Role-play in PBL: Experiencing course content

By Ragna Zeiss

As a teacher, I am always keen to engage with new teaching and learning formats. While preparing for the Globalisation and Development (GDS) course ‘Science and Technology Studies for Development in a Global Context’, I encountered an article on role-play in science and technology by Micheal Loui. Although a long time ago, I vividly remember taking part in a role-play at Wageningen University when I was an undergraduate student. I decided that it might be worthwhile to experiment with a role-play in my course. The role-play could – I hoped – complement the readings and provide for an experience with the kinds of issues we would be tackling in the course. Students would have active roles – very fitting to problem-based learning (PBL).


As this would be a trial, I used the three scenarios outlined in the article. These scenarios outline proposals for experiments with human embryonic stem cells, for a manufacturing plant using nanotechnologies near wetlands, and for implanting radio frequency identification tags in people with Alzheimer to allow them greater freedom of movement. Each student participated in two of the scenarios, was given different roles (e.g. nursing home resident, director), and acted as observer for the third. Each week we had at least one 30-minute role-play session, starting with scenario 1 in week 1, 2 in week 2, resulting in two to three sessions on each scenario to allow for development of the characters and community-building. The scenarios led to different outcomes, from a lack of consensus, to convincing participants of one side, to making changes to the technology in a trial with more freedom for personal choice. The last meeting included an evaluation of the role-play exercise.

Lessons learned and moving forward

Overall, students enjoyed the role-play, the different format, and the experience of “something lighter”. Excellent, but did it also help to better understand the course? Was it useful in didactic terms?

In his article, Loui reported that the exercise helped students to appreciate the perspectives of others and to learn to negotiate. Yet, few students connected the scenarios to ideas they discussed about relations between technology and society during the weeks preceding the exercise. In contrast, many GDS students connected the role-play to the course materials when we evaluated the role-play. It led to, for example, further discussions about who can participate under which circumstances (can Alzheimer patients participate in decision-making and how?) and assumptions about people having equal voices, questioning ideals of participation. The role-plays also linked to issues such as who can and should represent whom, (forms of) expertise and power relations, risk perceptions, vulnerabilities, and roles of non-human actors. The role-play seemed helpful in active learning by experiencing rather than ‘just’ reading course content.

However, we mainly reflected on these issues after the last role-play. To increase the relevance of role-play for the course, it could be worthwhile to

  1. Make it a more integral element of the course, explicitly linked to the PBL sessions and/or
  2. Plan in-depth reflection sessions after each role-play meeting connecting to course content and reflecting on negotiation strategies and/or
  3. Ask students to write (reflective) journal entries.

Next to didactic lessons, we also learned some practical lessons. When conducting a role-play over a longer period, it is important to have someone (the tutor in this case) moderate the discussion and summarise at the end of a session and at the beginning of a next session (where does everyone stand, which issues and questions need attention?). Students appreciated the use of different scenarios and experience of different roles to gain different perspectives. However, it was difficult to keep track of three different scenarios. Two may be more feasible.

It is important to provide clear instructions at the beginning of the role-play in terms of the why (without giving away the lessons students hopefully learn by engaging) and the how of the exercise (e.g. to what extent can roles change during the role-play). A fuller integration with the PBL sessions may also highlight the relevance of the exercise.


I think we could use more role-play in PBL to illustrate but especially experience and bring to live some of the issues and questions central to tutorials. Students have an active role, learn to present and negotiate (transferable skills), plus role-play can support and enhance content discussions. The latter does not happen automatically but requires careful crafting of scenarios and (further) course content.

I am sure that several programs use different formats of role-play. It may be valuable to bring experiences together, discussing role-play in PBL (see also this blog by Nick Kirsop-Taylor and Dan Appiah), and providing some inspiration for others who may be interested as well.

Following this experience, I would like to take role-play further in my course. To increase the relevance for the course, I need to write new scenarios involving ‘the global South’. Exciting – and requiring research and writing time. I look forward to learn how new scenarios would work for the course. And whether students remember the course for more than “being the referend who opposes the use of embryonic stem cells”.

About the author

Ragna Zeiss is Assistant Professor in Science and Technology Studies at FASoS. She has coordinated, taught and designed courses at FASoS in the BA Arts and Culture, BA European Studies, MA European Studies on Society, Science and Technology, and the MA Globalisation and Development Studies. She also taught in the Maastricht University Master of Science in Public Policy and Human Development and courses in, amongst others, organisation studies and sociology at the VU Amsterdam and the University of York.