February 6th, 2012

Using Role Play Simulations to Promote Active Learning


Role play simulation is a form of experiential learning that allows you to “cover” the same sort of topics as you would in a lecture course while moving your students from passive to active learners.

For example, I found success in using this model for a course in the domestic politics of foreign countries that I teach. Originally I lectured on political parties, election systems, leadership, major political issues, success and failure in politics in the UK. Now, with the role play model, I invite students to form teams based on political parties: Labor, Conservative and Liberal Democrats. Each team works together to assign the various responsibilities: party leader, campaign manager, fundraiser, speech writer, etc.

During several class periods, the students go through a mock election, with all the usual events – a stump speech, the unveiling of a new commercial, the leaders’ debate on television. In other words, instead of the drip-drip of information from the professor in lectures, the students immerse themselves in the content. Over the years, I have developed simulations for lobbying government, preparing a federal budget, even the application and selection process for government grants.

If you’re interested in designing a role play simulation for your course, you’ll want to keep certain principles in mind:

Breakdown the role play simulation into specific tasks with due dates. This will keep students organized and on track, and prevent them from getting overwhelmed.

It is important to structure the tasks so that the content you want is covered as close to reality as possible. It also helps to start with a role play simulation that imitates a well-known situation. Allow some class time for teamwork, but let students know that most of the work will need to be done outside of class — in face-to-face or online collaborations.

Address the natural anxieties of students being taught in a radically different way from what they have in the past. Most students are used to their teachers feeding them the information, so this will be a new experience for them.

Addressing student anxieties about this way of learning is particularly important in disciplines or universities where the lecture-essay-exam model is the most common. I’ve found it helps to provide students with examples of work produced by students in previous courses.

You also want to be clear in communicating your expectations. Write out the rules and requirements, and enforce them so the process is predictable. Make sure the teams are small enough that everyone participates and spot check to see that everyone actually does what they are supposed to – the free-rider problem isn’t going to go away. Also, take into account that, depending on their personality or culture of origin, some students may need extra encouragement to participate.

Make the introduction of role plays manageable for the instructor. This method of teaching is much more work than lecturing, so introduce it gradually, starting with an area in which you have the most expertise.

It also helps to start with a small class and move up to more students once you are fully comfortable with this new style of teaching. In some cases, you may want to have one or two single role-play exercises that fit into one class, breaking up the lectures while you find your feet.

Despite the extra work, simulations tend to result in more in-depth, long-term learning of the content as well as the development of new skills, such writing, leadership, coordination, collaboration and research.

And there’s another advantage, strictly for the instructor– it’s always fun, it’s always different, and it’s always gratifying to see students work very hard without even noticing it.

Dr. Laure Paquette is a strategist and professor at Lakehead University.