How to use Role-Play in Teaching and Training
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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