Use Role Play to Increase Student Engagement in Online Discussions

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As faculty, we are always trying to both stimulate student engagement and assess learning. One method for increasing student engagement that has been gaining in popularity is engaging students in role play activities. These activities can vary in scale from large, multi-day events (such as Reacting to the Past) to smaller activities contained within one class meeting (Carnes, 2014). Research on role play activities in face to face classes does find that they lead to significantly better exam performance when compared to traditional teacher-led discussions (McCarthy & Anderson, 1997). In addition, students report that these activities are more engaging and help them to better understand course material (Carnes, 2014; Stevens, 2015). When making the transition from in person to online teaching, it can be challenging for instructors to translate these in person activities to the online format. However, it is well worth the challenge, because role play discussions do encourage the students to engage with the material at a higher level than simply responding to specific discussion prompts (Darabi, Arrastia, Nelson, Cornille, & Liang, 2010).

As an instructor of a large section of an online undergraduate Abnormal Psychology class, Dr. Waesche’s goal was to find a way to realistically transfer the role play experience to the online environment. The first step was putting the students in small groups (12-14 students per group). This allowed for more manageable group interactions and reduced the number of roles that must be created, as each group contained the same roles. For this class, Dr. Waesche was able to create roles for the students utilizing relevant historical figures, clients experiencing a mental illness, and therapists from various theoretical perspectives who would provide treatment for mental illness. In other courses, similar approaches could apply, such as the use of historical figures or roles relevant to various theories.

Link to example artifact(s)

In Dr. Waesche’s Abnormal Psychology course, the first two modules cover foundational information and do not contain any discussion of specific disorders. Therefore, in these two modules, students were asked to take on the role of a famous person from the history of Psychology and discuss a topic from that person’s perspective. Historical figures for these modules included Hippocrates, Aaron Beck, Sigmund Freud, and B.F. Skinner. The groups discussed topics such as causes of mental illness and the merits of the current DSM-5 classification system. Role Play Discussion Example 1 shows the assignment instructions given in one of these modules. As noted in the instructions, she additionally made a discussion post for each small group giving them their role assignments.

The next four modules of the course cover various disorders. In each of these modules students were assigned to portray either an individual with a mental illness being covered during that module or a therapist from a particular theoretical orientation. Students who were assigned to portray a client with a mental illness had the option to create their own persona or use a provided case example. Students who were assigned to portray a clinician were given a theoretical orientation (i.e. behavioral therapist, family therapist, psychiatrist) and then could create their own persona or take on the role of a specific person from that orientation. In these discussion groups, clients were to discuss their symptoms and seek advice about treatment options and clinicians were to suggest treatment options and ask additional questions of the clients. In order to allow the students to explore the material more broadly, roles were rotated for each module. Role Play Discussion Example 2 shows the assignment instructions as provided in one of these modules.

During the final course module, instead of a discussion group, students were asked to write a reflection paper discussing what they learned from these discussion groups. Specific questions were given for students to address in their papers, including how it felt to take the role of a client and whether or not the assignment helped them to learn the material. This is an important conclusion to the role play assignment, allowing the students the opportunity to reflect on the experience and what they have learned from it. Role Play Discussion Example 3 shows the instructions given for this paper.

Sample Discussion 1

Sample Discussion 2

Sample Discussion 3

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Carnes, M. C. (2014). Minds on fire: How role-immersion games transform college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Darabi, A., Arrastia, M.C., Nelson, D.W., Cornille, T., & Liang, X. (2010). Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning: A comparison of four discussion strategies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 216-227.

McCarthy, J. P., & Anderson, L. (1997). Active learning techniques versus traditional teaching styles: Two experiments from history and political science. Innovative Higher Education, 24, 279-294.

Stevens, R. (2015). Role-play and student engagement: Reflections from the classroom. Teaching in Higher Education, 20, 481-492.


Waesche, J. (2017). Use role play to increase student engagement in online discussions. In B. Chen, A. deNoyelles, & A. Albrecht (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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