Assessing students through online role-playing

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In this post, Dr Ellie Devenish-Nelson, a Teaching Fellow for the MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health, based in the Biomedical Teaching Organisation, describes how she implemented an authentic assessment in her online MSc course using role-play scenarios…

Designing authentic assessments, such as role-playing, is central to promoting deep learning, student engagement, and providing learners with experience of real-world application (Sambell et al. 2008). Role-playing can be used to directly link learning to a students’ real life experience, while also being a safe space to explore challenging opinions (Oberle 2004). The teaching team for the online MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health view assessments as a journey that students take over their three years on the programme. Our ethos is that assessments build competencies, attributes and confidence, as well as promote a sense of community (Ogle 2018). Across the programme, we strive to provide a broad range of pedagogically and professionally appropriate assessments.

One method that I have successfully implemented in my online teaching for this MSc is the use of role-playing scenarios, based on my own experiences of finding these activities valuable when I was a student.

How does it work?

My first attempt at role-plays, in a previous teaching position, was to assign opposing debating positions during synchronous online classes. This generated positive student feedback and, after taking up my teaching position at The University of Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to develop my ideas for role-playing assessment on a course on that I took over coordinating. Here, for an assessed discussion board, I assign each student a different role for a debate about the sustainable use of a national park, including local communities, government officials and park managers. They have to build consensus about how each stakeholder group should utilise the park. For many, this type of assignment may be a new experience, so I provide plenty of guidance to account for the potential unease of unfamiliar assessment types (Hounsell et al. 2008).

Each student posts an initial thread outlining their stakeholder position and putting forward their proposals for sustainable management of the protected area, based on what would be expected for their role, and with support from the literature. They then have to reply to at least two posts, remaining in their assigned stakeholder role. We encourage them to question each other and reach compromises with the other stakeholders in these posts. I’ve read some quite heated but constructive discussions between opposing stakeholders, which I think/hope prompts them to reflect on the importance of participation by all stakeholders in conservation decision-making.

What do the students think?

Student feedback has overwhelmingly been that they appreciate the challenge of being made to think outside their comfort zone. Unlike for certain other types of assessments (Hounsell et al. 2008), the students didn’t tend to question the motivation or purpose of this assessment task, but many did need reassurance and guidance. I have found that students who are assigned the perceived ‘challenging’ stakeholders, such as local community members or those against the sustainable use of the park, need plenty of encouragement and direction. The second time I ran this assessment, I took a more ‘anticipatory’ approach (Hounsell et al. 2008), by providing more explanation in the instructions, which did reduce the number of questions as well as improve the quality of the posts for these particular ‘problem’ stakeholders.

Providing feedback

A challenge for the tutor with this type of assignment is to ensure that feedback and marks are awarded fairly, given that certain roles are more demanding than others. As with all our online discussion boards for the MSc, we place substantial weight on the level of participation and the depth of involvement. Our marking criteria focus on whether individual contributions are part of continued interactions and lead to furthering discussions, whilst keeping within the general theme of the discussion, supported by relevant sources and demonstrating professional levels of communication. Here, these criteria allow us to award marks for posting appropriately to their assigned role and engaging thoughtfully with other stakeholders. We tend to find that those students who fully embrace their role often score highly, regardless of the difficulty of their assigned stakeholder position.

The value of innovation

Designing a portfolio of assignments that includes innovative assessment methods, including role-playing, promotes an inclusive learning environment that benefits students with a range of learning styles. Role-playing exercises, such as the one presented here, demonstrate the ability to put into practice authentic assessment to promote active learning (Oberle, 2004) and, in our students, has been shown to promote a dynamic, student-centred learning environment.


Hounsell, D., McCune, V., Hounsell, J. and Litjens, J., 2008. The quality of guidance and feedback to students. Higher Education Research & Development, 27(1), pp.55-67.

Oberle, A.P., 2004. Understanding public land management through role-playing. Journal of Geography, 103(5), pp.199-210.

Ogle, S. 2018. Assessment: what is it for?  Accessed 7th May 2019.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L. and Montgomery, C., 2012. Assessment for learning in higher education. Routledge.

Ellie Devenish-Nelson

Dr Ellie Devenish-Nelson is a Teaching Fellow for the MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health, based in the Biomedical Teaching Organisation. Before joining Edinburgh, she was a visiting Lecturer and Research Associate at the University of Chester, while also teaching online for the University of the West Indies MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Caribbean. Her research interests focus on tropical ecology and wildlife conservation, particularly on islands.

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