"The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C." at Queens College, CUNY in Fall 2012
"The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C." at Queens College, CUNY in Fall 2012

What is it?

Role-play is experiential learning based on perspective-taking within a scenario. Participants inform themselves about the viewpoint of an interest group or character and then perform that role according to a set of rules to resolve a problem, carry out a task, or understand dynamics (Lean et al, 2006; Rao and Stupans, 2012). The thinking, feeling, watching and doing inherent to role-play can bring academic learning to life, providing students with opportunities to transfer what they have learned to realistic, unfamiliar, relatively safe contexts.

Because definitions of role-play vary, this guide will focus on a specific type (many of the principles apply to other types, though). In this guide we’ll take role-play as students adopting a different identity from their own, rather than playing themselves. We’ll focus on students exploring the social world rather than analogies for non-human processes, we’ll assume interactions with other role-players in the scenario, and we’ll consider in-person forms of role-play (online games have particular qualities which merit a separate guide).

Typified in this way, role-play can help students to comprehend diverse social phenomena such as competition, conflict, exploitation, collusion or cooperation in the context they are studying. One example is zoo keepers and governments negotiating the loan of a panda, another is factions deciding how ancient Athens would constitute itself after the Peloponnesian war; for others see the ‘Examples’ section below. However, if you are interested in role-play where students enact metaphors or analogies (for example, the molecular structures and processes of gene transcription), online or digital role-play, or role-play where students play themselves (e.g. in a management education context), see the ‘Variations’ section below.

Why do it?

Role-play is a holistic approach, an opportunity to experiment with applying abstract concepts or new skills in practice. Since role-play is not a standard curriculum element, evidence-based accounts of development and validation of role-play in higher education are comparatively rare. However, the research literature summarised below is highly promising across subject areas.

Historian Rachel Stevens (2014) notes students’ general preference for text-books over critiquing primary sources, and observed that role-play can develop students’ critical reading skills if textual documents are used as preparatory materials. Students have permission, reason and opportunity to talk with one another; this in turn enables the kinds of relationships associated with student success and a reduction in attainment differentials (Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2017). In his study of a self-selecting sample of students on a college Business course, Jones (2018) tested critical thinking before and after role-play and found a large, significant improvement which also exceeded that of a control group. Timely feedback is intrinsic to role-play, which can increase students’ motivation.

In their account of role-playing multilaterial international climate negotiations, Paschall and Wüstenhagen (2012) observed students’  knowledge improved from the “solidly acceptable level” observed during classroom discussion to a “truly impressive one”, demonstrating fluency in the terminology, mechanisms and” intertwining interests” of their intended learning outcomes, including some which had not been covered in teaching. They attributed this to the realism of the role-play which motivated students to research details in order to reach an agreement.

Considering engagement and satisfaction, Sturges and colleagues (2009) reported moderate positive effect of role-play for Anatomy and Physiology students compared to a lecture-based control group (and with no significant difference in exam results). In a study of pharmacy students learning about ethics, 98% reported role-play was a worthwhile use of their time (Aqeel, 2013). 98% of the 52 software engineering students surveyed by Henry and LaFrance (2006) thought that role-play should be used in future courses.

How to set it up

The following prompts elaborate on the guidelines Rao and Stupans (2014) produced as part of an institution-wide interview project, and the practical guide for pharmacy educators by Cutts and Shaw (2012).

Identify learning outcomes for the role-play

What are your purposes? How do you anticipate the role-play will help students achieve your learning outcomes? Which knowledge, skills and qualities will your students have the opportunity to apply?

How will the role play be assessed? Since they are highly interdependent and experimental, role-plays are rarely if every summatively assessed. However, there may be educator and peer feedback to support students’ reflection. Will there be a chance to practice with the criteria so that students have a shared understanding of how to enact them and recognise them?

Identify the scenario, task and roles

What is the case or scenario? You may be fortunate to find an off-the-shelf exercise in a textbook, as Jones (2018) did for his role-play about negotiating the loan of giant pandas. However, if you don’t then design yours around your learning outcomes and your constraints e.g. number of students, time available.

Which roles are required? Paschall and Wüstenhagen (2012) recommend staff take on particularly intensive roles (in their case, president of negotiations) themselves to avoid the risk of misinterpretation and misdirection.

What should happen during the role-play? For example, the briefing McMichael (2012) gave her students included an opening statement from students representing different interest groups, followed by open discussion responding to each other’s positions, followed by a facilitated discussion related to the learning objectives. Finally there was a wrap-up reviewing the learning, and an evaluation. Over the course of an entire module, Paschall and Wüstenhagen (2012) built up to a two-day climate negotiation summit at a realistic venue in which students participated in working group meetings, plenaries, a number of debriefs, and a final vote.

Decide how long, how many and how big

How long should it last? McMichael (2012) reports on a role-play lasting for one session, which is quite usual for role-play. At the opposite end of the scale Paschall and Wüstenhagen (2012) built an entire module around theirs culimating in the role-play itself in which students had a chance to synthesise all they had learned. Their report illustrates how this longer duration both necessitates and justifies staff and students’ efforts to prepare for it proportionately, imbuing the event with a seriousness which motivates students’ independent learning. This in turn justified a module completion requirement that students submit a substantial reflection on the exercise which was not graded but formed the backbone of the evaluation (see below).

How many should there be? Does a longer duration or a shorter series better enable your purposes, within your constraints?

What size should the groups be? This may depend on what would be authentic to the scenario itself, perhaps balanced with your attempts to involve students as equitably as possible. There are indications that students can learn vicariously from observing peers’ role-plays, especially if given a framework for their observation (Donovan and Townsend, 2018; Narad et al, 2019).

How will roles be allocated? With larger groups it is probably logistically easier to allocate the roles randomly. If the roles give uneven opportunities for participation, see the ‘Considerations’ section for mitigations. With smaller groups it may be possible to allow students to choose roles among themselves, but it is important to support them to do this equitably since allowing the most assertive members taking their first choices while leaving the least confident members with the remainder is liable to reproduce existing social exclusions.

Design an evaluation approach

How will you know whether and how it is working? Adopting a backward design approach, Paschall & Wüstenhagen (2012) use their learning outcomes as a framework for analysing students’ written reflections on the role-play, which they triangulate with their own observations as facilitators and students’ comments during the debriefs. These approaches have the merit of not taking students out of their way – the evaluation is incorporated into their learning. Moreover the reflective pieces are richer than the knowledge tests and questionnaire data about perceptions of learning which are characteristic of role-play evaluation.

Facilitators prepare

What should facilitators be ready to do? Fundamentally, facilitators should have a solid grounding in the subject material in order to coach participants towards accuracy and realism if necessary. Cutts and Shaw (2012) recommend practising describing purposes and giving instructions; above all they recommend enthusiasm and a positive atmosphere, cautioning against any negative or apologetic messages about the role-play. A number of authors recommend that facilitators gain direct experience of role-play (Lean et al, 2006; Taylor, 2018) to sensitise them to students’ needs and help with anticipating the kinds of interventions they may need to make. For emotionally-charged role-plays, Taylor (2018) emphasises preparing to support students to navigate through the emotionality and learn from it. Facilitators also prepare for a purposeful debrief in which students reflect on the learning points. Beyond these general suggestions, the amount of preparation should be commensurate with the nature, complexity and duration of the role-play.

What are the expectations and/or ground rules? Negotiating these with students helps with internalising them; moreover students may have particular awareness of pitfalls to avoid. Ground rules could include:

    • Accept the duties and responsibilities of your role, and carry them out as well as you can.
    • You are free to stop at any time.
    • You are free to enjoy yourself.

What feedback do facilitators give to students? Role-plays conclude with a debrief which facilitates students’ reflection and analysis. Reflection is a crucial stage of role-play which must be preserved in the face of pressures on time, because students need the opportunity to digest their learning into their mental models of the concepts. Other kinds of feedback may include responses to structured prompts completed by the facilitator and peers in other roles (students will need guidance to give peer feedback). This feedback may be combined with a video of the role-play.

Students prepare

See also the ‘Considerations’ section.

What knowledge do students need to make the role-play successful? It is crucial that students put effort into the advance learning necessary for them to perform their role – otherwise the impede the ability of other students to perform their own roles. Jones (2018) required each student to complete a planning sheet outlining goals, anticipated difficulties within the scenarios, and other considerations which would make the role-play more authentic. For her discursive role-play exploring two contrasting theories of development (neo-liberalism and dependency theory) McMichael (2012) shares the briefing sheet she gave her International Development students in advance of the role-play; it includes context, aims, pre-reading, key roles and organisations, and possibly questions to explore during the discussion. In advance of their role-play Paschall & Wüstenhagen (2012) set an exam to assess student on the classroom component of their learning.

What do students need to know about participating? Regardless of setting or level of study, outlining the purposes of the role-play is crucial. Setting ground rules or terms of engagement helps clarify expectations to students, such as:

Prepare the environment

Arrange a conducive space. Role-play requires a space free from interruptions and (for campus role-plays) often depends on flexible seating. For scenarios involving protocols or professional practice such as pharmacy, Cutts and Shaw (2012) recommend making the environment as authentic to that context as possible. The role-play will also need a clear, realistic – and for practitioner role-plays, realistic – time frame.

What props might make the role-play more realistic? Use these if they help students contextualise or visualise their roles.


Within each interest group students represent there is unlikely to be a single unified perspective. In her account of a post-graduate role-play in international development Celia McMichael (2012) warns about inadvertently promoting “a compressed and essentialist vision of global processes and actors, a vision that can persist beyond the classroom”. Relatedly she observes, among students representing viewpoints they find ideologically objectionable, a tendency to develop a stereotyped perspective of their chosen roles. She notes these as key tensions in role-play for learning about international development (McMichael, 2012). It may be necessary to motivate students to represent the very best arguments of roles which diverge from their own perspectives.

The direction each role-play takes may be difficult to predict as each participant interprets their role. While potentially exhilarating, this requires confidence on the part of the facilitator.

Students need to trust the educator(s) and each other. Adam Blatner (2009) observes that roleplay “is an improvisational procedure, and improvisation requires a feeling of relative safety”. A major theme in the role-play literature is the need for plenty of preparation both in terms of students informing themselves deeply about their role and also getting to know and trust each other as a group.

While mild levels of apprehension may be useful to performance, more acute worries may cause students to “use energy to reduce anxiety and protect their self-image rather than to practice new skills”. In advance of the role-play, discuss with students how they feel about participating. If there are unassuageable worries consider the approach in the ‘Variations’ section below proposed by Donovan & Townsend (2018).

Students may be skeptical about the academic potential of role-play so it is a good idea to prepare a rationale with an educational focus. Again, having direct experience of role-play as a participant may also be helpful for educators here (Lean et al, 2006). Allocate role-play-skeptics to separate groups (while continuing to make opportunities for dialogue about the skepticism).

Large-scale, complex role-plays which are sustained over time may benefit from external roles which help participants synthesise their learning. For example, the multilateral climate negotiations summit described by Paschall & Wüstenhagen (2012) deployed volunteers from an external organisation as a media team whose role was to disseminate and integrate knowledge from the separate meetings, and to occasionally throw in a realistically game-changing news story.


Analogies for non-human processes

Student can embody physical entities to visualise forces, dynamics and interactions in vivid, memorable ways. For example, a preliminary evaluation found that learning mechanisms of gene transcription and protein translation through interacting as proteins and ribosome subunits (Takemura and Kurabayashi, 2014) was promising. Human Anatomy and Physiology students role-playing protein synthesis (Sturges et al, 2009) learned as much as students in a lecture-based control group, and demonstrated moderate improvements in engagement and satisfaction. In their role-play for medical students learning about the synthesis of fatty acids, Narad and colleagues (2019) found that students learned as much from observing the role-play as participating in it, and that embodying the concepts was appreciated by both students and educators, and that PowerPoint animations were helpful companions in consolidating learning.

Online or digital role-play

So-called ‘serious games’ have proliferated in the Web era. One well-known example is Peacemaker (2007), where players adopt the role of either the Israeli Prime Minister or the President of the Palestinian authority challenged to resolve their conflict peacefully by acting on their decisions about security, construction or politics, each of which provokes a reaction from the other. Here’s a list of other serious games.

Your subject community is likely to be able to recommend digital role plays – they can range fromserich multimedia to branching decision trees.

If you are worried about unhelpful or painful emotions

You may want to deploy or adapt the following variations because of certain characteristics of your subject area, and/or because your students do not yet know or trust each other at this point in time.

In some contexts role-play may risk re-victimising students. One example is the ‘Privilege Walk‘ activity in which the facilitator reads out statements related to social identity, privilege and oppression, and participants take a step forward or back depending on whether they feel the statement applies to them. The goal is to visually illustrate social stratification but, as described by Arao and Clemens (2013), unwanted side effects may include some students painfully reliving the marginalisation they experience on a daily basis, and others feeling defensive and blamed for that marginalisation. Consequently the activity has evolved to preserve its sensitising qualities without threatening group relationships. One iteration is the ‘Empathy Walk’ which has been used in King’s Inclusive Educational Practice workshops. Rather than drawing on their own identities, each participant is instead given a short persona of an actual King’s student who may be from a different background to theirs. When the facilitator reads the statements, the participants are required to empathise to the best of their knowledge to decide whether to take a step forward or back. The reflective debrief explores why participants may have arrived at different positions in the room, and any dilemmas or doubts.

Another obstacle to role-play is if students are too apprehensive to learn. To sidestep this, Donovan & Townsend (2018) conceived an approach which aims to eliminate loss of control and other threatening aspects from a role-play in a management education setting. In summary (the article has a helpful step-through guide) the facilitator shows a video of a ‘disaster’ encounter where almost everything goes wrong, and asks students to note the errors. The facilitator then asks the students to anticipate the consequences of the behaviour they have observed. Then students divide into two teams: the ‘Demonstration’ team works on re-enacting the encounter with corrections, while the ‘Best Practices’ team authors a set of guidelines for the scenario. Then the Demonstration team performs their re-enactment while the Best Practices team notes the extent to which it meets their guidelines. After a brief reflection in teams there is feedback from the Best Practices team, followed by a facilitator-led debrief to contribute any missing or misunderstood points. Finally, small groups (including an Observer role) re-enact the scenario drawing on the guidelines. This sequence takes around 90 minutes.

Examples and resources

  • A highly detailed account of a multi-institution role-play, over the course of an entire module, representing global government and industry interests in climate change negotiations (Paschall & Wüstenhagen, 2012). This work is distinctive for evaluating the role-play in terms of the module learning outcomes.
  • In History, the (commercialised) ‘Reacting to the Past’ project at Barnard College designs role play into the curriculum as series of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. One example is Classics students at CUNY assuming roles within Athenian factions deciding how the city should constitute itself in 403 after the Peloponnesian War.
  • From University of New South Wales, a general briefing on using role play and simulation for assessment.
  • Business students became zoo CEOs negotiating with Chinese officials about the loan of giant pandas (Jones, 2018).
  • Computing students took on roles of stakeholders towards understand that software engineering processes are not just busywork (Henry and LaFrance, 2006).


Image source: RTTPOfficialVideos, 2013. “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.” at Queens College, CUNY in Fall 2012. .

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