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.

  • John Cleary

    Take a look at Augosto's Boal's work on acting and intervention. Particularly he use of the term "specactors"

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  • Rachel Ash

    Would you be willing to post a sample lesson plan? I'd like to see the tasks you broke the simulation down into, the rules and guidelines you lay out for your students, etc. I have been interested in this kind of lesson for a while, but it's hard to figure out how to take that first step.

    • milnewsca

      I have posted below a three part comment giving a lesson plan. Sorry about the delay in reply, it was unfortunate but unavoidable.

  • milnewsca

    In response to the comments, I have included below a short plan of the lobbying simulation I developed.


    The goal of the lobbying and advocacy simulation is to give students a chance to exercise or experience for the first time the skills required in lobbying and advocacy, to familiarize them with the political issues and processes of a particular country.

    The simulation unfolds as can be seen from the table and the requirements outlined below. A sample class schedule can be found below.

    Sample Class Schedule

    Week 2Intro to health policy, UK; Team formationResources, UK health: government website, UN sources

    Week 3-4Lobbying

    Week 5Intro to health policy, US Team formation
    Week 5-6Lobbying

    Week 7Intro to environmental policy, UK; Team formationResources, UK Environment: government website, UN sources
    Week 7-8Lobbying

    Week 9Intro to environmental policy, US; Team formationResources, US Environment: Congressional Research Service, government website, UN sources
    Week 10-11Lobbying

    Below, you will also find the requirements of students for the role play simulation.

    Requirements for students in role play simulation

    Citizens/Interest group: concerned with an issue to be raised by existing interest group or association; must present one page letter or three page submission; presentation to minister and public servants; answers to questions
    Public servants: concerned with how the requested change fits in with existing policy; potential application problems; costs; priority among other ongoing concerns; recommendations; any problems from similar proposals in the past; must present questions after presentation; one page memorandum to minister/secretary
    Minister’s/Secretary’s office: concerned with political implications for party, cabinet, minister, constituencies; priority within cabinet compared to other ongoing concerns; must present questions during presentation; oral presentation of decision; one page memorandum outlining decision.

  • milnewsca

    Lobbying and Advocacy Simulation Part II

    Students playing the role of a special interest group or lobbying firm have several options in representing the request of their citizens. The first of these is sending a letter. Letters are the easiest and most obvious method of lobbying, but they are not always the most effective. When sending a letter, it is important to use the correct address and greeting. The letter should be typed on the organization’s stationery. Personal letters hold a lot more weight than form letters. The letter should be brief and focused, and it should specify what action is being requested. The letter must also be factual and accurate, and all the facts in the letter should be checked to ensure that they are correct and that your conclusions can be backed up. The letter closes with thanks. The tone of the letter is very important, but it is hard to judge: it is best to be neither negative, condescending, threatening nor intimidating.

    Another option for a lobbyist or a special interest group is to make a submission. Submissions include information on the group or organization being represented, as well as contact details, the topic or issue that the submission is about. A submission should also make clear why it is being made in the first place, what the concern is, how the group is connected to the issue, and what the expertise or experience on the issue is. It should also include the specific actions that need to be taken, and the reasons why this action should be taken. This section is the right place to give the facts and make the main points in the argument. It is important to be as brief and accurate as possible. Some reasons for which the actions requested are desirable to the decision-makers may include how they will improve quality of life, make a contribution to the welfare of the community, save money or be in the interests of the minister or secretary’s support base and constituents.
    It is sometimes useful to outline briefly what would happen if no action is taken, but it is important not to sound as if you are threatening the decision-makers. It is also a good idea to offer further information or face-to-face meetings on request.
    When at the meeting, the lobbyist should keep the argument short and simple. Going in, it is important to be clear about why you are even there, and what it is you hope to accomplish during the meeting. The lobbyist should have the facts straight., should be on time, polite, patient, and always be polite. Nothing should provoke the lobbyist into being rude. It is a good idea to make the issue personal for the decision-maker.

    One of the most effective approaches in lobbying is to do the work for the decision-maker. A lobbyist should be a resource for that person or group. The lobbyist should leave a one-page fact sheet with contact details. Before the lobbyist leaves, s/he should thank the decision-maker again for taking the meeting. The lobbyist should also follow-up on the meeting and build the relationship as much as possible. And the lobbyist should whenever possible provide opportunities for positive publicity – a photo opportunity, event or occasion.

  • milnewsca

    Lobbying and Advocacy Part III

    We can now turn to the role of the public servants and the minister or secretary’s team. The public servants or political aides have a number of options. In terms of the questions which they may ask, there are three types: asking for more evidence, asking questions of clarification, asking linking or expanding questions, and asking hypothetical, cause and effect or summary questions.

    The questions which ask for more evidence include questions such as: How do you know that? What data is that claim based on? What do other sources say that support your argument? Where did you find the view you just expressed? What evidence would you give to someone who doubted your interpretation? The questions which clarify the issues or requests include questions such as: Can you put that another way? What’s a good example of what you are talking about? What do you mean by that? Can you explain the term you just used? Could you give an illustration of your point? Could you give another example of your point? Linking or extending questions include such questions as: Is there any connection between what you’ve just said and what X said before? How does your comment fit in with X’s earlier comment? How does your observation relate to what we have decided previously? Does your idea challenge or support what we (or X) seem to be saying? Doing? How does the change you want add to what has already been done? Hypothetical, cause and effect, or summary questions include such questions as: What are the one or two most important ideas that emerged from this discussion? What remains unresolved or contentious about this request? What do you understand better as a result of today’s discussion? What do we need to talk about again? What key word or concept best captures our discussion today?

    When the time comes for the public servants to respond to the lobbyists’ efforts, they will usually provide either a written response or a verbal one. If writing, then the public servants should include a certain content. According to Jim Foulds, former provincial politician, when bureaucrats are asked for something, all other things being equal, they say no. Public servants should use the correct greeting in their response. The letter should be typed. The content of the letter should be brief and focused. It should be addressed to the politicians or decision-makers and offer 2 or 3 options or make 2 or 3 recommendations. The letter or memorandum should be specific about the request made by the lobbyists. Public servants should check all the facts in the submission, and correct them or offer alternatives as necessary. Their memorandum should address costs, both actual expenditure and trade-offs, i.e. what will not be done if the request is granted. It should address how the requested change fits in with existing policy, and any potential application problems. It should also discuss what the priority of the request is in the context of other ongoing concerns and other recommendations made by the public servants. It should also discuss any problems or outcomes from similar proposals in the past. The tone should be neutral.
    The minister or secretary’s letter replying to the lobbyists’ request should follow Fould’s other law, that politicians, when all other things are equal, will say yes. The letter should use the correct greeting. The letter should be personal, and the minister or secretary should not reply with a form letter. The letter should be brief and focused, and it should be clear and specific about what the minister will or will not do. The letter should thank the citizens for their concern. The tone of the letter should not be negative, condescending, threatening or intimidating. The letter should address the reasons for your decision. In making the decision, the minister or secretary should consider the political implications for the party, the cabinet, the minister or secretary him or herself, and for the various constituencies. It should also consider the priority within cabinet compared to other concerns.

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