Role Play Made Easy

By Susan El-Shamy

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-7566-4

Chapter One

Understanding Role Playing

When I began as a corporate trainer, I had a rather narrow view of role playing. I saw it as a technique to be used primarily in very focused skill development programs, which it certainly is, but I failed to realize the full range of learning situations in which it could be used and how very effective it could be. Then came the day I was working to improve a career development course and realized that I needed a short activity toward the end of the day-something to move beyond just raising participants' awareness of their job satisfaction needs. I wanted to immediately apply what they had learned about their needs and increase their comfort levels in talking about those needs.

I came up with a short, very focused role-playing activity where participants found partners and took turns playing the roles of career counselor and themselves discussing their job satisfaction needs. I said, "Pretend you are talking to a career counselor. The career counselor leans in, looks you in the eye, and says, 'Tell me, Susan, what's important to you in a job? What are the key factors that you are looking for?' Then tell the counselor what you are looking for." The whole activity took about twenty minutes, and they loved it.

I loved it too. Not only did it focus and solidify participant learning in that particular situation, but it also extended my own understanding and appreciation of role playing. I knew that role playing was a process in which someone acts out a part in a given context and that it was a structured, goal-directed, learning technique. But I then realized that role playing comes in many forms and can serve many functions. Best of all, when role playing is done well, it is an incredible tool for learning.

Let's take a deeper look at this tool for learning. We begin by defining role playing further and then look at some of the terminology used with role-playing activities. Next, we investigate some of the common forms this tool takes and the functions it performs in education and training. And finally, we examine the unique benefits of role playing and why it is such a powerful learning tool.


In the fields of education and training and development, role playing is a structured, goal-directed learning technique that uses the acting out of a part in a specified context to give participants an immediate opportunity to apply information or practice behaviors presented in class material. That's a long definition! But look at the essence of the definition: a structured goal-directed, learning technique. A role play needs to be structured-planned, orderly, and well thought out. It must meet a goal, and not just any goal. It needs to meet a learning goal.

Look at the last part of the definition: to apply information or to practice behaviors presented in class material. As a learning technique, role playing involves the immediate application of material being studied in the learning situation. For example, in my career development class, that short role-playing activity allowed participants to verbalize to someone else what they had learned about their job satisfaction needs. In a customer service class, role playing could be used to let participants practice dealing with difficult customers, and in a management development class, role playing could be used to practice a problem-solving model or rehearse a performance appraisal approach.

Role playing is not a random acting out of a situation for fun or catharsis. To be effective, it must be directed toward the use of specific behaviors to bring about specific results. And while a role play can be fun or may contain a certain cathartic element, the goals are to test, try out, and develop the use of particular behaviors.

A role play is not a simulation. Although role plays and simulations seem similar on the surface, they are different types of learning activities in length, complexity (simulations usually being much longer and more complex), and purpose. Although role playing includes some simulation and simulations include some playing of roles, role plays and simulations differ in their design and structure, and they often have different learning goals.

In most simulations, learners practice desired behaviors, but the learning goal also includes understanding and experiencing a particular situation as well as the practice of specific behaviors. A simulation lets you experience what it is like to be in a particular circumstance-a person without a home, an angry customer, a stranger in a foreign land-and the experience leads to learning. In role playing, the activity is shorter and more focused; the goal is to practice a particular behavior in a given circumstance-interviewing a homeless person, dealing with an angry customer, asking for directions in a foreign land-and the practice leads to skill development.


There is a variety of vocabulary and terminology used in describing role-playing procedures and the assigned roles given to participants during role playing. You are probably familiar with many of the following terms, but there may be a few that you have not heard or used before. Let's review these basic terms:

A learning activity is an educational exercise designed to provide information or direct experiencing of a subject matter being studied. Role playing is one type of learning activity; other types are educational games, simulations, case studies, structured discussions, and paper-and-pencil activities.

Role playing is a structured, goal-directed learning activity. It uses the acting out of a part in a particular context to give participants an immediate opportunity to apply information or practice behaviors presented in class material.

An individual role play is the specific interaction of one participant acting out a given situation with a second participant, while a third participant observes that interaction and, if there is a videotape being made of that interaction, a fourth participant records. An individual role play can include doing the activity only once, followed by feedback and discussion, or it can include doing the role play followed by feedback and discussion, then doing the activity again trying to improve the interaction.

A round of role playing is a series of individual role plays in which each participant in the group gets to go through an individual activity using a particular situation. Each participant could do the individual role play only once or could do it, get feedback, and then do it again. It is also sometimes referred to as a round of role plays when an individual person does two or three enactments of the same basic role play but with the deliberate use of increasing difficulty within the role plays.

A second round of role playing is the phrase commonly used when all of the participants in a small group have each completed an individual role play and the activity now continues with each participant going through a second individual role play using a different situation. Multiple rounds can also use incremental difficulty, with the first round using relatively easy situations, the second round using more difficult situations, and the third round using even more difficult situations.

Single role plays, sometimes called fishbowl role plays, are role plays in which volunteer players from the group act out one role play at a time in front of the whole group. Role rotation is a variation of this type of role-play activity, with the main role passing from one participant to the next to the next and so forth (Buckner, 1999).

Feedback consists of information about the role-played interaction given after the interaction and intended to provide useful data for skill development. It can be given verbally, in written form, or through the viewing of a videotape of the role play.

Debriefing is a questioning process that occurs after an event has ended in order to supply information about that event. In learning activities, debriefing is used to clarify the process that learners have just undergone and to address what was learned and how participants will use what they learned in the activity in actual situations.

One issue that appears as you begin to structure and implement role-playing activities is what to call people who are playing different parts in the role play. Over the years I have found it very helpful to assign participants titles or names to use for the different roles that they will take with one another during the role play. In the introduction and setup of the role play, I usually define these titles and the duties or actions to be taken when a person is playing that part. Here are a few definitions to consider:

Initiator: The person who is the focus of the individual role play and is practicing improving the use of a model or particular behavior. If feedback is being used, this is the person who receives the feedback.

Actor: The person acting out the other role and often following the instructions and suggestions of the Initiator as to how that role should be carried out.

Observer: The person who observes the role play and either gives verbal feedback to the Initiator or fills out a written feedback form that is given to the Initiator.

Recorder: The person who uses the camcorder to tape-record the role play. This person can be used in addition to the Observer, in place of the Observer, or as both Observer and Recorder.

Coach: The person who stands at the sidelines of the role play and instructs, guides, and encourages the Initiator.

Timekeeper: The person who monitors the time and keeps the role play on track and within its assigned time limits. This person can also serve as Observer, Recorder, or Coach.


Role plays can be used to meet a variety of educational goals and can be found in a variety of formats. Role-play learning activities can range from the simple, repeated use of standard phrases all the way to complex, extemporaneous enactments of difficult situations. I have categorized at least five basic types of role playing that appear in the majority of training and educational programs, and undoubtedly there are a few additional forms and permutations. Let's take a look at what I have found to be the five most common types of role plays. As you read through these descriptions, think of the role plays that you have used or participated in at some time and consider which categories they fit into.

Warm-ups are short, simple role-playing activities used to get people ready to move on to more difficult and complex role playing. They can be used to get participants acquainted with one another as well as acquainted with class content and specific behaviors. For example, a warm-up role play could have learners mixing and mingling and sharing information about themselves and their expectations for the course. (See Role Play 2, "What Are You Doing in a Place Like This?" in Chapter Five.)

Behavior rehearsals are role plays that contain the repeated use of standard or prescribed phrases or specific behaviors. They can be used to practice specific company-required behaviors or to condition learners to a routine use of a specific pattern of behavior. For example, in a customer service class, participants could use behavior rehearsal to practice introducing themselves to customers at a special customer-focused event. (See Role Play 6, "Greetings and Salutations," in Chapter Six.)

Application activities offer practice in using specific models or following given guidelines in hopes of making participants comfortable and familiar with those models and guidelines. For instance, an application activity could be used in a supervisory skills class to let learners practice a model for asking for a change in behavior. (See Role Play 11, "You're Driving Me Nuts," in Chapter Seven.)

Problem- and people-focused role plays are small-group activities in which participants build skills in handling specific problem situations or in dealing with particularly difficult people. Role plays that let participants practice dealing with unhappy customers or negative people are good examples of problem- and people-focused role plays. (See Role Play 18, "Why Are You People So Difficult?" in Chapter Eight.)

Impromptu role plays are fairly unstructured enactments for which participants have very little time to prepare. These extemporaneous activities are often used to build skills in the quick, effective handling of unexpected situations or to test the learner's ability to automatically apply a model or guidelines. They can also be a great way to start off a discussion of familiar ineffective or otherwise bad habits. For example, as a beginning activity in a class on improving meetings, an impromptu role play of a typical bad meeting could be a fun way to elicit the basic problems found in many meetings. (See Role Play 22, "Meeting Madness," in Chapter Nine.)

And so we find that role-play learning activities can be used to meet a variety of educational goals. The design of such activities can range from the simple to the complex, from those that are highly structured to those that are less structured, and they can be used in a wide assortment of learning situations. The immediacy, flexibility, and learning potential of this tool can bring important advantages and benefits to your classroom.


Role playing has been a popular educational and training technique since the early 1970s when it was borrowed and modified from the much-admired psychodrama therapeutic techniques of the time (Blatner, 1988). The many advantages and benefits that role playing brought to the educational classroom and the corporate training environment soon made it a standard learning tool. Michael Galbraith and Bonnie Zelenak (1991) describe the benefits of role playing as including showing the strengths, weaknesses, and consequences of certain behaviors or attitudes; depicting divergent points of view; exploring interpersonal relationships; and bringing to life theoretical or philosophical concepts.

In a relatively short period of time and under regulated conditions, a participant in a role play can immediately test new information and try out new behaviors, see how things feel, make adjustments, and try again. Participants can listen to one another and broaden their understanding of different people and different situations. And it's possible for all of this to happen in a safe, controlled environment, with few, if any, negative consequences. The flexibility of form, adaptability of content, and elasticity of time needed for role playing and the many opportunities it gives for participants to learn from one another are tremendous. Let's explore these advantages and benefits.

Immediate Application of Learning Concepts

The ability to immediately apply a class concept to the learner's behavioral repertoire is an important feature of role playing. This immediate linking of action to information has a significant advantage: it makes learning concrete and therefore increases the chances of participants' using the information and the behavior being learned after the training.

A key concern for any instructor who is presenting learning content-information, ideas, methods, strategies, or behaviors-is getting the learners to consider, analyze, use, try out, and practice that content. When it comes to the instant application of classroom content to the individual learner's behavior skills, there are limited approaches available. Real-time, real-life applications are most often available for behaviors that involve using things. For example, if the learner has been listening to information on how to use a new computer program, the immediate application of that content involves the learner's doing it, using it, and trying it out on a computer in the classroom with an instructor nearby to guide and give information.


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