Role play for learning: Developing a process to support student designed learning activities

Posted in: Case Studies


This 2014-15 project worked with students to develop a framework for supporting students in designing their own learning activities. Focussing on role play activities in a third year PoLIS unit (PL30548) as a test bed. The project began by upskilling the project leads through engaging in knowledge exchanges (conversations and workshop) with external academic experts in role play design. Following this a schedule and outline plan for the unit was developed and refined through peer review from our external expert.

During S1 (2015/16) third year students were supported in designing and developing their own role-play activities linked to the unit themes and assessment and ‘played out’ in seminar sessions. A generic framework for supporting students in producing these game like learning activities was developed through an iterative process of participative evaluation and redesign.

The student generated role play learning objects extended the course content and the evaluation shows that they were effective in leading to modalities of deeper learning. The student authored roles plays provided complex and in depth seminar tasks resulting in increased student engagement.

Overall the project increased the knowledge and capacity of academic staff for leading and designing role play activities to enhance student learning.

“It is the only module in 4 years that I have actually wanted to wake up for on a Monday morning! Thank you for such an innovative and engaging course! I really hope that next year’s students have the same opportunity :-)”

Project Team

Dr. Felia Allum, Lecturer, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies:

Mrs Geraldine Jones, e-Learning Officer, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Aims & Rationale

To develop expertise in supporting students to develop role play learning activities for their peers.
To assess the impact, benefits and challenges of this type of activity on student learning through a case study analysis.

Meeting Professional Needs: There is little experience in the University and the sector in supporting students in designing learning activities for their peers. The development of a student support framework comprising support processes and scaffolding for coherent student designed learning (role play) activities linked to learning outcomes will go some way to offering a step by step approach and help kick start staff engagement.

Enhancing Student Learning: Role-play based approaches are likely to positively impact on the student learning experience by stimulating critical thinking, group communication, debate and decision making. Situating the learning in simulated real world contexts helps facilitate the application of theoretical knowledge. Salen (2007) and Buckingham, Burn, and Pelletier (2005) advocate that allowing students to design and create their own educational games (e.g. role play) encourages meta-level reflection and fosters creativity.

Promoting Student Engagement: Face to face student role-play activities sometimes receive variable student engagement and participation due to students’ lack of confidence and/or a reticence to ‘act’ in front of their peers. This project will address this issue in two ways; firstly student engagement is arguably more likely if the activity has been created by peers

Outcomes / Outputs

Benefits for students

  • Increased student engagement, participation and deeper learning from those studying (PL30548).

Benefits to the project team

Staff development resources

  • A generic framework for staff wishing to supporting students in designing role play learning activities for their peers;
  • A staff development workshop for building skills and sharing good practice (scheduled for end of S2 2015-16);
  • A video case study (scheduled for end of S2 2015-16).
  • Academics from around the University were invited to a workshop delivered by Dr. Simon Usherwood (University of Surrey) Learning and Teaching with Simulation Games and Role Play: drawing on expertise in Politics and Social Sciences. More than 30 representing departments from across the University attended and the feedback was very positive. Simon blogged about it here:
  • A significant project output is a plan for introducing, scheduling and assessing student role play activities. This is a generic output so relevant to other discipline areas.

Contact Felia Allum for project materials.


What worked well?

  • Initially gathering external expertise was invaluable;
  • Keeping a project wiki helped with scheduling and general project management;
  • Involving a PhD student in the delivery and for offering impartial insights was useful;
  • Involving students in advising about improvements was very useful.

If you could do the project again, what would you do differently (and why)?

  • Employ a student project manager to keep the project on track. It was difficult to fit the project management in between the project leads’ other roles and responsibilities. A student project manager could also keep on top of dissemination while the project was in progress;
  • Prepare all the student support materials well in advance of the unit start date in order to test for coherence.

Feedback from students who participated in the pilot
The end of project student survey was answers by 33 students – a response rate of 55% The quantitative responses are summarised below:

  • I have enjoyed the role play activities – 94% agreed/strongly agreed;
  • The role play activities have motivated me to engage with the unit – 94% agreed/strongly agreed;
  • The role play activities stimulated valuable discussion with my peers – 88% agreed/strongly agreed;
  • The role play activities have not aided my learning – 3% agreed;
  • I would not recommend role play activities be used to teach this unit future – 6% agreed;
  • The role play activities have challenged me in a positive way – 82% agreed/strongly agreed;
  • As a whole the role play activities worked for me – 88% agreed/strongly agreed;
  • I would have learnt as much through traditional lectures and seminars – 37% agreed/strongly agreed.

Student suggestions for improving the student designed role play seminars included:

  • More support for linking the theory to the role plays e.g. more lectures and scaffolding;
  • More clarity about rules of play and how points are gains and what resources can be bought;
  • A way to track state of play and game history – on screen or an app & status updates;
  • Game leaders to issue a brief of the background to their game and a resume of the state of the clans and events so far;
  • More time given in debrief regarding the link to theory;
  • A turns based system to help keep track of events;
  • More explicit links between how the role play contributes to the assessment.

The qualitative comments were overwhelmingly positive and constructive including this notable one:

“It is the only module in 4 years that I have actually wanted to wake up for on a Monday morning! Thank you for such an innovative and engaging course! I really hope that next year’s students have the same opportunity. :-)”


Posted in: Case Studies