Civil wars and enlightened eras: Role-playing through it all

Civil wars and enlightened eras: Role-playing through it all

Engaging students through role-play


A break from listening to a professor lecture, a fun incentive to participate and the ability to forge connections between a course’s subject matter and students’ real-life experience are only a few advantages of experiential learning. Having recently implemented role-playing into her lesson plans, Assistant Professor of History Nicole Bauer is a firm believer in the benefits of changing things up in the classroom: “When thoughtfully incorporated, role-playing can create a more relaxed environment where students are having so much fun they forget that they’re learning.”

Enlightened bounty hunters

Nicole Bauer
Nicole Bauer

One of the courses in which Bauer is deploying role-playing this semester is HIST 3343: The French Revolution. During one recent class, Bauer herself played the Star Wars character Boba Fett. Meanwhile, her students adopted the role of French Enlightenment writer Voltaire and answered Fett’s (Bauer’s) questions about philosophical and political concepts central to the era. This, in turn, allowed Bauer and her students to teach one another the key takeaways from the assigned readings that week. “Sometimes I even have students play different characters without revealing their identities,” Bauer noted. “Based on the way they answer questions, their classmates try to guess who they are.”

While Bauer often schedules role-playing into her course syllabi, sometimes opportunities for a bit of classroom theater emerge spontaneously: “It’s dependent on the mood of the students, but at times I might start an impromptu improv, so to speak.” In cases like these, Bauer and her students will play different characters from the day’s readings, the time period under scrutiny or even contemporary pop culture in order to better engage with the topics at hand.

Sometimes, Bauer remarked, the back-and-forth banter leads to entertaining conversations too enriching to cut short, so the exercises can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. “In moments like these, even making mistakes can prove to be a valuable lesson for everyone involved,” she said.

Creativity unbound

Carson Bowels is a freshman who, in addition to taking Bauer’s Honors Enlightenment course this spring, is also in her HIST-2403: Modern Europe course where students discuss events that shaped Western Europe. One activity that Bowels took part in recently was a discussion on the practice of torture. The class attempted to explain to Boba Fett why certain tactics worked more effectively than others in the context of the Spanish Civil War. “It made class special, and it made what I was learning come to life in my mind,” Bowels said; “I think the classes in which we engage in role-play learning are the best and most fun classes of the entire semester.”

While role-playing might seem a bit intimidating at first, Bauer reported that she and her students try not to take themselves too seriously. “We’re all there to learn, myself included,” she commented, “and I’ve noticed that many students perk up and become more engaged than during a traditional lecture or classroom discussion.”

Even more timid students eventually succumb to the enjoyment found in breaking away from routine. “The key is to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves and to include as many participants as possible,” said Bauer, “and to compel students to tap into their creative side.”

Interested in learning about history in fun and meaningful ways? Check out TU’s history program!