Act out possible scenarios.
Think back to the last time you prepared for an important meeting.
Perhaps you needed to convince a prospective client to do business with your organization. Or maybe you had to present to executive board members, and you knew that they would be peppering you with questions about your proposal.
Whatever the situation, chances are that you were nervous about the meeting; and practicing in front of a mirror may not have helped you overcome your anxiety, especially with respect to answering difficult questions.
This is where role-playing can be useful. In this article, we'll look at what it is, and we'll see how you and your team can use this technique to prepare for a variety of challenging and difficult situations.
Uses and Benefits
Role-playing takes place between two or more people, who act out roles to explore a particular scenario.
It's most useful to help you or your team prepare for unfamiliar or difficult situations. For example, you can use it to practice sales meetings, interviews, presentations, or emotionally difficult conversations, such as when you're resolving conflict.
By acting scenarios like these out, you can explore how other people are likely to respond to different approaches; and you can get a feel for approaches that are likely to work, and for those that might be counter-productive. You can also get a sense of what other people are likely to be thinking and feeling in the situation.
Also, by preparing for a situation using role-play, you build up experience and self-confidence with handling the situation in real life, and you can develop quick and instinctively correct reactions to situations. This means that you'll react effectively as situations evolve, rather than making mistakes or becoming overwhelmed by events.
You can also use role-play to spark brainstorming sessions, to improve communication between team members, and to see problems or situations from different perspectives.
How to Use Role Play
It is easy to set up and run a role-playing session. It will help to follow the five steps below.
Step 1: Identify the Situation
To start the process, gather people together, introduce the problem, and encourage an open discussion to uncover all of the relevant issues. This will help people to start thinking about the problem before the role-play begins.
If you're in a group and people are unfamiliar with each other, consider doing some icebreaker exercises beforehand.
Step 2: Add Details
Next, set up a scenario in enough detail for it to feel "real." Make sure that everyone is clear about the problem that you're trying to work through, and that they know what you want to achieve by the end of the session.
Step 3: Assign Roles
Once you've set the scene, identify the various fictional characters involved in the scenario. Some of these may be people who have to deal with the situation when it actually happens (for example, salespeople). Others will represent people who are supportive or hostile, depending on the scenario (for example, an angry client).
Once you've identified these roles, allocate them to the people involved in your exercise; they should use their imagination to put themselves inside the minds of the people that they're representing. This involves trying to understand their perspectives, goals, motivations, and feelings when they enter the situation. (You may find the Perceptual Positions technique useful here.)
Step 4: Act Out the Scenario
Each person can then assume their role, and act out the situation, trying different approaches where necessary.
It can be useful if the scenarios build up in intensity. For instance, if the aim of your role-play is to practice a sales meeting, the person playing the role of the potential client could start as an ideal client, and, through a series of scenarios, could become increasingly hostile and difficult. You could then test and practice different approaches for handling situations, so that you can give participants experience in handling them.
Step 5: Discuss What You Have Learned
When you finish the role-play, discuss what you've learned, so that you or the people involved can learn from the experience.
For example, if you're using it as part of a training exercise, you could lead a discussion on the scenarios you have explored, and ask for written summaries of observations and conclusions from everyone who was involved.
Some people feel threatened or nervous when asked to role-play, because it involves acting. This can make them feel silly, or that they've been put on the spot.
To make role-playing less threatening, start with a demonstration. Hand two "actors" a prepared script, give them a few minutes to prepare, and have them act out the role-play in front of the rest of the group. This approach is more likely to succeed if you choose two outgoing people, or if you're one of the actors in the demonstration.
Another technique for helping people feel more comfortable is to allow them to coach you during the demonstration. For instance, if you're playing the role of a customer service representative who's dealing with an angry customer, people could suggest what you should do to make things right.
In an effort to improve customer support, John, Customer Service Manager for Mythco Technologies, sets up a team role-playing session. Acting as the leader/trainer, John brings together a group of software developers and customer support representatives.
He divides the 12 people into two groups: Group A represents the customer support representatives; Group B represents the customer.
John tells Group A that the customer in this situation is one of Mythco's longest-standing customers. This customer accounts for nearly 15 percent of the company's overall annual revenue. In short, the company cannot afford to lose her business!
John tells Group B that the customer has recently received a software product that did not live up to expectations. While the customer has a long-standing relationship with Mythco, this time she's growing weary because Mythco has previously sold her faulty software on two separate occasions. Clearly, her relationship with Mythco is in jeopardy.
John now allows the groups to brainstorm for a few minutes.
Next – with this particular approach to role-play – each group sends forth an "actor" to take part in the role-play. The actor receives support and coaching from members of the team throughout the role-playing process. Each team is able to take time-outs and regroup quickly as needed.
John runs through the scenario several times, starting with the "customer" behaving gently and ending with the customer behaving aggressively. Each time, a best solution is found. Of course, John can always ask for additional role-playing and suggestions if he feels that the process needs to continue, or that the team has yet to uncover the very best solutions.
Once it's clear that they cannot identify any more solutions, John brings the two groups together and discusses the session. During this, they discuss the strategies and the solutions that the actors implemented, and how they could apply them to a real-life situation.
John also asks each team to write a short summary of what they learned from the exercise. He then combines the summaries and provides a copy of everything learned to all participants.
Role-playing happens when two or more people act out roles in a particular scenario. It's most useful for helping you prepare for unfamiliar or difficult situations.
You can also use it to spark brainstorming sessions, improve communication between team members, and see problems or situations from different perspectives.
- Identify the situation.
- Add details.
- Assign roles.
- Act out the scenario.
- Discuss what you have learned.
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For example key points concerning simulations include:
- Using multiple sources of knowledge with students
- Providing students with the ability to visualize and model a concept or event.
- Allowing students to discover knowledge through exploration.
- Encouraging student engagement and motivation- processes critical to student learning.
Larry Sorenson, a classroom teacher says:
Learning Simulations are all around us. The military uses them. Video games are simulations, with one of the most popular ones called by a shortened version of the word "simulation" itself. Teachers at all levels use them. You may remember one or two from your own school days. Why are they so popular (especially with students)? Because they work!
This site has some great ideas for skits you can try in the classroom. In addition, Mr. Sorenson provides some great tips on developing your own skits all from a teacher's point of view:
Some Helpful Hints:
Start with the end in mind.
- As in all teaching strategies, the better planned, the greater the chance of success.
- Sometimes less IS best. Trying to take on more than one main concept can kill a good simulation.
- A wonderful side effect common to simulations is that other ideas may grow out of it in parallel, be flexible to allow such learning gems.
Instructional Strategies Online defines simulation as a form of "experiential learning."
In addition, they view simulations and role-play as a way to extend student thinking. Often we associate simulations with active learning, but after the fun of playing the game, we forget to use the experience to foster critical and evaluative thinking.
Simulations promote the use of critical and evaluative thinking. The ambiguous or open-ended nature of a simulation encourages students to contemplate the implications of a scenario. The situation feels real and thus leads to more engaging interaction by learners. They are motivating activities enjoyed by students of all ages.
This site also provides the teacher with:
- a description of the purpose of simulations
- some advantages and disadvantages of using simulations
- some suggestions for how to set up simulations and role-plays
- some suggestions for assessing the effectiveness of a simulation
- Does this simulation offer an appropriate measure of realism for my group of students?
- Are the desired instructional outcomes well defined?
- Is the level of ambiguity manageable for this group?
- Does the student demonstrate an understanding of his/her role?
- Are problem solving techniques in evidence?
- Does the research being generated match the nature of the problem?
- Is cooperation between participants in evidence?
- Has the student been able to resolve the issue satisfactorily?
- Does the student provide meaningful answers to probing questions?
- Will follow-up activities be necessary?
Role Play in Social Studies
The use of role-playing in social studies can help students relate a situation to their own lives. Students learn best when they can connect new learning to prior knowledge. Even though this role-play situation is short it sets the stage for a discussion of rights and responsibilities in relation to the Bill of Rights.
Here are some excellent tips for the use of role-play in the social studies classroom:
Role-Playing: A teaching technique that provides a group problem-solving situation in which students explore the problem, alternatives available to them and the personal and social consequences of the proposals. (Barth, James L. Methods of Instruction in Social Studies Education. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.) Role playing is a means of trying out and practicing social skills. It also allows for critical analysis of a dilemma, historical event, or social occurrence.
Three aspects of role playing groups:
- Briefing- establishing of the situation
- Drama or Role-Play
- Debriefing-follow up discussion
- Know your students, and what they can handle. Don't allow aspects or characters of the role play to get out of hand or become personal.
- Make your students aware of goals, rules, assignments, and expectations of the role-play in advance.
- Approximate reality as closely as possible.
- Engage in sociodrama, not psychodrama.
- Let students know how they will be evaluated in advance.
- Impromptu Historical Role Playing (teachers and students)
- Dramatic Plays Mock Trials *& Mock Presidential Elections
- Classroom Problem Resolution & Classroom Constitutional Convention
- Social Skills Practice
It is clear that role-playing simulations can be very effective in helping participants gain a richer understanding of multiple perspectives and of the "codependent arising" of interdependent activity. By engaging in well-defined role-playing games participants seem to move beyond both of these common assumptions: the simplistic assumption of a "right/wrong" dichotomy in complex social problems, and the strong relativist position of "anybody's opinion is as good as anyone else's." They come to see also that logical reasoning and factual support do not always win the day, that pathos and ethos also play an important part in decision-making and problem-solving.
Within the framework of the game, participants have the opportunity to exercise creativity and imagination and to be playful in exploring possibilities. Yet there are consequences within the game world, which scaffolds activity and keeps it from becoming random meandering.
As this quote indicates, role-playing and simulations are extremely effective in providing students with a richer understanding and multiple perspectives of a given situation. In addition, the introduction to this site goes on to point out that the connection between role-play and writing is one that is well researched. The use of role-play improves student writing in the social studies classroom.
This site, http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/currents/spring02/syverson.html, provides information on:
- The key components of a role-play situation
- Computer enhancements for role-play situations
- Outstanding scenarios for role-play situations and for summative assessments
Adam Blatner in his article, "Role-Playing in Education" says that:
Role-playing is a methodology derived from sociodrama that may be used to help students understand the more subtle aspects of literature, social studies, and even some aspects of science or mathematics. Further, it can help them become more interested and involved, not only learning about the material, but learning also to integrate the knowledge in action, by addressing problems, exploring alternatives, and seeking novel and creative solutions. Role-playing is the best way to develop the skills of initiative, communication, problem-solving, self-awareness, and working cooperatively in teams, and these are above all--certainly above the learning of mere facts, many if not most of which will be obsolete or irrelevant in a few years--will help these young people be prepared challenges of the 21st Century.
In this article he also describes:
- Role-Playing as Simulation
- Historical Background
- Problems with Role-Playing
- Role-Playing and Drama in Education
- Future Implications of Role-Playing
The Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (1991) suggests that role playing, Socratic instruction, and small group work are effective teaching strategies for curriculum infusion.
Instructions for Role Play:
Role-playing is an activity in which students assume the role of another person and act it out. In a role play, students are usually given an open-ended situation in which they must make a decision, resolve a conflict, or act out the conclusion to an unfinished story. Role-playing is designed to promote student empathy and understanding of others. By acting out the role of another individual it is easier to see others' points of view, including how other people think and feel. Role-playing can give students the opportunity to learn behavior appropriate for various situations. Role-playing is also useful for developing critical thinking, decision making, and assertiveness skills.
- Selection of the Role Play Situation: There are a number of situations which lend themselves to the use of role play. These situations include individual dilemmas (e.g., dealing with a pushy salesperson, observing a crime, or testifying in court) and conflict-resolution situations (e.g., a tenant negotiating with a landlord over the terms of a lease or a police officer confronting a suspected shoplifter). Role-playing can be used to deal with a specific issue or problem; for example, role-playing could be used to discuss whether or not adopted persons should be given access to records that reveal the name and whereabouts of their natural parents. Finally, role plays are useful for developing student skills as an interviewer, negotiator, assertive consumer, investigator, or decision maker.
- Preparation and Warm-Up: Students should be told the situation or problem and instructed as to the various roles. If role-playing is new to the class, "warm-up" or introductory activities may be helpful. For example, students might be asked to role play greeting a long-lost friend, or to role-play the way someone who had just won a large sum of money would act.
- Select Participants: Students can either be assigned roles or the teacher can ask for volunteers. Role plays may be conducted in front of the entire class or a number of simultaneous role plays could be conducted by dividing the class into small groups. Students who do not participate in the role play should act as observers.
- Conduct the Role Play: Direct students to act out the role the way they think someone faced with the same situation would act in real life. The teacher should not interrupt the role play; however, if the students need some help in getting started the teacher should assist the students. After conducting the role-play it is sometimes useful to have students reverse roles or to conduct the same role play using different participants. For example, two students might role play a confrontation between a youth and a police officer. After conducting the role play once, the student who acted as the youth could assume the role of the police officer and vice versa.
- Debrief: The role-play activity should be debriefed and evaluated. This is an opportunity for both the participants and the observers to analyze the role play and to discuss what happened and why. Typical debriefing questions include the following:
- How did you feel about the role play and each of the various roles?
- Was the role play realistic? How was it similar to or different from real life? Was the problem solved? If so, how? If not, why not?
- What, if anything, could have been done differently? What other outcomes were possible?
- What did you learn from the experience?
The research on the use of simulations and role-play in education is extensive. For example:
- Significant behavioral changes could be accomplished via group discussion and role-play sessions then via lecture-style information sessions. (Lewin, 1951)
- Students who get the most out of simulations are those who are able to maintain a delicate balance between play and reality. (Jaques, 1992)
Simulations and role-plays are demanding not only on the students, but also on the teacher. Brookfield (1990) notes that considerable effort is required in setting up a simulation scenario, ensuring that students are briefed on their roles, and in de-briefing them afterwards to ensure that they take the intended points away from the simulation experience. This last point is particularly important, since simulations require the teacher to relinquish control of the learning environment, and thus allow the process to move in possibly unexpected directions. Brookfield (1990) mentions this as another reason why simulations are demanding on teachers; they require that teachers, who are used to being in control of the learning environment, step back and "let things run". Teachers also need to be ready to handle unexpected situations that may arise during the course of a simulation.
Simulations are learning experiences that enable students to participate in a simplified representation of the social world.
Simulations differ from classroom games. Games often involve activities in which there is a competition to get correct answers. Examples of games include spelling bees and competitive drill activities.
Simulations, on the other hand, allow students to understand a process through participation in that process. In most simulations, students take on roles and have specific objectives to accomplish. In order to accomplish their goals, students use resources provided and make decisions about how those resources should be used.
Simulations are complex learning activities. Most research suggests that simulations are about as effective as conventional classroom techniques in teaching subject matter.
Simulations are more effective in helping students retain knowledge learned as part of the simulated experience.
Research suggests that simulations are more effective than traditional methods in developing positive attitudes toward academic goals.
Simulations are also motivating for students. Frequently students express satisfaction with participation in simulations and are excited about the learning that took place. Students connect with simulations because the simulations deal with real questions and issues.
Journal articles and other information about simulations can be found at: