (Westrup & Planander, 2013; Sogunro, 2004). When students take the skills they have learned in theory and put them in practice, this creates a deeper cognitive link to the material, making it easier for students to learn (McEwen, et. al., 2014; Johnson & Johnson, 1997). Finally, using role-play as a training tool helps students change behaviors and use best practices in real-world settings (Beard, et. al., 1995).
Pavey and Donoghue (2003, p. 7) summarize the benefits of using role-play pedagogy:
“to get students to apply their knowledge to a given problem, to reflect on issues and the views of others, to illustrate the relevance of theoretical ideas by placing them in a real-world context, and to illustrate the complexity of decision-making.”
This pedagogical tool has been used in various fields, from medicine to law, from business to psychology (Westrup & Planander, 2013). Though role-play has traditionally been used in educational settings with an emphasis on the social dynamic of learning and fostering collaboration among students (Joyce & Weil, 2000), researchers have found role-play useful in getting students to better grasp practical cognitive skills as well (Shapiro & Leopold, 2012). Aspegren’s literature review (1999) on how medical student best learn communication skills revealed that experiential training produced much better results than simple one-way instruction. Using role-plays have been shown to better prepare student teachers and construction managers (Bhattacharjee, 2014). It can enhance second language learning (Livingstone, 1983) and reduce racial prejudice (McGregor, 1993). Not only does it increase student engagement, it increases knowledge retention. (Westrup & Planander, 2013)
Rao & Stupans (2012) have created a useful typology for organizing the various role-play activities that are used in higher education: ‘Role-Switch,’ ‘Acting,’ and ‘Almost Real Life.’ ‘Role-Switch’ requires the student to take on the role of another agent to understand the actions and motivations of someone else. ‘Acting’ role-plays allow students to practice newly-developed skills by simulating a scenario where that skill may be required. ‘Almost Real Live’ is a role-play “as close to the real experience as is possible” (431). This type of role-play lets students apply all their skills in a realistic, yet safe setting. Each of these categories focus on a different learning domain, though all overlap to some degree. The authors also surveyed the literature to collect best practices across all types of role-plays. Best practices include the instructor thinking deeply about the learning goals of the role-play and choosing a case that best reaches those goals; ensuring both the instructor and students are adequately prepared with case materials and familiar with the pedagogy; and allowing for sufficient and appropriate feedback and debriefing of the entire exercise (Rao & Stupans, 2012: 432-33).
These guidelines point to some of the drawbacks to using role-play, namely the amount of time necessary to properly prepare for the activity and the amount of knowledge one needs to have about both the content and the pedagogy (see House et. al., 1983; Ments, 1989). However, if instructors do take the time to prepare, the benefits can far outweigh the effort.
Written by Lauren Britt Elmore, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education
Aspegren, K. (1999). BEME Guide No. 2: Teaching and learning communication skills in medicine-a review with quality grading of articles. Medical Teacher, 21(6), 563-570.
Beard, R.L., Salas, E., & Prince, C. (1995). Enhancing transfer of training: Using role-play to foster teamwork in the cockpit. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 5(2), 131-143.
Bhattacharjee, S. (2014). Proceedings from the 50th ASC Annual International Conference: Effectiveness of role-playing as a pedagogical approach in construction education.
Ments, M.V. (1989), The Effective Use of Role-play: A Handbook for Teachers and Trainers, rev. ed. London: Kogan Page.
Rao, D. & Stupans, I. (2012). Exploring the potential of role play in higher education: development of a typology and teacher guidelines. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 49(4), 427-436.
Rosa, J.A. (2012). Marketing education for the next four billion: Challenges and innovations. Journal of Marketing Education, 34(1), 44-54.
Sogunro, O.A. (2004). Efficacy of role-playing pedagogy in training leaders: Some reflections. Journal of Management Development, 23(4), 355-371.
Westrup, U. & Planander, A. (2013). Role-play as a pedagogical method to prepare students for practice: The students’ voice. Ogre utbildning, 3(3), 199-210.
Below we have annotated lesson plans for selected examplary activities from our database that highlight various ways to incorporate role play into the classroom.
(1) Role Playing Historical Decisions. Students travel back in time to 19th century Japan in order to take on the role of advisors to the Tokugawa shogunate. As advisors, students must synthesize primary readings on social and political unrest to propose reforms that could prevent the regime from collapsing. Find the original activity in our database here.