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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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