Anna Kruglova is the winner of the 2020 BISA Award for Postgraduate Excellence in Teaching International Studies. The aim of this annual award is to recognise postgraduate students who have contributed to the positive learning experience of students in International Studies. The judges were impressed by Anna’s ‘innovative teaching and learning styles’ as well as her ‘exceptional use of real-life examples to help students visualise complex theory’. Here she talks about the pros and cons of one of her teaching methods - role-play.
If you're involved in teaching in any way I'm sure you have faced this dilemma at least once: how do I make my classes useful for students but at the same time ensure that they don't get bored? I have been a TA at Queen's University Belfast for two years, and I admit that I ask myself this question almost every tutorial week, and still don't always find an answer.
However, there is one technique I use actively and find it very helpful to achieve both goals. This technique is to use simulations and role-play. Simulations usually replicate real situations or events, while role-play could also have a fictional character, as long as they help to achieve the goal of the exercise.
Whilst I’ve enjoyed a lot of success with these kinds of exercise, there are pros and cons to using them in your teaching. Here I would like to share my experience so that you can decide for yourself if it is something you might want to add to your teaching practice.
Despite the stress and extra effort you will need to put into making role-play work, I truly believe it is a great teaching tool for these reasons:
- It allows students to use their knowledge and skills in practice. It is going to be a very rare occasion when your student will be asked to recount six points of Realism of Hans Morgenthau, but much more likely they will be asked to explain a particular event, or react to a certain situation, according to a particular paradigm. Role-play allows students to practice these hypothetical situations in a safe environment and eventually become good at them.
- It breaks the ice both between you and students and amongst the students themselves. Role-play allows students to work together as a team on a task that does not imply being serious. It, therefore, helps them get know each other better and gives the opportunity for informal interaction where they can have some laughs and jokes. You yourself will become more approachable as you inevitably will be part of everything that will be going on during the exercise.
- You’ll learn something about your students. It's fascinating watching students adopting their roles, developing strategies, negotiating, and responding to political provocations you planned for them.
- It’s just fun! You become get immersed in the action and I personally always have a particularly good feeling after role-play-based tutorials.
- It may not go according to a plan. The main problem with any role-play or simulation is that you have to willingly accept the fact that there will be an element of unpredictability and chaos in it. Perhaps a LOT of chaos. Or a catastrophe. It depends on what exactly you are doing and what your conditions are. Your students may misinterpret the task. You may misinterpret the task. You both may forget the rules. Students can get carried away and you'll have to take urgent measures to bring the order back to the classroom. Anything can happen. How can you prevent it? Mostly you can't – good old Realism told us that our system is anarchical and you can only be sure of your own behaviour. So, make sure you know the rules very well and you are confident with them. Also, make sure that you explain them well and in as much detail as you can. If possible, run a trial first. And hope for the best.
- Students may be skeptical about it. There have been times when I would come to my students very enthusiastic about the role-play I want them to take part in, thinking that they are going to be excited about it too…but then I find they are not. You can see a silent question in their eyes "Why do we have to do this?". Usually, the best thing is not to lower your enthusiasm and carry on. If you think that your students aren't particularly keen, try to give them an alternative assignment. Alternatively, think about how you can make the exercise shorter for them to try it and see how it works. Often this second option works – when my students role-play for some time they do start enjoying it, but having plan B in case something does not go well is always a good idea.
- What works for one group may not work for another. If you teach several groups you will have to consider the difference in dynamics. What works well in a group of chatty students, may completely fail in a quiet one. What may excite one student may terrify another. And simply: a role play that works perfectly on Wednesday afternoon when you have 15 people present may fail at your 9.00am tutorial on Monday when you only have three of them. So again – do think carefully about your alternatives if something goes wrong, because most likely it will.
These are thoughts that come from my experience and I am sure that there will be colleagues who could add more points to both lists.
To play or not to play? It is up to you.