Role-play exercises add experiential education component to leadership course

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Undaunted by the pandemic, after reshaping her course to include role-playing exercises, an intrepid Faculty of Health professor took up the challenge offered by remote learning and took students into a virtual role-playing learning experience with stellar results.

By Elaine Smith

Lynda van Dreumel
Lynda van Dreumel

Lynda Van Dreumel spent hours reshaping her traditional Healthcare Leadership course into a blended course that included experiential education (EE) role-playing exercises – and then, the pandemic struck, requiring remote course delivery.

Van Dreumel, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health, decided that the fourth-year class would simply do the role-playing exercises online, and the plan worked beautifully. Students took to Zoom for synchronous role-playing scenarios for each of the course’s five modules. They simulated scenarios that included COVID-19 masking policies, drinking water on First Nations reserves and development of Ontario Health Teams.

“This was an opportunity to model the leadership attributes of resiliency, adaptability and creativity for my students,” said Van Dreumel.

“I was pleasantly surprised how well the online environment enables effective role playing. Students met the challenge by creatively constructing role play environments in their Zoom rooms. They found that sitting in their own safe environment made them more comfortable. They could also use different Zoom backgrounds that simulated an office or a clinic and use props to signal their characters.”

Although it is an elective, the leadership course is recommended for anyone doing a practicum, because it prepares students for management and leadership issues they will encounter on the job. They learn management theory and translate it into practice using the role-playing scenarios that allow them to try different approaches and reflect upon what worked and what didn’t.

“Students could make a meaningful connection between learning and their own personal development through reflection,” Van Dreumel said. “That’s a critical part of EE.

“Empathy, too, is such an important skill, and you need to be able to get into someone else’s shoes to see how they experience the world. Role playing gives the students regular real-time practice in empathy.”

The course consists of five modules and teams of students enact five related scenarios, then discuss their experiences during a debrief session. First, however, they do a self-evaluation to determine what type of leaders they are and where they need to improve their own emotional intelligence (EI). They use that assessment to inform the characters that they are given to play in each scenario and they all observe how their actions play out.

Five Faculty of Health students working in a team engage in an online challenge related to COVID-19 masking policies as part of the course. Image: L. van Dreumel. Used with permission
Five Faculty of Health students working in a team engage in an online challenge related to COVID-19 masking policies as part of the course. Image: L. Van Dreumel. Used with permission

“There are opportunities to redo the scenario in case it doesn’t go well,” said Aija-Simone White, a fourth-year honours student in health studies. “You can run it again and try a different approach. It’s a safe space to explore different approaches. You can think about what would happen if Charlie did X and play the scenario that way; you can see how the concepts play out.

“Role playing makes you realize the complexities of a role and the different dynamics of each team. It has me thinking all the time; it has my mind going.”

Priyansh Thapa, a graduating health studies graduate from India, took the course online last year and is grateful for the insights he gained.

“The emotional intelligence assessment allowed me to reflect on the things I needed to work on,” he said, “and getting the chance to play roles made me really feel like a clinic manager or a cleaner in a hospital. It’s important to understand how others feel when you work on a team; you need to understand the other roles, too.”

Van Dreumel sees a real benefit to role playing enacted online and is considering conducting some of the scenarios remotely when students are back on campus.

“It’s a trade-off,” she said. “The level of discussion and engagement is higher in person, but you can’t suspend disbelief, the way you can do with remote role playing.

“Overall, we were able to weave a meaningful role-play experience where students could engage in role play as an EE activity from the comfort of their own home.”