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How to use Role-Play in Teaching and Training

Updated on February 22, 2019
Docmo profile image

Mohan is a family physician and a postgraduate associate dean working in the UK. He has a keen interest in self-regulated learning.

Role-play is a valuable teaching and training tool that delivers immense amount of imprinted learning. This learning is retained and recalled better through the role-play experience. While it is evolving as a very effective and interactive teaching tool, many learners feel unprepared and uncomfortable in participating in this teaching mode. It could be equally uncomfortable for a novice teacher who wants to use role-play in routine teaching and training.

Learning Pyramid
Learning Pyramid

I have just returned from a two day teaching the trainers stint where we used role-play as a tool with enormous benefit to the participants. I also use role-play in one to one teaching and training.

I am constantly amazed at the depth of learning that occurs through effective deployment of this tool - the way it can be adapted to teach anything from knowledge, skills or to explore and expose attitudes.

In this article, I will share my thoughts on the art of constructing the role-play, the principles that underpin this tool and what kind of learning occurs through its use.

didactic instruction
didactic instruction

What is role-play?

Role play in a simulation exercise where persons take on assumed roles in order to act out a scenario in a contrived setting. The learners or participants can act out the assigned roles in order to explore the scenario, apply skills (maybe communication, negotiation, debate etc.), experience the scenario from another viewpoint, evoke and understand emotions that maybe alien to them. It helps to make sense of theory and gathers together the concepts into a practical experience.

This deeply rooted in the principles of constructivist teaching.

Role-play is also used as a term for gaming, simulation and in couples interaction. In this article we are only going to talk about role-play as a teaching/training tool.

Knowledge, Skills & Attitudes
Knowledge, Skills & Attitudes

Why role-play?

Constructing meaning in a learner is a far better way to make learning memorable than simple transmission.

In children, the excitement of the role play, the interaction, and the stimulation of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic styles of learning helps a broad range of learners.

In adults it does bring out the inner child as described above. In addition the tool respects their prior knowledge, experience and the reality they bring to a concept. It helps to make the concept being taught to be constructed and then reflected on.

It helps to move beyond any comfort zones and helps bring on attitudinal change through different viewpoints too. It helps to develop all domains of learning, cognitive (knowledge) , psychomotor (skills) and affective ( emotional)

It can also also a lot of fun and helps shake off those lecture room cobwebs and stimulate small group work.

There is plenty of evidence that confirms the retention from participation is far higher than any other modes of learning.

Garrick- between comedy and tragedy- Joshua Reynolds
Garrick- between comedy and tragedy- Joshua Reynolds | Source

How does role-play work?

The choice of the role-play relies on the learning agenda and has to have clear aims and objectives. There are various ways role-play can work.

a) Observation : learning through observation and reflection happens when a group of learners watch a specifically constructed role-play using actors, simulators or even played by the tutors.

b) Modelling: Helps to learn a concept or an idea through participation. For example children can learn about history and historical figures by acting out scenes. While adults can participate in a constructed scenario- like an angry customer, worried patients etc.

c) Contemplation: It helps to stimulate analysis through exploring complex concepts and debating issues- usually ethical problems where there is no clear right or wrong.

d) Skills development: The participant can practice and develop skills such as breaking bad news, calming down an angry client, negotiating with customers etc.

e)Self-reflection: through participating in role-play the learners are bring many of their hidden attitudes to the surface and it helps them understand their own prejudices biases and assumptions. It helps to see the world through the other persons eyes and understand methods of communicating.

f) Re-enaction: By re-enacting a past experience it helps to bring recall, catharsis and also helps to identify creative solutions to a problem that could have previously difficult due to emotional distress.

Define Roles
Define Roles

Tips for Role-play success

Constructing a role-play

Role-plays can be simple or complex, short or long and can be adapted to suit the needs of what is being taught or explored. If it is a simple skills being practiced we can set the scene quickly and let the participants practice.

The key steps in constructing a role-play are:

a) Define Aims and Objectives (is it to practice skills, explore concepts etc.)

b) Define setting/placement

c) Define clear role descriptors and what they will say (at least an outline)

d) Define time limit

e) Define observer tasks (if any)

f) Define ground rules of safety and feedback

g) Define debrief agenda

h) Define facilitator tasks

Running a role-play

As a teacher/trainer or a facilitator, we need to keep the time (and also prepare to call time out if things get out of hand!) We need to be observant and we need to take notes for feedback. We can ask observers to do the same. The feedback should be objective and based on observed facts.

If it s a group ensure the participants in the role-play are physically separated from the observers and are set close enough to be observed but far enough to give a semblance of a stage.

Be watchful for any participants going off the script and becoming too inventive- this may hijack the agreed agenda and also confuse the other participant(s) this is why very clear descriptors for the role and what the role has to say will be useful.

Feedback and Debrief Principles

It is better to follow the simple rules of feedback- where the participants are asked how it went, what emotions they experienced and one is playing a professional and the other a client – to ask each person’s internal emotions and how the other made them feel. If an assessment then the participant should be able to describe what went well and what didn’t go well. The groups will then give positive and constructive feedback.

It is often useful after debrief to summarise what was gained- by asking each participant for their points learnt or understood. It will be usually quite an assortment of learning points that shows how each role-play can stimulate several strands of learning beyond the original aims and objectives.Debrief needs to be succinct and clear.

It is always better to have an ice-breaker or a chat about an unrelated topic for a few minutes to break people out of role so any negative emotions or aggressions can dissipate. As role-play is very powerful people may end up staying ‘in role’ for a while after causing disruption to the group or the learning task.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of Role-Play
Energising activity / fun to do
Participants may be too shy and reluctant
Allows participants to contribute actively (even the quieter ones)
Can be threatening to some
It is Time efficient
It can become ‘too much fun’ and disrupt the task
Experiential learning is more powerful than instructions.
Participants can get too involved and loose objectivity
It delivers complex concepts in a simple manner
Participants can overact and show off The observers may not observe well or take notes
Needs little preparation for the teacher/facilitator (unless you want to print out role descriptors)
The observers may take ‘sides’ based on their preconceptions

And finally...

Role-play is a powerful and effective teaching method for children and adult and can be adapted to deliver any learning objectives from simple to complex concepts. IT really lends well to practice communication skills, debate complex ethical issues or explore attitudes and beliefs. The success lies in the construction and delivery with careful facilitation.

It is a great for teachers and trainers as it is entertaining, more interactive and reduced learner fatigue.

Go on, give it a try if you haven’t already.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Mohan Kumar


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    • profile image

      sserwadda charles 

      21 months ago

      It is well said and every trainer or teacher needs to employ role play method in the teaching-learning process.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      4 years ago from UK

      I agree- the slapdash editing leaves a lot to be desired. I haven't returned to read this with my editorial eye - thanks for prompting me to!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Helpful thoughts and ideas but in this world of spell/grammar check all the misuse of English within the article is very disturbing and really not professional.

    • profile image 

      5 years ago

      I'VE been into role play in my physics class and they love it.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thanks a lot for your help. It´s a very practical hub in order to enhance our classes of any subject.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I m very thankful for this informative hub.I learned valuable information about role play method of teaching it is very helpful in excellent class teaching.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for a very helpful hub

    • jenbeach21 profile image


      7 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Thanks for the very informative hub! Role playing is a valuable tool for teachers and I learned a lot from reading this. Voted up and shared.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      7 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Hi Docmo - I've used Role-play in my teaching for a number of years. I would have loved to have this marvelous hub, so filled with valuable information. You've provided so much here. I know a few teachers who would benefit from this hub so I will be sharing it. Thank you, my friend!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      7 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I like to role-play. It's intriguing and interesting to get into someone else's head and learn how they tick. Fab hub!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Sirini, I'm glad you find this useful and happy that it gave you the level of detail you have needed. I'm always grateful for such user comments that spurs me on to write clear, informative resources. Thanks for your visit and comments.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you. I am sitting for level 3 City & Guilds and I have selected role play as one training tool. I presented it several times, but always my description on the role play was not satisfying. Then I searched in the web and found this. I think your description made me find the gap.

      My presentation is giving feedback to employees (by the boss). I teach them the method and tell them to watch the role play (I am acting as the employee and they watch as the boss). They have to give feedback to the employee using the knowledge I gave them.

      The whole training is 15 minitues. I pass a minute I fail.

      Thank you, I will be a visitor to your site always now that you helped me.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Thanks kelley, appreciate your visit and comments. I am glad you found this useful and thanks for sharing!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This hub is packed with informative insight and links! I absolutely think role play used during teaching is a vital element to produce true learning. Voted up and Shared! Take care, Kelley

    • Middlespecialist profile image


      8 years ago

      This hub is just excellent! Student engagement is so important for learning. You have given us a lot to digest.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Thank you Eiddwen- you are welcome and I am glad you hopped this way. Much appreciated!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      8 years ago from Wales

      A great read from this well presented and researched hub that I came across while hub hopping.

      I can now look forward to following you and reading more of your work.

      Thanks for sharing this with us.

      Take care,


    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Sure thing. Mine now has to be a vodka martini, shaken not stirred. lol.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      8 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I'll have two shots of Kahlua on the rocks! Thank you very much, Mohan!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      @ Reynold Jay - thank you and I am pleased that this work has appealed to you. I wanted to make it useful yet academic at the right level- I've avoided many referencing and evidence based that exists - hopefully this doesn't put people off. I'll be happy to supply references if anyone requests.

      @lynda, thanks for sharing your experience. It must be difficult and heart breaking to work with such group but you've ably illustrated how role-play can break through barriers in delivering difficult concepts and experiences that can be cathartic.

      @Ashantina, thank you for your bright, cheery compliments- always makes me beam!

      @Shalini, Thanks a lot! I've had experience in shaping and changing fixed attitudes by using role-play. I used to very shy and introverted ( a typical Virgo) but through practice and an incident at school ( I wrote a play and the lead actor feel ill so I had to step in at the last minute as only I knew the lines!!- terrifying yet strangely uplifting and addictive)- changed my understanding of acting and performance that I now use in creative teaching methodologies.

      @Amy, I love your thoughtful, detailed and always insightful comments. This tool has great benefit in catharsis, conflict resolution ( even internal conflict) on another teaching commitment today we used this to help understand conflict and practice negotiation strategies - great for 'closure' and assertiveness. I am glad you think the bar is raised, that deserves a drink at the bar, and I am buying. What's your favourite tipple?

      @marshacanada, thank you so much for sharing your experiences in support of this method. Really appreciate your visit.

      Drinks all around I think!! thank you all so much.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great hub, well written. I used role playing in my teching work as a social worker in my psychotherapeutic with mental health consumers. I also greatly benefitted from creative dramatics classes as a child. Those classes gave me self confidence. As stated in the hub, its veryhard for shy people to engage in role playing but if they can be eased into it gradually they probably will like it.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      8 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Docmo, great organized writing on a concept I am unfamiliar with. It appears the first attempt could be difficult, but a great learning experience for the participants and facilitator. I especially appreciated your list of Advantages and Disadvantages as it gave insight to some of the barriers to success in roleplaying regarding personalities. Personally, I think it would be difficult for me at first, as I would start out shy, but warm to the concept "having too much fun", getting too involved and end up loosing objectivity! Like any learning concept, practice and experience, I think, would create a stimulating, highly participatory, and enlightening event. At the risk of looking at this tool in an "I, me, mine" capacity, it seems it could sort out and clarify many dichotomies in ideas within oneself. You managed to take this exploration in teaching to an extremely interesting, 'I want to try it' level for the masses. You raise the bar in teaching standards to unlimited possibilities, Mohan. Thank you

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 

      8 years ago from India

      Very detailed and well-presented! I like how you've explained it, assessed its role and spelled out what to avoid.

      A long time ago, a British international Creative Director did a role playing exercise at a seminar when it seemed like everyone was too caught up with the product to see clearly. It was amazing what an hour's role playing did to make us break out of the rut and think outside the box.

    • Ashantina profile image


      8 years ago

      Very informative and detailed presentation of your concept. Thanks for this wonderful idea Docmo!!

    • lmmartin profile image


      8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      WE often used role playing for abused children to help them work beyond imposed negative self-images. We allowed them to play the abuser, or to play the kind of parent they wished they had, or the kind of childhood they thought would be more appropriate. It was a great way to let these repressed children express themselves in a world of "make believe." Believe me, role playing is a God-send in such instances. Great hub. Rated up. Lynda

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 

      8 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Wow This is an indepth look at this. Nicely done. Up one and awesome. RJ


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