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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

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

Attendance Issues in Adult Education: How do You Adjust Instruction “On the Fly”?

Has this ever happened to you? You plan a learning activity for your group of students, and when you arrive at class you find that a large number of students are absent. You think, “What I planned will never work with such a small group! What are we gonna do?

Of course it has!  Quality instruction that meets our students’ needs often requires teachers to be highly flexible in their approach to what and how we teach – to be able to “think on our feet” when the unexpected (like fluctuations in attendance numbers) gets in the way of our careful planning.  Being flexible in this way is particularly challenging if we are using a published curriculum to guide teaching. And this seems especially true in the context of Adult Education, where attendance is voluntary and the lives of the adults we teach can sometimes be quite chaotic. Few of us can assume that all of our students who start a class will be able to attend regularly, or that a stable group of students will persist from the beginning to the end of an instructional program.

This leads us to an important and interesting question:
How do we develop the capacity to be flexible with the instructional plans we make, so that we can adapt when something – like class attendance numbers – suddenly changes?

Since almost ALL adult education teachers face these issues, please share with us:

  1. Your thoughts about how to successfully adapt your instruction when class attendance makes it hard to teach in the way you have planned to teach. What have you put in place to help your students learn what they need to learn even when class attendance fluctuates?
  2. How you help students learn what they need to learn while “tweaking” the instructional approach you THOUGHT you were going to take when you arrived in class, any particular strategies you use, any ‘ah-has’ you’ve had, etc.  What instructional strategies do you use when faced with the need to quickly change the plans you have already made for a class session?

To get you started, below are some strategies that one teacher successfully employed in these situations – do her experiences sound at all familiar to you? Have you tried out anything similar to the strategies she used?

Meet Elizabeth Gardner –  a Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ. For the past 2 years she has been teaching her adult clients using the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum.  Below are 3 examples of “adjusting on the fly” she has done as her class attendance has fluctuated.

Example #1:  Elizabeth reports that there are several times when she had only 3 students in the room when the Preparing for Work curriculum indicated a partner discussion activity. To adapt the activity to the realities of her context, she simply combined the partner discussions and class discussions indicated, and had all three students discuss the topic – with some instructor “nudging” of the conversation as needed.

Example #2:  One time, Elizabeth had planned to facilitate a problem-solving activity in the curriculum that included role-playing in groups of 3, and then groups discussing the role play with each other. But at class time, there were just four people in class that day. So she turned the role play into a four person scenario, had students do self-assessments at the end of the scenario, and then asked them to get together to discuss how their self-assessments compared with how others thought they did.

Example #3:  For another planned 3-person role-playing activity with only 5 students in attendance, Elizabeth decided on a different approach. The activity focused on reading text to find information in order to address a situation with a client or supervisor at work. Instead of asking them to role play in groups, Elizabeth asked students to individually read over all the role-play scenarios and look to the texts for the relevant information. Then for each scenario they went around the room, and one by one all the students 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 what they were learning and for students to hear many different approaches to work-related situations.  It also provided a great opportunity to assess individuals’ skill use.

We look forward to your ideas and strategies for adjusting instruction “on the fly”!

Click to learn more about  the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum or contact us via

Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies
Elizabeth Gardner, Instructor,  Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ