Role plays and simulations are forms of experiential learning in which learners take on different roles, assuming a character, personality or function within a group, and interact and participate in diverse and complex learning settings. Role plays and simulations aim to authentically emulate a given environment or challenge, giving students the chance to practise realistically the skills they will need when they graduate. Generally speaking, they involve significant interaction among participants, and can be conducted online, face to face or in a hybrid setting.
The terms "role play" and "simulation" are sometimes used inconsistently or interchangeably. However, the two have some differences. While simulations can incorporate role play, leading to the term "role-playing simulation", they often involve a situation in which each participant’s role may not be as prominent or distinctive as it would be in a role play. In a role play, the focus is more on the interaction between participants (or the characters they're playing); in contrast, a simulation is generally designed to help students practise solving a particular problem or addressing a particular situation.
Role plays and simulations function as learning tools for groups or individuals as they "play" online or face to face. They alter the power ratios in teaching and learning relationships between students and educators, as students learn through their explorations and the viewpoints of the character or personality they are articulating in the environment. This student-centered space can enable learner-oriented assessment, where the design of the task is created for active student learning. Students are actively involved in both self- and peer-assessment and both give and receive feedback.
Video Series - Using Role Plays in Formative Assessment - Ben Barry & Gail Trapp
When to use
Good-quality learning design provides opportunities for situated and authentic learning. As Table 1 shows, high-quality learning is situated in a real-life context and simulates the learning activities of the learner's employment area.
Table 1: Summary of Boud & Prosser's (2002) eLearning principles of high-quality learning design (Wills, Leigh & Ip, 2011).
|Engage learners||Consider learners' prior knowledge and desires and build on their expectations.|
|Acknowledge learning context||Consider how the implementation of the learning design is positioned within the broader program of study for the learner.|
|Challenge learners||Seek the active participation of learners, encouraging them to be self-critical.|
|Provide practice||Encourage learners to articulate and demonstrate to themselves and their peers what they are learning.|
|Siemens & Tittenberger: Summary of Principles|
|Social||Learning is a social process and knowledge is an emergent property of interactions between networks of learners.|
|Situated||Learning occurs within particular situations or contexts, raising the importance of educational activities mirroring actual situations of use.|
|Reflective||Learners require time to assimilate new information.|
|Multi-faceted||Learning incorporates a range of theory, engagement, "tinkering" or bricolage, and active construction.|
Incorporating simulations and role plays in learning design and using them as assessments provides students with:
- opportunities to reflect on the way knowledge will be gained in real life
- activities that are authentic in nature
- opportunities to "try out" expert performances and processes
- opportunities to learn about new perspectives and roles in life
- opportunities to reflect on learning
- opportunities to see how tacit knowledge can be made explicit
- scaffolding and coaching at critical times in the learning and assessment process
- assessment that is aligned with learning objectives within the task.
Role plays and simulations significantly contribute to students' learning and assessment when they allow students to view multiple perspectives on their responses in a safe but challenging environment.
Benefits of assessing by role play
- Role play is an excellent means of evaluating decision-making and interpersonal communication skills.
- Role play is particularly useful to students who will operate in a tense professional environment that requires complex decision-making (e.g. diplomacy, acute or sensitive medical-care settings, psychology and counselling).
- Scenarios can be scaffolded, gradually increasing in complexity to ensure that students reach a sufficient level of competence.
- Role plays can help you evaluate students' ability to work under pressure and with others, and can provide opportunities for inter-professional learning.
- With online simulated learning environments, students can role play anonymously.
Benefits of assessing by simulation
- Simulation is a form of authentic assessment. When exposed to active, experiential, reflective and contextual learning approaches such as simulated environments, students can see the direct relevance of their educational experience to their future practice.
- Educators can assess a student's preparedness for the practical placement component of their degree.
- Technology-based forms of simulation can enable instant feedback to students.
- Simulations are effective means of evaluating students' competencies, such as their professionalism, as well as their content knowledge.
When using role plays and simulations for assessment, you will need to consider a number of aspects:
- Align the task with the learning outcomes.
- Provide students (ideally in the course outline) with clear and explicit information as to what is expected.
- Ensure that the task is authentic and real-world-based. (You might also consider inviting subject-matter experts to come in as real-time resources for students to consult, as they might consult mentors in a professional setting.)
- Scaffold the learning experience, breaking tasks down to manageable size.
- Consider using role plays and simulations for both formative feedback and summative assessment, rather than introducing them only at the end of the course as a summmative assessment.
Once you have debriefed with the students about their experience with the assessent, evaluate the learning design in terms of its strategy and effectiveness, and identify possibilities for improvement.
Role plays, particularly those used as assessments, need to be carefully structured to maintain a focus on the learning outcomes, as imaginative students may very easily veer off-topic. (You may also need to be ready to guide them back onto the point.) The more care you can take in clearly defining the parameters within which the characters interact, the more successful your students are likely to be in understanding what they're aiming to achieve. These guidelines can include a detailed description of the scenario and subject matter, how long each role play will last, what tone or level of formality in speaking the students should adopt (such as specifying that the role play occurs in a professional setting, or that the characters are employer and employee or patient and health-care worker), the necessity for courtesy and respect and procedures for resolving questions or withdrawing from participation during the role play.
You may also want to develop some alternatives for those students who are uncomfortable with spoken English or with being in a position where they're being scrutinised by their peers. Options could include an online role play over videoconferencing or as a text chat, or allowing a student to write a script for a role play that shows they have achieved the learning outcomes. It's also possible that occasionally a student becomes overwhelmed by participating in the role play, and you may need to be able to offer appropriate support and refer the student to resources that can help.
Simulations, which are focused more on situations and problem-solving than on characters, help students develop an overall awareness of the systems in which they will be operating "in real life". Simulations can be closed-ended, in which there is a defined goal that indicates success, or open-ended, in which the students are free to bring the simulation to a conclusion in whatever way seems appropriate to them, based on the learning outcomes they're aiming to achieve. Simulations can easily become unworkably complex, however, particularly if they're open-ended, so it's crucial to keep a tight focus on the learning outcomes and carefully determine how each element of the simulation will help you assess your students' skills and knowledge. It's far better to have a simulation that's slightly simpler than it could have been than one that's confusing and diffuse.
As with a role-play assessment, the more clearly you can set out the parameters, the better. A detailed description of the opening scenario and each role within it, the goal or outcome the students should aim to achieve, and aspects such as time constraints, courtesy guidelines, and procedures for questions or withdrawing are all important to set up in advance. Again, as with role-play assessment, you should be prepared with alternative assessments for students who are having difficulties, and be ready to offer students appropriate support and access to resources where necessary.
You can use role plays and simulation within a game, or use a game within a role play or simulation. Games are engaging, can be highly authentic and can incorporate a competitive element, including advancement to the next stage or problem, or the prospect of a prize at the conclusion of the game. Game feedback is generally immediate, reinforcing the student’s application of subject-matter knowledge.
However, it's important to consider, particularly when using games as part of an assessment, that to fairly assess students' skills and knowledge, the outcome of the game must depend entirely on students' application of knowledge, not random factors (such as rolling dice).
Online role plays and simulations as assessments
If you choose to conduct your role-play or simulation assessment online, this both offers additional opportunities and imposes additional requirements on the process.
- Students can take advantage of the online environment to reflect in the moment (as well as afterward) on the role play or simulation using online chat or other types of interactive platforms.
- Online or hybrid role plays or simulations can reduce barriers to participation (although it must be noted that they may also introduce barriers for those students without access to reliable internet technology).
- Online environments generally have the capability of recording the role plays or simulations, allowing for more-detailed feedback and assessment.
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Flores, M. A., Simão, A. M. V., Barros, A., & Pereira, D. (2015). Perceptions of effectiveness, fairness and feedback of assessment methods: a study in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 40(9), 1523-1534. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.881348
Freitas, Sara I. (2006). Using Games and Simulations for Supporting Learning. Learning, Media and Technology 31(4), 343-358.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Wills, S., Leigh, E. and Ip, A. (2011). The power of role-based e-learning: Designing and moderating online role play. New York: Routledge.