How to Teach Using Role-Playing

Initial Publication Date: December 21, 2006

Role-playing exercises can be hard work for the instructor, both in preparation and in execution, but the work tends to pay off in terms of student motivation and accomplishment. As with any big project, it's best to take it one step at a time:

  1. Define Objectives
  2. Choose Context & Roles
  3. Introducing the Exercise
  4. Student Preparation/Research
  5. The Role-Play
  6. Concluding Discussion
  7. Assessment
Fortunately, much of the work of preparation, once done, can be distributed to other educators. Many well-developed role-playing exercises are available on the scenario pages, organized by topic or by type.

Define Objectives

The details of what you need to do depend entirely on why you want to include role-playing exercises in your course.

  • What topics do you want the exercise to cover?
  • How much time do you and your class have to work on it?
  • What do you expect of your students: research, reports, presentations?
  • Do you want the students role-playing separately or together?
  • Do you want to include a challenge or conflict element?

Choose Context & Roles

In order to prepare for the exercise:

  • Decide on a problem related to the chosen topic(s) of study and a setting for the characters. It is a good idea to make the setting realistic, but not necessarily real. Consider choosing and adapting material that other instructors have prepared.
    • For problems and settings with lots of detail, have a look at examples in the Starting Point Case Study Module. The module itself contains more information about using cases to teach.
  • If the characters(s) used in the exercise are people, define his or her goals and what happens if the character does not achieve them.
  • You should work out each characters' background information on the problem or, better yet, directions on how to collect it through research. If possible, prepare maps and data for your students to interpret as part of their background information rather than the conclusions upon which they would ordinarily base their decisions (especially if the characters are scientists).

Introducing the Exercise

Engage the students in the scenario by describing the setting and the problem.

  • Provide them with the information you have already prepared about their character(s): the goals and background information. It needs to be clear to the student how committed a character is to his/her goals and why.
  • Determine how many of your students have done role-playing before and explain how it will work for this exercise.
  • Outline your expectations of them as you would for any assignment and stress what you expect them to learn in this lesson.
  • If there is an inquiry element, suggest a general strategy for research/problem solving.

Student Preparation/Research

Even if there is no advance research assigned, students will need a few moments to look over their characters and get into their roles for the exercise. There may also be additional questions:

  • Why they are doing this in character? Why did you decide to make this a role-playing exercise?
  • Students may have reservations about the character that they have been assigned or about their motives. It is good for the instructor to find out about these before the actual role-play. It can be very difficult for a student to begin researching an issue from a perspective very different from their own because even apparently objective data tends to be reinterpreted as support for pre-existing world-views.
    • With regards to environmental issues, many environmental groups have well-written, carefully researched, and nicely-engineered websites that will provide arguments as well as information for a student assigned a character to whom protecting the environment is very important.
    • Similar websites representing the very common viewpoint of the worker, property owner, or industrialist whose future may be in conflict with environmental interests are hard to find. One site, Debate Central, has constructed arguments for characters promoting property rights and wary of government intervention. Their topic coverage is still limited, however. A poorer alternative is to send students to the websites of companies involved in an issue to read their PR material.
    • Often, the best resource for understanding people is other people. Model UN encourages participants to call the embassy of the country they are to represent for advice. The same can be done with the PR divisions of mining firms and unions, environmental and taxpayer protection groups, etc.
  • If there is an inquiry component (i.e. student-led research), the students may need help coming up with a research plan and finding resources.

The Role-Play

Depending on the assignment, students could be writing papers or participating in a Model-UN-style summit. For a presentation or interaction, props can liven up the event, but are not worth a lot of effort as they are usually not important to the educational goals of the project.

Concluding Discussion

Like any inquiry-based exercise, role-playing needs to be followed by a debriefing for the students to define what they have learned and to reinforce it. This can be handled in reflective essays, or a concluding paragraph at the end of an individual written assignment, or in a class discussion. The instructor can take this opportunity to ask the students if they learned the lessons defined before the role-play began.


Generally, grades are given for written projects associated with the role-play, but presentations and even involvement in interactive exercises can be graded. Special considerations for grading in role-playing exercises include:

  • Playing in-character
    • Working to further the character's goals
    • Making statements that reflect the character's perspective
  • In an interactive exercise, being constructive and courteous
  • For many assignments, being able to step back and look at the character's situation and statements from the student's own perspective or from another character's perspective.

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