Many students hate role-play. That is a problem, because it is undoubtedly one of the best methods of developing interpersonal skills in a safe situation, and of bringing alive material which would otherwise simply be "academic" in the pejorative sense of the term.
For anyone who has not encountered it, role-play is a way of improvising a mini-drama to practise skills in interpersonal practice, whether it be sales technique, job interviewing, technical advising, counselling, or whatever. Role-plays can last for a matter of fifteen seconds or fifteen minutes or even longer when they are part of more complex simulations. Useful though they are, learners often feel very exposed by participating in them, particularly if they take place under the scrutiny of the rest of the class, or if they are videotaped.
The commonest complaint is that they are "unrealistic"; in practice this usually means that they are too realistic for comfort! However, they stand in the same relationship to real life as cartoons do to photographs. They point up certain features and ignore others. In this respect, they present fairly well-defined problems (much more clearly defined than in real life, and usually not mixed up with other issues as real life invariably is).
There are however some points which can minimise the negative aspects:
- Be up-front in course information about whether role-play will be involved, and what the expectations are about participation. It is better if people do not come at all, than if they turn up and then interrupt the proceedings by complaining that they don't like role-play. (Their anxiety is often infectious.)
- If you have got a group in which some people are likely to be reluctant to participate, check out your plans explicitly, in a way which means that participants can opt out without confrontation. Use methods such as small syndicate groups working to brief one member to participate in the role-play on their behalf: it promotes involvement without everyone being "exposed".
- Be matter-of-fact about it. For example, many manuals emphasise the importance of "de-roling" (communicating to other members of the group, and to yourself, that you are no longer in role after a session), and certainly there are occasions when that requires considerable work—but those are largely situations bordering on psychodrama, rather than practice of professional skills (with the possible exception of counselling, if you have taken the role of client). De-roling can be done in a simple and ritualised way, very effectively. If you are anxious about the process, the anxiety will communicate itself to the course members, and undermine the effectiveness of the method.
- If role-play is likely to be central to the learning process, use it frequently throughout the course, rather than building up to THE ROLE-PLAY as a climax.
- Participate yourself. If you are demonstrating points, invite a member of the group to act as your "foil", feed or straight-man (excuse the dated/sexist language, but "straight-person" sounded so odd, as if opposed to "gay-person"). Use such opportunities to routinise aspects of role-play: get your partner to move out of her or his seat and to take up an appropriate position in relation to you, for example. Thank her and let her sit down again (and have her say) as soon as you have finished.
- Make the instructions and procedures very clear, perhaps with a handout. In particular, be clear about time-limits if anyone is nervous: a time-limited commitment is easier to handle than an open-ended one. (Always stick to time-limits: it shows trustworthiness)
- For the first try, get participants to role-play doing something as badly as possible. Not only is it an effective ice-breaker, but it is easy to draw out the teaching points in discussion afterwards.
- Be focused. Be clear about why you want to/need to use role-play (as opposed to simple discussion, or the use of video demonstration, etc.). If it is to practise a particular technique or method, bring it in step by step, rather than plunging people in with "now you try it".
- Give plenty of thought to the role-play scenario. It needs to be focused so that it brings out the relevant skills above all. All participants also need to have a common understanding of the situation and the background. This can be tricky: you don't want to go into tremendous detail because it is a distraction, but on the other hand it is not uncommon for a participant to "hi-jack" a role-play by trotting out a piece of information which in real life would be known to both participants, thereby forcing their partner to adjust to it—"As you know, the student welfare service has been abolished in the last round of cuts...!"
- Remember that it is often the person taking the "client", "consumer", etc., non-professional role who learns most from the experience: do not neglect this in the interests of the "professional" role.
- If there are technical points at issue, feel free to adopt a convention of "time-out", when you can stop the process in mid-flow and have a few moments to think (or even consult with others). Agree a clear signal for time-out in advance (a sweeping "cut" gesture works quite well, for example, and is not likely to be part of the role-play action). The other participant, of course, has to remain "frozen" during the time-out. De-roling:applause helps, if appropriate. Otherwise usually it is enough to ask a simple question to start de-briefing; "OK, Sally, how did it feel, taking the role of Jane?"
- Never let a role-play pass without comment. Have a clear
procedure for review, included in the briefing and strictly followed, such as:
- Participants give their reactions first, usually starting with the person who took the more/most difficult/vulnerable role, or that furthest from her or his "normal" self. This is usually sufficient de-roling, and permits cathartic laughter, swearing etc.,
- If the participants have been working on behalf of a group which briefed them, the other members of that group get the next opportunity to comment.
- The rest of the course group get their say
- Finally, the tutor comments. You should by now have heard everything from everyone else: you may simply need to confirm or build on points which have already been made. Just occasionally, the participants will have totally missed the point. Even so, start with the positives, and if you can, draw out the critical comments via questioning. This has the effect of dividing the responsibility for being critical—it's partly yours because you asked the question, and partly that of the person who answers—and this makes it easier both to make and receive critical comments.
Of course, you don't want to stop there. Except perhaps when you are using role-play over and over again to develop fairly technical skills which have to follow a set pattern (training market- or political-research interviewers, say), you will want also to help participants to a self-sustaining critical review and awareness of practice so that they carry on learning, on the "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime" principle. (Attributed to Confucius, but then what isn't?)
This is known as "reflection", and is much-hyped as a panacea for the improvement of professional disciplines. It's good, but not that good. There is a mini-industry in the development of "models of reflection", but of course very little evidence that any one of them is superior to any other. For our purposes, there are three criteria to be met;
the approach needs to be one people will actually use; on the whole that means the simpler the better
it needs to be applicable to practically any situation
it needs to promote action rather than paralysis (remember the story of the centipede who waas getting on fine until someone asked him which leg came next...).
On that basis I am attracted to a simple set of questions, formulated by Rolfe et al (2001) see the source for a much more thorough explication of course (and why they use "reflexive" rather than "reflective"), but it's enough to get started, and the more you use the questions, the more they come to mean;
What? (happened? Include feelings)
So what? (significance, implications, ideas and theory etc.)
Now what? (action)
Those can readily be adopted as a mantra both within and outside role-play based and other teaching opportunities.
Note the point about including feelings in the review of what happened. We started with feelings and the dislike and sheer fear many students have of role-play. But the other side of the coin is that the feelings are precisely what makes role-play (like real life, strangely enough) such a potent occasion of learning.
Rolfe G, Freshwater D & Jasper M (2001) Critical Reflection for Nursing and the Helping Professions: a User’s Guide, Basingstoke: Palgrave