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Role Playing Exercises

Role playing exercises are a specific kind of group work.  Here, instead of solving a problem, the students in the group take on pre-assigned roles and dramatize a problem as characters.  The advantage to role playing exercises is that it allows students to engage with issues on a more immediate and emotional level.  Role plays also help students overcome shyness, since it is sometimes easier for students to play an assigned role, rather than to defend their own individual ideas. Role play exercises also appeal to contemporary students who like to "learn by doing." 


Principles for creating role play exercises:
  • Clearly define the roles that students are to play, and what the various goals of the participants should be 

  • Form groups of appropriate size.

  • Allow time for questions and discussion of the scenarios.

  • End the role play as soon as the problem is resolved (don't let it drag on).

  • Leave time for discussion afterwards.


Examples of role play exercises:
  • One of the most fertile areas for role-play exercises is social contract theory.  Christina M. Bellon has a wonderful role play exercise for Hobbes.  One of the most interesting aspects of her work is that she spells out the individual roles in great detail, so that the students playing the various roles have both reasons for wanting to participate in civil society, but also reasons not to one to do so.  "At Play in the State of Nature: Assessing Social: Contract Theory Through Role Play." Teaching Philosophy. 24.4 (2001): 315-325. 

  • Another approach is to have students take on the roles of various philosophers.  See Charles J. Dougherty, "Philosophical Role Playing." Teaching Philosophy. 4.1 (1981): 39-45.

  • A simple role play focuses on the value of philosophy for students.  After reading Bertrand Russell's chapter on the Value of Philosophy have students debate whether the college needs to have a philosophy department. This could be done in groups of four or five including the following: an employer; an administrator who is trying to save money and wants to cut this department; a student who wants to keep the department; another who wants to eliminate it.  It is necessary, of course, to assign the roles, so students have permission to attack philosophy or defend it without being accused of trying to curry favor with the teacher. 



Nickerson, Stephanie, Role-Play: An Often Misused Active Learning Strategy, Teaching Excellence19:4 (2007-2008).


Davis, Barbara Gross, Tools for Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 229-232.


Barkley, Elizabeth, K. Patricia Cross, Claire Howell Mauor, Collaborative Learning Techniques (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005), 150-155.


Update: October 15, 2009

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