To Role-Play or Not to Role-Play?


One of the broad goals of quality standards-based adult education instruction is to help students “build on their prior knowledge, deeply understand concepts, and master new skills well enough to be able to use their new learning in their real lives” – when we teachers are not around to help!  This of course begs the question:

How can we know for sure that our students are learning in this way, and what kind of teaching will make it more likely to happen?

Cognitive scientists – those experts who study the brain in order to understand how people learn and develop expertise – tell us that one way people are more likely to learn effectively is if they get immediate and multiple chances to use what they are learning for a purpose that is meaningful to them. This is one reason that the instructional strategy of Role-Playing has gotten a lot of attention recently.

Let us hear from you: Do you use role-playing regularly in your instruction?  For what purposes? With what results?

Role-playing gives students the opportunity to practice using a skill in real-life-like contexts, with other real people, to address specific situations. This contextual, “hands-on” approach is meant to deepen their learning. For the instructor, role-plays can be an excellent tool for assessing students’ grasp of concepts and ability to apply knowledge and skills. Other assessment strategies simply may not work as effectively for these same situations. Through role-plays, both students and teachers can actually see evidence of learning in action, and that makes it really hard to resist using them!

But wait,” you may say, are role-plays always an effective strategy to use in instruction?

Perhaps not. What if…

  • Your students seem to feel uncomfortable with or resistant to engaging in them?
  • Your class attendance is variable and you’re not sure enough students who are ready for them will actually be in class?
  • You need an opportunity to extensively assess each individual student’s progress in using a particular skill?

Here are some insights into when and how to use role play from Peggy McGuire, standards-based instruction expert:

The key for teachers in the process of planning a learning activity is to always start with asking ourselves, “What kind of learning do I want to see in this particular activity?”,  and then, “What can I ask students to do that will show me (and them!!) that learning?

For instance, if my goal is to see that students can “acquire through reading” the information they need to address particular situations, students do not have to demonstrate that skill by role-playing. Let’s take Elizabeth’s* small class of 5 students as an example. 

Elizabeth knew from previous experience that this class did not respond well to role plays. Her planned activity focused on ‘reading to find information’ to use in addressing a situation with a client or supervisor at work. The curriculum suggested having students role play these work situations for practice and as a check on reading skills. Instead, for each workplace scenario, Elizabeth called on students in turn, and one by one students individually demonstrated what they would say to their client or supervisor in that situation. This seemed the best way to make sure everyone had a chance to practice ‘using found information to address situations’ without the stress of a “formal” role play. It also gave Elizabeth a great alternative opportunity to assess the reading skills of each individual student.

On the other hand, role-playing can be especially effective in situations in which it is important for students to act out their learning in a specific context (for instance, in a mock job interview when students are currently seeking employment), or where interpersonal interaction is a critical component of the learning process (for instance, when instruction is focusing on skills like Cooperate with Others or Resolve Conflict and Negotiate). In cases like these it’s good to be quite explicit with students about “Why role-play in this particular activity” (instead of “Why role-playing in general”). This specificity about the “role of role-playing” might help to lower student resistance. It also might help them see that, like ALL useful strategies, role playing is one more strategy to have in their “toolbox” and to pull out when it is the BEST tool for the situation at hand.

Please share with us your thoughts about planning instructional activities that include role-playing – how you decide whether or not it is an important part of your lesson, how you help students prepare for it, how you assess what your students are learning through it.  Below are some questions that may help you stir up ideas or experiences to share:

1) How do you currently use role-playing as a part of your instruction? Are there situations in which you think role-playing is a particularly effective teaching/learning strategy? Are there situations in which you think it doesn’t work so well?

2) How do your students respond to role-playing in class? Like it? Resist it? Seem to learn something valuable from it?

3) What have you learned about your students by observing them in role-plays?

 We look forward to hearing from you in the comments!


Click to learn more about  a quality standards-based approach to teaching and learning or contact us via eff@utk.edu.


*Learn more about Elizabeth and her classes in the post:  Attendance Issues in Adult Education: How do You Adjust Instruction “On the Fly”?


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Posted on March 29, 2012, in Quality Practices, Workforce Prep and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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