Role-playing is an activity in which students assume the role of another person and act it out. Students are usually given an open-ended situation in which they must make a decision, resolve a conflict, or act out the conclusion to an unfinished story.

Role-playing is designed to promote student empathy and understanding of others. It also gives students a chance to be imaginative and creative. In acting out the role of another person, it is easier for students to see others’ points of view, including how other people think and feel. Building on these insights, students can develop a wider range of ideas about how to solve problems. Role-playing can give students the opportunity to learn behavior appropriate for various situations. Role-playing is also useful for developing critical-thinking, decision-making, and confidence.


Before class begins, follow these steps:

  1. Select one or more role-play situations that fit with your unit of study. Many situations lend themselves to the use of a role-play, including individual dilemmas (e.g., dealing with a pushy salesperson, observing a crime, or testifying in court) and conflict resolution situations (e.g., a tenant negotiating with a landlord over the terms of a lease or a police officer confronting a suspected shoplifter). Finally, role-plays are useful for developing student skills as an interviewer, negotiator, assertive consumer, investigator, or lawmaker.
  2. When you devise the scenarios, keep each “cast” relatively small so everyone has an important part to play. Ideally, you would choose enough situations so that each student has a role in at least one scenario. Initial role-plays should be simple and then become more complex. Give students several opportunities to role play, including a chance to do a role-reversal (switch roles and re-enact the same scenario.) If you opt to only include one or two role-plays, think about how to keep other students engaged. For example, they could act as observers and might be asked to evaluate actors using specific criteria (e.g., persuasiveness, clarity, logic).
  3. Make the situations and problems realistic and avoid reinforcing stereotypes. While role-plays can help students understand multiple perspectives, do not design an activity that would require a student to portray a historical person such as Hitler, Pol Pot, or the founder of the KKK. Nor should you design a role-play that requires students to portray a hypothetical person who is bigoted. If those perspectives are essential to a lesson, choose a different activity such as a primary document analysis or careful reading of a text.  
  4. Decide if you want to pre-assign roles or to select volunteers when class begins.
  5. If you are planning a role-play that is complex, prepare written materials that will help students succeed without providing too much information or scripting the role-play.

When class begins, follow these steps:

  1. Introduce the activity and its general purposes. Tell students about the situation and the various roles they will play.
  2. Select students for the role-plays. Students can either be assigned roles or you can ask for volunteers. If you have opted to have some students act as observers, explain what they should be watching for and what they should be prepared to discuss.
  3. Prepare students by giving them the handout you created before class or by explaining the scenario and roles carefully. Either way, give students adequate information and time to play their roles convincingly. This preparation will make it easier for the students to enjoy the exercise as they learn. If the lesson plan involves multiple role-plays, let each group practice or get ready simultaneously. Remind the students they can be creative and have fun, but they should avoid stereotypes and cannot get too “out of hand.”
  4. Conduct the role-play(s) at the front of the class. You should not interrupt except to get things moving in case students get bogged down. After conducting the role-play, it is sometimes useful to have students reverse roles or to conduct the same role-play again. If time permits and it would move the lesson forward, you could let students conduct the role-play a second time with reversed roles.
  5. Conclude each role-play with a short discussion and debrief. The discussion should prompt students to think about what happened, what procedures or actions were followed, what alternatives the people in the scenario might have considered, etc.
  6. If necessary, take time to explain how the situation would or should be handled differently in “real life.” For example, if students are role playing a traffic stop and the driver gets out of the car without being asked, take time to explain how dangerous that could be because officers may see that as threatening behavior. Explain that drivers should stay in the car with their hands on the steering wheel and in plain sight as the officer approaches the car. Discussion questions could include:
    • Was the problem solved? Why or why not? How was it solved?
    • Is this situation similar to anything that you have experienced?
    • How did you feel about the role-play and each of the various roles?
    • Was the role-play realistic? How was it similar to or different from real life?
    • What, if anything, could have been done differently? What other outcomes were possible?
    • What did you learn from the experience?
    • If you had the opportunity to do the role-play again, what would you do differently? The same?
    • If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to the one in the role-play, what would you do differently?