Roleplay & Peer Learning

By: Eric Chow,

Peer learning can be generally defined as any situation where individuals are learning from or alongside each other. However, the potential challenges faced with peer learning include the lack of realistic application of concepts, the lack of structure, and the fear of sharing honest and critical feedback to participants. In addition, many supervisors and teachers of peer learning may not know the different kinds of peer learning activities available to them and stick with the simplistic “get-int0-groups-and-work” model. 

A particular peer learning activity, role-play when applied correctly, potentially removes all of these problems, although it does have its own share of challenges. Role-play as a result, can be a valuable activity in any field.


Why Roleplay?

Role-play is an activity where individuals embody a character who they are not, or put themselves into a situation they are not currently in. 

The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College states that the benefits of role-playing include: the immediate application of content into real contextual situations, the ability to adopt a persona that allows for one to express themselves in a manner beyond their typical, the memorability of the situations, and the receiving of immediate feedback on performance.

Role-play forces people to apply themselves in situations, putting conceptual ideas and making it more real, similar to how a scientist might test a hypothesis through an experiment. Applying the content being learned or discussed improves an individual’s understanding of the material. 

When adopting a character, a person is freed from the shackles of their individual personality. They can act differently, think differently, and speak differently than they normally would. They are able to demonstrate and come up with a creative expression beyond their typical behaviour. That expression allows for an understanding that would otherwise not have been realized.

Inputting themselves into a situation or a character, when an individual later needs to utilize or recall the concepts being learned, the role-playing scenario is far more memorable than if they had simply read about or listened to a lecture. This memorability enhances performance recall and understanding.

Recall one of the challenges of peer learning, the lack of realistic application of concepts. While discussion and problem-solving can be excellent for learning, it is an activity like role-play that induces the creative and more realistic expression.


Freedom of Expression

The United Federation of Teachers, a Union for teachers in New York City, published an article called “Role-playing brings learning to life” where teacher David Sherrin, gives examples of uses for role-playing in the classroom. Students “take on the role of characters from the past or from the literature [and] immerses them [into it]. Students begin to feel an emotional tie to the story. And when students hear, see and act out the story, their comprehension increases.” 

The freedom of immersing themselves into situations and characters “cultivates perspective and empathy. Students strive to understand the experiences of others, even if they do not agree with them [and even] create alternative scenarios and see the impact of their choices.” In doing so, Sherrin states that it helps students “make sense of ideas like power, identity and choice and coaxes them to grapple with what it means to be human.”

Role-play also speaks to the importance of fun, joy, and engagement that occurs throughout the activity. “Role-playing allows all types of students to shine. Oftentimes, those who struggle with traditional tasks excel in role-plays. The quiet student who carefully takes notes and then provides advice to the actors can add something to the scene. The rambunctious child who leaps from her seat and can’t resist talking (or calling out) in class can become a star.”

It is the freedom of being able to embody a new character or scenario, the freedom of not being bound by the image one portrays to others, that allows for all students to shine. 


The Challenges of Role-Playing

In her book “Role Play in Language Learning” by Carol Livingstone published back in 1983, it is stated that advantages of role-playing include “maximizing student activity, relevance, interest, discipline, and mixing of ability groups.” 

However, Livingstone also states the disadvantages are the organization and structure of the activity, as well as time constraints that usually limit that structure. Furthermore, she indicates that the role of the facilitator and the attitudes of all involved are topics that require consideration when looking into using role-play in a group. 

Emre Erturk, from the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand, agrees, according to his paper on ResearchGate titled “Role Play as a Teaching Strategy.” He explains that proper preparation must be done by giving the relevant information for the contextual situation and spending time getting people prepared for their roles. 

An article titled “ “Want to Facilitate Role Playing in Your Class?” written by Catherine Weiner on ABLConnect, an online database curated by Harvard University for active learning in post-secondary classrooms, agrees that the value of role-playing comes with proper preparation of the activity. 

In addition, Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center states the primary challenge of role-playing is getting all students to participate and be truly engaged. Instructors or facilitators should consider ways of increasing the likelihood of that happening.

Put simply, the benefits of role-play scenarios are maximized only with proper preparation. Spending time to ensure students understand the contextual situation they are being put into, and the characters they will embody is vital to the success of the activity. 

However, the same Resource Center also states that if students aren’t willing and open to participating in the activity, then even preparation is useless. It is, therefore, necessary, and important, for instructors and facilitators to consider ways of increasing the likelihood of that happening.


Sustaining Critical Feedback

The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning published a paper titled “Exploring the Impact of Role-Playing on Peer Feedback in an Online Case-Based Learning Activity” written by Yu-Hui Ching from Boise State University, USA. 

One big finding from the research was how role-playing “alleviated cognitive challenges of peer feedback.” Sometimes people may feel hesitant in giving or hurt in receiving more critical feedback. However, in role-play situations, it allowed for more focused feedback from a specific perspective. This focus allowed them to look deeper into questions and look through the lens of the role that was being portrayed, enhancing critical thinking ability, engagement, and the benefit of feedback without the regular baggage.

Catherine Weiner, in the previously mentioned article on ABLConnect by Harvard, states that post-roleplay, it is often valuable to “have a moment for the student to get feedback on their performance, either from the class as a whole, their partner/group or from the instructor directly.” Allowing students to reflect for themselves, such as asking “what challenges did you face taking on these roles? What was harder or easier than expected” can raise insightful answers potentially related to the material in question.

In fact, Emre Erturk from the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand found in a particular case that a particular group of students that were given individual feedback about their work helped build the students’ confidence, which correlated with their future productivity. Overall, he agrees feedback to learners is valuable, particularly when combining validation with fair and honest feedback.

Where giving critical feedback sometimes has to be done carefully to make sure it is received properly, with role-play in particular this feedback can be given freely. More broadly, discussion of the scenes enacted can be more open and responsive due to the nature of the activity.


Additional Notes

People have varying preferences when it comes to learning. Some prefer to read, others prefer to listen, and others still prefer action. According to a teacher and writer of the article “Why you should use role-playing in the classroom”, Melissa Williams, role-play taps into various styles and allows the demonstration of knowledge in a method different to standard ones such as tests or presentations. Depending on how the activity is structured, participants could be reading, listening, acting, or providing feedback.

Furthermore, role-play is an active learning activity that is more engaging for students compared to a regular lecture or presentation. There is the added benefit of making learning fun and creative as well, which enhances their interest and excitement to learn the material.

A research article titled “Using Peer-Assisted Learning and Role-Playing to Teach Generic Skills to Dental Students: The Health Care Simulation Model” published in the American Dental Education Association did a study on role-playing among several other educational tools beyond traditional learning. “The reported outcome in skills improvement, knowledge acquisition, or overall satisfaction is attributed to the combination of several factors: PAL, role-playing, involvement in an extracurricular activity, and the excitement that goes with all these experiences. It is thus difficult to describe the positive effect reported to any of these factors alone. Further studies would be needed to elucidate the separate effects of each of these factors.”

So while the research towards the particular influence of role-playing is not immediately conclusive, it does suggest that putting together these factors does create a positive effect. Going beyond traditional methods and utilizing active learning, is beneficial.

Role-play is used in grade school, higher education, nursing school, business settings, reading groups. Personally, I’ve done role-play in english classes acting out literature, which helped all of us in the room to immerse ourselves into the book. 

However, role-playing doesn’t have to be done in larger groups. Indeed it can be done in small groups, pairs, or even alone. I’ve used role-play in a variety of contexts preparing for presentations or important phone calls or interviews. I role-play as if I am giving a presentation to a class when I’m really alone in my room. Or I’ll role-play with a friend to prepare for an interview. It is important to note that more people being involved means more preparation to ensure everyone understands the context.

In conclusion, role-play as a learning strategy can be very valuable. With proper preparation, in proportion to the number of participants involved, the benefits of role-playing include memorability, creative expression, freedom of giving critical feedback, and a deeper understanding of the situation being imagined.

The Importance of Active Peer Learning

In a recent video podcast Susan Hayes Culleton, founder of BeckSearch and Eric Chow, a student in Fremont, California, discussed the importance of active peer learning. How this engaging method of learning has been vital to much of their success, even from the very beginning of life.

Before I boast about the importance of active peer learning, we must begin from a place of understanding exactly what active peer learning is. According to Penn State University, “Peer learning is a form of active, cooperative learning”. It is built off placing the ‘student’ in the role of being a peer teacher, either formally or informally.

Although they primarily describe active peer learning as something which occurs within college-level education, active learning can be created in any setting, from working in the office to working on a building site. The possibilities of active peer learning are endless.

“Don’t shortcut the process to get the right answer”

Susan explains how she has seen and is often responsible for so much “wasted time” when people are sitting back in passive learning environments. During active learning there is constant learning, with every step there is new information and skills to gain. It is in this active audience engagement that we see our first noted importance of this form of learning.

The importance is not the learning output, as Susan explains, it lies in “the process of people peer learning on their own”. When Susan is engaged infacilitating these environments, her mind is focused on considering what “entire learning is happening throughout”, taking the focus away from the output and placing it on each and every learning experience which occurs. Valuing the thought process, the learning how to think, is arguably more important than simply knowing an “answer” because it is that process that allows for future understanding and growth.

“If you don’t risk anything, you risk everything”

As Eric describes his experience with the teaching methods that he has encountered as a student in the U.S. increasing similarities in the teaching methods of Irish schools and universities are highlighted. Lectures stand at the top of a room and speak ‘at’ you, teachers avoid active learning, with the exception of a few examples, these are the experiences of so many students.

If active learning is as brilliant as we say it is, then why hasn’t our education system adopted this active learning model? There are probably many reasons, however, one is that itmight easily all go wrong. These fears are understandable, adopting a new learning style can be difficult, however, as Susan explains “a lot can go wrong by not being creative at all”.

In not allowing students to think and come to conclusions on their own, in just giving answers, whether in an academic or professional context, the supervisor risks stemming creative thought and innovative progress.

Besides, failing is an important part of the process of active learning, not only do facilitators learn to adapt in these situations but it fosters an environment of creativity from everyone involved. Collaboration between facilitator and participants evolves from these situations, therefore even though the difficulties active learning prevails. Sticking only with “what works” is the only surefire way to prevent progress and growth.

“There is no corner of the world where learning cannot take place”

When we think about all of the things we’ve learned, the skills we’ve acquired, the lessons we’ve been taught, the locations vary from a classroom to our living to a tightly packed bus in a bustling city. There is no place in the world where learning, in particular, active learning cannot reach. Susan and Eric both describe the various scenarios and environments where they have participated in and observed active learning at work.

For example, Eric describes his experience with active learning in a problem-solving environment. While working on subjects such as math and science in school, Eric turns to his classmates for the peer to peer support they all needed to help each other through their studies. In their casual group study sessions, knowledge is shared and the brains of many can work together to solve problems efficiently and effectively.

From informal active learning environments such as this to the more formal, week-long active learning programsrun by Susan in companies such as PwC and Davy, we see how active learning can be utilized in such a variety of environments and be of benefit to a variety of people.

It’s more than just the sharing of knowledge

One of the most important and noticeable differences that set active learning apart from passive learning is active learning’s ability to develop many types of skills alongside each other. From social skills such as communication and confidence to technical skills such as learning how to invest in the stock market, active learning allows people to develop in ways they may not even be aware of.

Eric describes howthe active learning process builds confidence in people from his experience in active class discussions where students have the opportunity to share their knowledge. In these situations, people are empowered by the opportunity to share and feel that their knowledge and thoughts are having an impact on others. Eric found that the best ideas in discussions were almost always when someone bounced off of another’s idea. In other words, it was rarely an original thought or someone “sharing their knowledge” that moved the group forward, it was when the group came together that the best insights were made.

Similarly, Susan discusses how she uses the strategy of peer to peer interviews to achieve a level of active learning that is educational for both participants and particularly engaging on many levels, intellectually and interpersonally. This strategy boosts the confidence of participants as they can begin to understand the inner workings of an interview situation. The importance of this activity being carried out in a safe environment means that participants are free to make mistakes, learn and grow from the experience.

Click here to listen to the full podcast over on The Eric Chow Empowers Podcast!

You can also watch a video version of the podcast over on our YouTube channel.

Learn how you can maximize one’s learning with Peer learning!

How To Maximize One’s Learning With Peer Learning

by Eric Chow

A scholarly report in Science Education International, Vol. 25, Issue 1, 2014 by the International Council of Association for Science Education suggested that a combination of theoretical lecture & demonstrations, together with active peer learning is the most effective method of improving engagement and involvement while encouraging understanding of important concepts.

On its own, theoretical lectures can not only become boring, but difficult for students to comprehend if they do not have practical knowledge of it. Active Learning is limited as well, because without an understanding of the theories and ideas, solving problems or understanding them is virtually impossible. Active and Passive Learning complement each other.

Last semester, I was looking forward to taking an Introduction to Sociology course in college. I had always enjoyed Psychology, particularly relating to Social & Behavioral Psychology, and I was told that I would probably enjoy it for that reason. The class bored me. When I wasn’t taking notes, I was often trying to either ignore my hunger, not fall asleep, think about what I had to do later that day, browse news articles or Twitter, or do my Statistics homework. The class just wasn’t all that interesting.

But after class I would carpool home with a good friend of mine. We would often have in-depth discussions about the topics, concepts, and ideas presented in the lecture that I found incredibly fascinating. We would talk through what the ideas were, consider them in the context of various random scenarios in the real world that seemed relevant and realistic. Those conversations really helped me to understand the ideas being presented to us and their importance, but because the class didn’t have that kind of conversation, it just wasn’t interesting. 

The Science Education International report suggested that lecturers can dedicate part of their class period to answering questions and allowing for student discussions, supplementing the lecture portion with Active Peer Learning:

“When students learn that there is a specific place and time for their
questions, comments, and ideas, they feel that their personal contributions
are always welcome. This practice allows some delay from the pondering
moment to the question-and-answer period, and is thus more relaxing for
students. Students also have a chance to interact with each other when
pondering these questions, ideas, or comments, which enhances their
debating and reasoning abilities.”

As a college student taking Multivariable Calculus, I have observed many of my classmates stressed and confused. While they are able to ask questions during lecture, if they get confused on homework and try to ask a question about it, they were denied by the Professor, citing that she didn’t have enough time, and that it would push the class schedule back. Particularly in a challenging course like Multivariable Calculus, asking questions and working together is important for success, but my classmates have been left confused and stressed.

Using a peer learning approach has received positive reports from students:

“Students report that they have experienced peer assistant work as
motivating and an extremely useful change of pace. For the other students,
this practice has been welcome. This means that students have more space
and responsibility in problem solving and reasoning through the exercise
sessions, which also motivates students to get good grades.”

Harvard Physics professor Eric Mazur developed a method of peer instruction that is now widely used, where he provides “short breaks in a lecture” where students are given time to formulate answers to conceptual questions and then discuss them with each other. 

Mazur states that, “[t]his process a) forces the students to think through the arguments being developed, and b) provides them (as well as the teacher) with a way to assess their understanding of the concept.”

My Professor in my Introduction to C++ Programming class does this well. In the middle of the lecture, he will give us a 10-minute break to relax, encouraging us to work through a problem or program that relates to what he was teaching. He also ends the class by giving us another problem or program to work through. This allows us students to apply the concept, ask him questions during the break, and then move forward. He also commonly uses the transition “any questions before we move forward” effectively inviting them.

A report from Stanford University stated: “[Peer learning] gives [students] considerably more practice than traditional teaching and learning methods in taking responsibility for their own learning and, more generally, learning how to learn. It is not a substitute for teaching and activities designed and conducted by staff members, but an important addition to the repertoire of teaching and learning activities that can enhance the quality of education.”

When in high school, I had a lot of study sessions with friends for math, Physics, essays, and more. I found that not only did those sessions teach us the concepts, but they also allowed us to learn how to work through problems. Especially if none of us actually understood the concept, we couldn’t just ask each other how to do it. We had to figure it out together, and building that ability was instrumental in our academic success. Moreover, it is a skill that applies to any problem or challenge that occurs in any area of life.


Final Word

The main points of this post are as follows:

  • Peer learning, any kind of learning that is beyond traditional instruction such as lecture, that is done between peers is a valuable asset to the learning process
  • Peer learning is by definition and by structure, active learning
  • When active peer learning & passive traditional learning are used in combination, it maximizes student understanding and involvement in their learning
  • Collaborative discussion or work allows for bouncing ideas off of each other that leads to greater insights 
  • Peer tutoring allows for personalized and friendlier instruction, where a tutor can answer questions and clarify concerns or questions
  • Peer tutoring isn’t just valuable for the one being tutored, it also helps the tutor better understand material 

My first experience of peer learning

by Eric Chow

In high school, I relied heavily on peer learning for my academic success. I would actually argue it was vital to my academic success as a nearly straight A student for four years (I got 2 B’s).

I would often do math or Physics homework alongside friends in a collaborative context. I found having them around motivated me to keep working, rather than putting off and procrastinating on assignments. Of course, peer learning also helped me to learn and understand the material at a far higher level. 

When it came to more creative and brainstorming contexts, rather than problem-solving, such as for essays, debates, and discussions in classes like AP English, I noticed that the most insightful ideas often came when a student bounced their thoughts off of another person. 

What Is Peer Learning?

Peer learning involves working in groups or pairs to discuss and solve problems or ideas, allowing students to actively engage with material. In other words, peer learning is by definition and by structure, active learning.

Side note: There is plenty of research and support for the idea that students retain far more information when they are actively learning, rather than passively consuming, evidence that I will not go into in this post. While it is an important idea, it is not necessary for the points made in this article.

Westchester University defines Peer Learning as “when students are learning from each other” and draws a distinction between collaborative and peer learning. Collaborative learning is where “students are learning alongside each other” whereas peer learning “allows students to learn from one another.”

Westchester also defines Active Learning as putting “engaging students in activities that promote higher-order thinking, such as discussing, debating, writing, and creating” and “any type of instructional strategy that goes beyond the traditional lecture and requiring students to memorize information.” 

Note that discussions and debates require multiple people, suggesting peer learning, while writing and creating are often done not just for oneself to look at, but for others. As a result, this definition of Active Learning implies the use of peers.

The distinction between collaborative and peer learning is a careful one made by the University, although it seems to be one of mere diction. In fact, the University of Tennessee Knoxville, argues that it doesn’t really matter and that the terms can be used interchangeably. Nevertheless, this definition of peer learning involves peers participating and engaging in activities like discussing, debating, presenting, teaching, etc. Collaborative learning as well, or any sort of group work, is also by definition, active. 

When I collaborated with my friends on my work, I found three general scenarios occurred. First, I would understand a concept better than my friends, and would be given an opportunity to explain. They would then ask questions to clarify their confusion, and then would work through problems themselves before checking with me. In asking questions and challenging me, they were getting personalized clarification. As the “teacher” however, I was also benefiting by being challenged to understand the material well enough to explain it! Therefore, I also gained greater understanding.

Second, I would be the person confused, giving my friends the opportunity to take the teacher-like role of explaining to me. Finally, neither of us would understand the topic, but by discussing it together and bouncing off of each other’s ideas, we would come to insightful conclusions that enhanced both of our knowledge. In many discussions, both in small groups and in full class discussions, I noticed that the best ideas were often the ones that added onto thoughts previously shared.

I found that all three scenarios often occurred in my work sessions. This active style of learning, switching from a sort of “peer-tutoring” model to a “peer-collaboration” model to “peer discussions” falling under the larger umbrella of “peer-learning” demanded participation by all parties, and was mutually beneficial. 

Researchers from the University of Ulster identified 10 different models of peer learning. This included models like “senior student tutor junior ones, […] students in the same year forming partnerships to assist each other with both course content and personal concerns. Other models involved discussion seminars, private study groups” and so on.

A report from Stanford University, which cited the above research at Ulster, stated that 

“Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and
by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers.
They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities,
working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback
and evaluating their own learning.”

It’s as I stated earlier – I learned as I taught, and as it turns out, my experience is backed by research. Peer learning has tremendous benefits when it comes to one’s ability to not only understand ideas, but also to think through them and build critical thinking ability. Plus, anyone that has ever had experience teaching knows that teaching and explaining a concept is a totally different level of understanding than simply being able to know or apply said concept. Building the skill of teaching is powerful for that reason, but also because, as the Stanford report stated, builds skills in planning & collaboration & evaluation.