Simulations & role plays are effective ways to enhance the quality of learning, by connecting classroom knowledge to real-world situations. In both learning strategies, students are encouraged to act out real-life situations in the first-person. However, while role plays assume that participants take on different characters (roles), in simulations students generally act as themselves in a fictionalized context.
Through dramaturgy and symbolic interactionism, students develop problem-solving competences, as well as verbal and non-verbal communication skills. The combination of ‘tailor-made’ scenarios and students’ proactive role in the activities produce new and varied learning outcomes, making this methodology of teaching a source for knowledge production and inter-personal skills development.
Role-playing and simulations are both typologies of educational activities that fit into the experiential form of learning, or “EXL” (Russell & Shepherd, 2010). Learners take on different roles in diverse and complex settings thus experiencing a concrete and specific situation. Learning continues by reflecting back on such experience, attempting a generalization of the concepts used and applying the model to a new active experimentation as in Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (see Figure 1) (Konak et al. 2014).
Figure 1: Four stages of the Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
In role plays and in simulations, the guided experience of interaction allows participants to explore realistic situations and trial different strategies in a supported environment. Learners can either play themselves (or a role similar to their likely one in future) or take on another identity (i.e. the role of a real or fictitious character). Participants are given specific roles to play in an interaction, typical of their field, subject, or discipline. Depending on the requirements of the exercise, instructions usually include either indications on how to act or behave (e.g. as the CEO of a company), or require the learners to react in their own way to unfamiliar situations and/or contexts. Once the scenario has been acted out, the participants are guided into a thorough debate by means of a conscious reflective discussion over the simulated interactions and potentially alternative ways of dealing with the situation. Reflection and discussion generally discloses lessons learned and informs future plays.
Since both simulation and role play learning activities are designed to increase understanding of human interactions and dynamics in authentic contexts, the range of potential classifications and applications is huge, from in-class enactments to online simulations (including video games). For a few examples, structured and semi-structured planned interactions might take the form of debates, mock interviews or other scenarios, interplays, scenarios building, observations, social processes, etc.
While often used as synonyms, others use the terms "role play" and "simulation" to describe slightly different activities. For some, the difference generally refers to the ‘degree’ of participants’ involvement (i.e. simulations are more structured and elaborated than role plays). For others, simulations involve a familiar or real-life situation where learners react as themselves, while in role plays a participant’s role in taking on another identity is more prominent and distinctive. Thus, according to the latter perspective, role plays require more ‘imagination’ on the part of the student to be able to get into the role (Coghlan, 2015).
Both simulation and role play cover all the 6 main levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, namely knowledge (remembering facts and recalling basic concepts), comprehension/understanding (explain ideas or concept), application (use information in new situations), analyzing (draw connections among ideas), evaluation (justify a stand or decision) and synthesis/creation (produce new or original work). In particular, simulation and role play help the students in dealing with the knowledge-skills-attitude nexuses, by improving their techniques of basic research and simple data collection as well as enhancing individual competencies, such as communication skills, leadership, and teamwork.
Teachers should identify specific learning objectives according to both academic context (level and course of studies, discipline, students’ previous knowledge, etc.) and general context (local environment, ambitions/expectations of enrolled students, etc.), that is specific and easy to measure. For example:
By the end of this role play, students will be able to:
a) identify and describe x,
b) analyse y,
c) link a and b,
d) evaluate and defend their response to a range of z.
Figure 2: Bloom’s Taxonomy (Source: Fractus Learning / CC BY-SA)
Furthermore, role playing can stimulate students to express themselves verbally, show creativity, develop appropriate and positive attitudes, understand the feelings of others, become actively involved in the learning situation, practise skills in a non-threatening environment and so forth. Role plays and simulations significantly contribute to students' learning and assessment in a safe but unfamiliar environment because they challenge students to higher order thinking skills, such as:
- analyzing issues,
- evaluating actions and decisions,
- connecting classroom knowledge to real-world situations, and
- developing problem-solving skills.
As Gredler (1996) put it, such experiential learning activities hold the potential to develop “students' mental modes of complex situations as well as their problem solving strategies". In so doing, role plays and simulations actively promote opportunities to strengthen critical thinking (incl. conflict-resolution skills), beyond mere problem-solving skills. They can be a motivating and memorable learning activity, too. As such, role-playing and simulations can be effective ways to achieve the following varied goals:
- Motivate learners,
- Increase self-confidence and self-esteem of hesitant students,
- Promote student-driven learning,
- Strengthen social skills,
- Increase empathy,
- Combine cognitive and affective domains of learning (feel and think),
- Improve performance skills, oral and written communication,
- Enhance decision-making skills,
- Provide students with open-ended opportunities to analyse a problem or controversial situation,
- Think critically about unfamiliar topics,
- Appreciate spontaneity, and
- Facilitate self-evaluation.
The scenarios built in role plays and simulations are meaningful but non-threatening, and represent a fair ground as students learn through experiencing and exploring. In such environments, scaffolding and coaching in both the learning and the assessment processes are substantially facilitated: learners find themselves in a more favorable position to accept feedback or coaching tips, while at the same time the alignment of the assessment activities with the learning objectives is improved. In role plays and simulations, the traditional relationship between learners and teacher is altered, as these experiential activities resonate well in a student-centered space that can enable active learning and a learner-oriented assessment (including both self- and peer-assessment).
According to the definition of role plays and simulations that detects a difference in the character acted out by learners (i.e. other identities in the former, themselves in the latter), there is a variation in the classification of skills and behaviours attributed to either one or the other teaching/learning modality (see Table 1).
|Learners can take on the role of other people||x|
|Learners can switch roles||x|
|Requires more than one participant||x|
|Allow learners to practice conversational dialogue||x||x|
|Learners are placed into realistic setting and behave as if they are leading the activities||x|
|Allows for disruption during the activity||x|
|Can test for both technical and soft skills||x|
|Aid in testing decision making skills||x||x|
|Enhance learners’ critical thinking||x||x|
|Observation of others informs feedback||x|
Table 1: Learners’ skills enhanced by role-playing and simulations
Courses and different fields
Role play and simulations can be implemented at any level of study (from undergraduates to professional training), any size (from small to large groups). If the class is very large (more than 50), the activity is still possible but bound to logistics-related constraints (space and time limitations). The learning process can be experimented from single seminars to entire courses. In terms of disciplinary fields, both methodologies can be applied to the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and applied sciences, according to the needs, expectations and ambitions of both faculty staff and students.
Benefits and challenges
Simulations and role plays are proven learning architecture with an extensive use across different disciplines. The methodology is not rigid, and allows for constant adaptation to different contexts, courses, levels of study, participants’ backgrounds and so forth. The activities are interactive (intrusions by the facilitator are minimal) and provide the students with an active role and the potential to direct the activity towards their own interests. They also facilitate interaction among all the class participants and provide them with extra-curricular qualities (e.g. verbal and non-verbal communication skills, leadership, teamwork, negotiation skills).
The preparatory phase is of foremost importance and can lead to the success/failure of the exercise. The teacher/facilitator should not improvise, and should practice his/her role several times before conducting the exercise in class. A careful use of time (and to a lesser degree, space) is necessary in order to make the students maximize the benefits of the activity. Materials need to be clear, relevant and focused. If divided in groups, some students will be more active than others: the teacher should be ready to engage the latter and somehow limit the former. Simulations are not all the same: the one that worked with some may not work the same with others.
|Satisfaction with assessment-as-learning||Resource intensive|
|Safe, supportive environment where students can develop their skills, competency and agency.||Shift in practice with respect to traditional teaching modes|
|Flexible and controllable learning/teaching modality||Lot of preparation|
|Excellent means of evaluating decision-making and interpersonal communication skills||Expert guidance needed|
|Scenarios can be scaffolded, gradually increasing in complexity||Some people might feel threatened or nervous when asked to role-play, because it involves acting|
|Provide opportunities for inter-professional learning||Setup costs/infrastructural needs may be significant|
Table 2: Main benefits and challenges of simulations and role plays
Simulations and role plays generally proceed through a three-stage process: preparation, implementation and evaluation (See Figure 3). During the planning session(s), the situation is established (e.g. through briefing in order to identify the context and the situation, to add details and to assign roles). The second phase sees the participants acting out the actual drama/role play/scenario. Finally, a de-briefing follow-up discussion ends the activity (it may include assessment and/or evaluation, too).
Figure 3 – Three-stage process of simulations and role plays
Some basic actions need to be taken at each stage of employing activities of experiential learning such as role plays and simulations: see Table 2 for few examples.
|Preparation stage||- Teacher shall provide a specific situation.- Teacher shall provide a limited time for students to develop and practise their role-plays.
- Teacher shall promote a limited use of costumes and props.
- Teacher shall provide students with tips for participating and observing.
|Implementation stage||- Learners shall face the audience, speak loudly and clearly
- Learners shall focus on their role-play partners and the message to be communicated.
- Learners shall be attentive to the class interaction.
- Learners shall show support to their role-play partners (e.g. through encouragement and feedback)
|Evaluation stage||- Teacher shall provide ample time for proper expression of attitudes and clarification of misunderstandings.
- Self-evaluation: learners shall assess their own participation asking themselves the following set of questions: “Did I identify with the people involved? Were all the important aspects of the situation portrayed? Did we use all the ideas from our planning session in the role-play? Did we portray new skills or concepts accurately?”
- Teacher-led assessment: teacher shall consider the following questions: “Are concepts being expressed accurately in language and action? Are any students confused or uncertain about the purpose of the role-play, the situation or their role? Should space arrangements or materials be changed? What issues were clarified through the role-play? What misconceptions may have been presented? What questions did the role-play raise? What new information is needed? What links does this role-play have to future tasks that extend or broaden the topic?”
Table 3: Basic actions for the design of the three stages of simulations and role plays
Setting rules and procedures is crucial to ensure the success of simulations and role plays. Several issues important in design validity for both games and simulations are:
- a clear articulation of the subject area knowledge that the teacher expects the students to have/use for the simulation;
- the exclusion of chance or random strategies as a means to success;
- the avoidance of mixed-metaphor exercises and zero-sum games.
Rules might apply both to the specific scientific/disciplinary domain (e.g. in voting rules for Constitutions/treaties negotiations), and to the ways of interaction among participants. Rigid timeframes are not always necessary, but generally helpful to keep the attention of the students high and to ensure that the activity is purpose- and results-oriented. An example of rules for simulating negotiations emerges from the so-called ‘principled negotiation’, which includes 4 principles (see Figure 4):
- separate the people from the problem;
- focus on interests, not positions;
- invent options for mutual gain;
- insist on objective criteria.
Figure 4 - Principled Negotiation
While designing a programme of teaching activities oriented towards experiential learning, crucial attention has to be posed to the role of teacher and her/his interaction with the students within the classroom. The moderator of role plays performs six different roles (Wills et al., 2011, p. 147):
- guardian angel,
- resident resource,
- manipulative devil,
- improvising storyteller, and
- institutional representative.
Most importantly, the teacher shall facilitate the development of the learners’ skills in reflective practice while at the same time keeping intrusion to an absolute minimum. Jones et al. (2007) maintain that the teacher shall act as a ‘controller’, similarly to a traffic light, which facilitates the flow but does not say where to go nor what to do. If successful, this attitude would allow learners to feel free to experiment during the implementation, while leaving for the de-briefing feedback session the teacher’s inputs.
Once the de-briefing feedback session has ended, both teacher and learners are called to evaluate the overall learning design in order to improve further activities of experiential learning. The activity could even be taped so students have a chance to review their own performance. Gredler (1996) suggests using a 3-step evaluative procedure to redesign a role play or simulation:
- Document the design validity of the innovation;
- Verify the cognitive strategy and/or the social interaction processes executed by students by using formative feedback and redesign them where needed;
- Conduct follow-up evaluation and research on specific processes and effects of the learning and assessment.
In order to achieve the activity’s goals, the simulation/role play must be realistic, pertinent to the participants’ course of study, not necessarily intuitive but conducive to an high degree of proactivity and interaction. Therefore, the attention to the selection - and the proper use of - course material is of foremost importance. Materials to be used are very much context-specific, in terms of i) overall academic/human environment; ii) disciplinary specificity; iii) cultural heterogeneity; iv) academic/professional background; v) characteristics of the class (level, size, etc.). Another factor to be taken into consideration is whether the activity implies the use of a computer software.
Generally, simulations and role plays need both some prior knowledge of the topic addressed, and an introduction/briefing over principles, rules and guidelines of the method. In the same way, it is usually suggested to schedule a wrap-up/de-brief at the end of the activity, in order to logically link the issues raised, and give the students feedback on their performance. Sometimes a final discussion in plenary might help the participants to address the main topic in a more detached manner than in the play and connect their responses, as well as behaviour in class, to real life situations. Beyond materials for students, it is generally advised to prepare guidelines, or a manual, for teachers/facilitators too.
By way of example, the materials suggested to conduct Fishbanks - one of the most popular resource management simulation, developed by the MIT Management Sloan School– include the following:
- One computer for every 2-4 students
- Simulation online
- Excel spreadsheet to create users
- Intro. and debrief slideshows
- Technical Guide
Basic questions to address before starting to design a role-playing session include, but are not limited to, the following (Glover, 2014):
- Where in the course/module would this approach work best?
- Are there situations and interactions that students would benefit from being able to explore?
- Would ‘live’ role-play be most appropriate or would it need to be staggered over a longer period of time?
- Should the students take on all of the roles, will the tutor take a role, or can people with direct experience be involved, e.g. having a genuine client or patient play their own part?
- How much technology should be involved? Which tools are most suited? What support would be needed?
- Are the students (and other tutors) ready for this?
Figure 5: A session of Model United Nations held at Thessaloniki in 2009 HMUNO Secretariat / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Examples and additional resources
- FABLUSI, an Online Role-Play Simulation Platform
- FAO International Watercourses/River Basins including Law, Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Simulation Training Exercises
- Fisbanks, A Renewable Resource Management Simulation
- Harvard’s Negotiation Role-Play Simulations: Puerto Mauricio Development Conflict – Water Use: Helping Cities Adapt to Climate Change Risks
- McGill’s role play Atlantic Rim
- MIT Sloan School’s World Climate: Negotiating a Global Climate Change Agreement
- Role-playing session to improve customer support in business
- Teaching budgeting with simulation and role playing at Hubro Education, Norway
- Video: Leadership Role-play Simulation Game Mr.President
- Video: Surgical Technology Simulation at Mt. Hood Community College
- World Climate: Climate Change Negotiations Game
- Case studies (e.g. roleplay to develop ICT skills at Sheffield Hallam University, and its Teaching Approaches Menu; role play in Health Care Management Education; )
- Regulations and guidelines of governmental authorities (e.g. the Canada MAESD Guiding Principles for Experiential Learning)
- Departments of Education (e.g. in the University College of Cork, Ireland)
- Centres for Teaching Support (e.g. CTSI at the University of Toronto; the Learning and Teaching Office at McGill University; the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College)
- Regional Centres (e.g. the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, Cedefop; the Erasmus+ Teacher Training Progamme)
- International Conferences on teaching/learning methodologies (e.g. the European Conference Game-Based Learning, ECGBL)
- Private companies (e.g. Creative Learning Exchange)
- YouTube Channels (e.g. Teaching in Higher Education; CLExchange; business-oriented learning activities at the University of Saskatchewan)
- Specific projects/programmes (e.g. the University of Georgia ‘REALISE Videos?’ Repository)
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