Role-play: An Approach to Teaching and Learning

Role-play is a technique that allows students to explore realistic situations by interacting with other people in a managed way in order to develop experience and trial different strategies in a supported environment. Depending on the intention of the activity, participants might be playing a role similar to their own (or their likely one in the future) or could play the opposite part of the conversation or interaction. Both options provide the possibility of significant learning, with the former allowing experience to be gained and the latter encouraging the student to develop an understanding of the situation from the ‘opposite’ point of view.

How it Works


Feedback on role-play exercise

Participants are given particular roles to play in a conversation or other interaction, such as an email exchange, typical of their discipline. They may be given specific instructions on how to act or what to say, as an aggressive client or patient in denial, for example, or required to act and react in their own way depending on the requirements of the exercise. The participants will then act out the scenario and afterwards there will be reflection and discussion about the interactions, such as alternative ways of dealing with the situation. The scenario can then be acted out again with changes based on the outcome of the reflection and discussion.

Possible Technologies to Support the Approach

Role-play is a very flexible teaching approach because it requires no special tools, technology or environments, for example student could work through a role-play exercise just as effectively in a lecture hall as in a seminar room. However, technology can provide significant advantages, and even new possibilities, for using the approach as a learning activity.

At the most simple level, technology such as voice recorders, video cameras and smartphones/tablets allow traditional face-to-face role-play exercises to be recorded and stored online for later reference, analysis and reflection, as in this example of negotiation skills from EduCon, Korea. This can allow an exercise to be revisited at a later date and re-evaluated based on subsequent learning and experience, which isn’t generally possible when the exercise has not been recorded. Other tools that can be used with this traditional style of role-play are an electronic voting system or Twitter, both of which would allow a group of students to observe the role-play and evaluate the situation and conversation as it develops, such as by voting on whether a character was too aggressive or submissive during a particular interaction. This information could be retained and, coupled with a recording, provide another resource for later analysis and reflection.

However, technology can be used to create role-play exercises beyond what is possible in a face-to-face session. Asynchronous technologies, such as online forums and discussion boards, Social Networks, Twitter, etc., allow role-play to take place over longer periods of time and in a more considered way. This means that role-play can take place outside of timetabled sessions and in situations where students are unable to physical meet at the same time. In this situation students would post their part of the conversation, wait until the other participant(s) have responded, and then post their own reply, and so on. This method allows participants to engage when they are able and gives them time to consider their responses, and while it may seem quite artificial compared to a face-to-face exercise, it can reflect situations such as email discussions quite closely.

Another advantage of using technology is that it can enable external participants to take a part in the role-play. Tools such as Blackboard Collaborate, Skype and Google+ Hangouts all provide an online space where live conversations, including video, can take place. This means that a person with experience or expertise in the area being role-played can take one of the parts, producing a much more realistic experience for the student. For example, a clinical psychologist, drawing upon their own experience to make the interaction realistic, could play the part of a patient with students taking the part of the psychologist, or a chartered engineer could play the role of a project manager while students play the role of the engineers during a meeting. All of these tools can be accessed freely over the internet and only require a microphone and speakers/headphones, meaning the technical barriers are quite low. The tools typically have recording facilities that would allow the interaction to be permanently captured. These tools are also useful for role-playing among students where they are all available at the same time but can’t physically meet, such as on distance learning courses or during placement periods.

Getting Started

Journalism students role-playing various interview methods

Journalism students role-playing various interview methods

If you are interested in trying out role-play there are a few practical questions that you should answer:

  • Where in the course/module would this approach work best?
  • Are there situations and interactions that students would benefit from being able to explore?
  • Would ‘live’ role-play be most appropriate or would it need to be staggered over a longer period of time?
  • Should the students take on all of the roles, will the tutor take a role, or can people with direct experience be involved, e.g. having a genuine client or patient play their own part?
  • How much technology should be involved? Which tools are most suited? What support would be needed?
  • Are the students (and other tutors) ready for this?

Having thought about these questions, you should have worked out whether role-play is an approach that makes sense in your context and have some ideas about how to introduce it. If you are still unsure, you could try a small exercise in a single session and see how the students respond.

Further Resources

Case studies from SHU:

The following links are to case studies showing how staff at SHU have used role-play ideas in their teaching:

Related ‘Teaching Nuggets’:

The following link provides further information on some activities and assessment outputs that can work well with role-play, especially for students who are part-time or not campus-based:

Other resources:

2 thoughts on “Role-play: An Approach to Teaching and Learning

  1. Pingback: Simulation: An Approach to Teaching and Learning | e-learning at Sheffield Hallam

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