Conducting Role-Plays

Role-plays can be built into a teaching plan with pre-assigned roles and advance student preparation, or they can be used spontaneously in response to a specific comment or class discussion. In either case, role-plays typically require a setup, action, and debrief

Here are some strategies you might use to carry out these three components of a role-play.

Setup: Helping Students Prepare for Role-Play

Lowering the stakes for taking risks

Role-play activities can be daunting for students. Give students an opportunity to share questions or concerns and to establish community agreements for participation to help them feel more prepared to take risks. If tensions or difficulties arise later in the course, it can be helpful to refer back to the ideas volunteered and discussed by students. Read more about establishing norms with your students in the Playbook for Teaching.

Helping students prepare their roles

For role-plays that are planned in advance, distribute detailed instructions and role documents via Canvas or in class. You can share these before class, or you can upload them to Canvas and wait to publish them until class time. You can send messages and files to specific students if you need to keep the documents or details private to certain students for purposes of the role-play.

For spontaneous role-plays, you can give instructions to the whole class, or break students into groups and provide instructions to each group or individual privately.

Action: Conducting the Role-Play

Consider one of the following approaches for conducting the role-play:

  • Select or take a volunteer group of students to conduct the role-play while the rest of the class observes.
  • Students conduct the role-plays in small groups and then the class debriefs together.
  • Students conduct the role-plays outside of class. Consider how you will follow up with students after the role-play, such as debriefing in class, submitting a short written reflection, or recording the role-play to submit via Canvas. Recording the role-play may also allow you to select portions to highlight in class.

Debrief: Discussing the Role-Play

You might debrief the role-play as a whole class, using discussion prompts like:

  • “How realistic was the interaction?”
  • “What was surprising?”
  • “Why did you say/do ____?”
  • “What would you have done differently?”
  • “What makes this kind of interaction so hard?”

You may choose to have students begin their discussion in small groups, either in their role-play groups or in new groupings. Then, move into whole-class discussion to compare findings and summarize the role-play’s main takeaways.

If you’re teaching a large class, you might also use discussion tools to solicit input broadly and quickly. For example, have students simultaneously input answers to questions in a Google doc or conduct a live poll where students can submit answers, comments, or upvote peers’ observations. 

Tips for Virtual Role-Plays

  • Setup: Distribute instructions in a way that allows students to easily access the information if they unexpectedly lose their connection to the Zoom meeting or when in a Zoom breakout room, such as by posting instructions on Canvas or sending individual messages via Canvas, email, or Slack. Avoid posting key instructions solely in the Zoom chat.
  • Action: If you’d like to select one group of students to role-play while the rest of the class observes, you can put the students in the role-play “on stage” using Zoom’s Spotlight video feature.
  • Action: If students are conducting role-plays in small groups during class, use Zoom’s breakout room feature. Make sure to distribute clear instructions and timeframes before sending students into breakout rooms.