How role plays help learning in real time


Role plays can be powerful learning tools as they engage the participants and sustain their interest

After spending a decade and a half in the learning profession, I continue to be amused with the difference that I observe in participants who attend a technical training and a soft skills session. In the former, there is often rapt attention seen at the start (missing only in those who come in with a hostage mentality).  In case of a soft skills session, on the contrary, the attitude is mostly that of, “Oh, I know it”. 

From a learning stages perspective, participants at technical trainings are ‘consciously incompetent’ while at the soft skills sessions they are ‘unconsciously incompetent’. A good behavioural trainer is quite adept at moving the participants from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence as quickly as possible, since without the awareness and acceptance that one does not know, no learning can happen. Various experiential learning techniques like simulations, games and outbound activities support this move/ shift. Role play is one such experiential tool used widely in learning sessions.

Adults and Experiential learning

A lot of research is done on ‘andragogy’, the art and science of making adults learn. A key point to be kept in mind is that an adult learner who enters the classroom is often not seeking learning, but rather looking for solutions—to current problems or future growth.

The solutions often lie not in knowledge but in insights, which knowledge can create. Knowing that one needs to listen effectively is knowledge.  But the fact that one does not listen well while under stress is an insight that only an experiential activity can trigger. An effective trainer structures the session in such a way, that there is ample scope to create those insights, by incorporating experiential learning into it.

A few years back, on running a business simulation with a group of senior executives we found one of the groups incurring losses year after year, which spoke volumes about their decision-making skills and business acumen, and opened them up to learning. In the absence of simulation, it would have been difficult to achieve this.

Experiential learning effectively addresses many of the requirements of adult learners, according to American educator, Malcolm Knowles, who is known for the assumptions he made about the characteristics of adult learners. Key amongst them is the role of the learners’ experience, wherein, the learners are able to abundantly draw upon their knowledge and experience and feel valued in the process.

So, does it mean that experiential learning has no role to play in technical training? Not really!! The focus of technical training, as with any other training, is transfer of learning to the workplace, which is often an area of concern. Sensitising participants to the challenges of implementation through experiential activities can go a long way in facilitating learning transfer.

Role plays in learning: Key utilities 

Role play is a powerful experiential activity used in training. It provides a safe environment to encounter different scenarios, giving the team members an opportunity to build their confidence and  perform better in their day to day roles.

Some of the key uses of role plays are as follows:

  • They trigger self-awareness about one’s behaviour, style and attitude. 
  • They spread awareness about the challenges posed by real life situations and ways of facing them.
  • They help understand others’ perspective and enhance empathy.
  • They teach one to handle conflicts.
  • They are a way to practise the skills learnt. 

Various kinds of role plays are used in different contexts – from psychodramas used in therapy, to theatre where the purpose is pure entertainment. Role plays used in training sessions fall somewhere in between, where the objective is to create insights and drive learning.

Role play creation 

Before creating a role play, one needs to ascertain whether role play is, in fact, the right tool. For example, with various intrapersonal skills, role play is often not the best tool. Understanding the exact challenges of the participant group and creating role plays, which reflect the same is essential. While the role play needs to be as close to reality as possible, for the participants to be able to relate to it,  care needs to be taken to camouflage it so that participants do not get entangled in details and lose their objectivity. For example, while the challenge remains the same, the name of the organisation or the industry could be different.

Role play execution

A well created, but ill-executed role play will have no impact. A role play typically has a protagonist and one or two more players. Learning happens when players participate spontaneously. To make this happen, briefs need to be given to them separately so that none of them have a grasp of the complete situation.

In many cases, volunteers are invited to play the roles while the rest of the group watches. However, there is vicarious involvement of everyone and learning is derived during the debriefing. There are also cases, for example, when the focus is skill building, the entire group goes through it by splitting up into smaller groups. In this case, there needs to be an observer, usually an extra participant.

While role play may feel like an artificial situation, the players reveal a lot through their words, tone and body language. For example, fear while dealing with an angry customer, frustration with an argumentative peer, stress due to overload and many such feelings find expression and the observer needs to closely watch these aspects.


The success of the role play depends on the effectiveness of debriefing. While the actual role play might be over in 5 minutes, debriefing can go on for much longer. The debrief needs to focus on the protagonist and care needs to be taken to ensure that he/she does not feel cornered. The best way would be to ask the person to share his / her experiences and feelings. Often, it becomes an ‘aha’ moment not just for the role player but for everyone else. That is when the shift from ‘the problem is out there’ to ‘the solution is right here’ takes place. 

The trainer then needs to weave all the learning into a consolidated story and move the group forward with the statement ‘What can each one do differently?’ and translate them into action plans.


With no props or material aids, role play is a fairly easy tool to organise. However, considering the emotions that can get triggered, it requires a seasoned professional to facilitate the same. When used well it not only makes the session interesting and engaging for participants, but also results in powerful learning.

(The author is ?Head – L&D – Commercial Vehicle Business, International Business & Global Leadership at Tata Motors Ltd).



  1. Hello Mam,

    Came across our article on role plays. Well, it’s an interesting one. Always thought on the part where role play is a methodology which can be used to bring out learning. Never thought whether role play can be used in all situations or to a specific learning outcomes based on the learning objective. I have recently done a transit from process training to behavioral training. Would request you to guide me on the debriefing. As you mentioned debriefing is the most imperative part after role play. What kind of questions to be asked to the participants and how to link it to the learning?

    Mukesh Kureel

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