Using role-playing games to teach science

Paul Francis


Anybody who has done a course at a corporate training centre will have been struck by the dramatic contrast between their teaching methods, and those generally employed in undergraduate science lectures. In most undergraduate lectures, the teacher stands at the front presenting a stream of information, which the students copy down. Occasional questions are asked, but the students are essentially passive throughout. In corporate training centres, most classroom time is devoted to roleplaying simulations, business games and discussion sessions. Students are active throughout, and speak for more of the time than their teachers.

Why do corporations spend big money on such unorthodox teaching methods? Abundant research shows that students taught in conventional lectures, even those who perform very well in conventional assessment, are often quite unable to apply their knowledge effectively in real-world situations (e.g. Ramsden, 1992). Conventionally taught students tend to rote-learn; they fail to integrate their new knowledge into their prior assumptions, and they rarely think through the implications of what they learn (e.g. Mazur, 1997).

In this paper, I describe my attempts to adapt one of these corporate teaching techniques, roleplaying exercises, to undergraduate science lectures. These techniques are occasionally used in academic disciplines such as law and environmental management. In a typical exercise, students will play the roles of competing parties in some dispute, and will learn about different points of view and mediation. Role-playing exercises have not previously, however, been widely used to teach mainstream science: it’s a bit hard to have competing positions on the solubility of nitrogen, or to mediate between different views on the third law of thermodynamics …

All scientists know that research is an exciting, sociable, chaotic and deeply human enterprise. This is not how our undergraduate students perceive it. Surveys (e.g. Loss and Zadnik, 1994) show that most students think that science consists of endless dull laws and facts, brought down from the mountain on stone tablets for them to memorise in solitude. My goal was to expose students, even in first year, to the real experience of being a research scientist.

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