Using Role Playing to Keep Students Engaged

As courses have moved swiftly online, many faculty wonder about various ways to keep their students engaged remotely. We’ve invited Amy Curry, chair of history at Lone Star College, Montgomery, to share her experiences with using a role-playing pedagogy, Reacting to the Past, in her history survey courses.

Image Credit: Nikky Lawell

You’ve been using role playing in your classroom for many years—can you tell me about that? What drew you to it, and how have your students responded?

I started using role playing in my classes because I noticed that students were falling asleep even when I was lecturing the material I am most passionate about. My husband is a very engaging lecturer, so I know the good stuff when I see it. And I came to the realization that I wasn’t capable of delivering the good stuff day after day. So, I went looking for other ways to engage my students. My oldest child was just coming into his teen years and getting into video games like Assassin’s Creed. He was obsessed not just with playing the games but with the context of the games. I thought maybe the video games were onto something. After a semester of trying to play Civilization V in a world history class, I knew I hadn’t quite hit the mark.

A colleague, Betsy Powers, was similarly struggling, and through Google, she hit on Reacting to the Past (RTTP). We knew we’d found our solution. I was drawn to the way the pedagogy incorporated gaming (and, therefore, “fun”) without sacrificing the essence of what historians do: reading and analyzing primary sources, exploring the content and context, and then grappling with the big whys and hows. I think students are initially skeptical. Most are torn between “this can’t be a serious class if we are playing a game” and “can’t you just tell me what happened and then ask me to repeat it on a test?” But most students who play the games end up loving the experience, and come to realize you can play hard and work hard. Those aren’t mutually exclusive in the classroom. 

Describe how role playing fits into your course. Did anything have to go? How do you ensure students get a broad introduction to the content in addition to a deeper dive into a particular moment?

I teach western civ (live) and world civ (online) surveys with RTTP fully incorporated into the rhythm of the classes. Normally I use three full games over the course of a semester. For example, in my world civ course, I start with a game on Han China, then students play a game on the Mongols, and we conclude with a game on the plague. I still lecture between the games to get us from one point to the next, but some of the nitty-gritty detail has been cut out. I tell the students up front that they have to work through the assigned textbook on their own, and I assign Norton’s adaptive learning tool, InQuizitive, each week to make sure they are covering the material that I am not covering in class. I sometimes feel bad that, for example, Napoleon gets short shrift because we are rushing from the French Revolution to the 1850s cholera outbreak in London. But a student who craves more about Napoleon will be motivated to go research him anyway—especially after internalizing the kind of deep engagement with historical figures, ideas, and problems that Reacting to the Past games often promote.  

I don’t give exams, so the students are not suffering in their grades by my not lecturing the material. As we lead up to each game we work on reading and annotating skills, and I use brief writing exercises to work on the content.  After each game, students have to write a self and peer evaluation as well as an analytical paper about issues from the game. So, the assessments more closely resemble the real work of historians than the content regurgitation of traditional survey students.

With the sudden shift to online teaching this past spring, how did you adapt?

As department chair, I was only teaching one live class last spring. We had just finished playing the French Revolution game, had gone on spring break, and then the college pulled the plug. We were already using a free online messaging tool, Slack, for some out-of-classroom conversations and strategy, so I was lucky that we already had that discussion platform set up.

There are two main advantages to using a tool like Slack (popular alternatives are Teams or Discord). First, students can easily collaborate in smaller groups—meaning it allows for factions to strategize before making their arguments. I set up a Slack “channel” for each faction of students to collaborate, plus an open forum for the entire class, and I put myself in every channel so I can track engagement. Second, in some platforms students can change their names and profile pictures to the name and image of the character they are portraying, making for an immersive experience. 

That said, trying to get the students to switch to an asynchronous mentality was difficult. We still played games on the cholera pandemic and Yalta Conference through Slack, but all agreed it would be better to mix asynchronous communication via Slack with some live engagement via Zoom. I did not have the same issues with my world civ class, which was already fully online and engaging in this way. They didn’t miss a beat.

What advice or tools would you share with fellow instructors to make their online teaching more engaging, even if they aren’t adopting a role-playing game like Reacting to the Past? 

I use InQuizitive assignments and author videos through Norton in all my online classes. Because InQuizitive uses adaptive learning technology, it feels a little bit like playing a game as they answer the questions. They can also access the textbook as they move through the questions. So the overall experience models what I am doing with RTTP—answering questions on your toes while having the sources at hand as backup. I use the author videos because I’ve had several students tell me they learn better by watching material than reading it. Thus, I try to include the content in as many different ways as possible. While Crash Course isn’t necessarily pitched to college students, the content they are covering is accurate and can make broad topics seem digestible. Debates remain a great way for instructors to engage students on historical topics without sacrificing weeks of class time to an RTTP game and trying to pull it off online. In fact, the RTTP games are a great place to start searching for topics to use as stand-alone debates.  LMSs are famously clunky, so if an instructor has access to Slack or Teams, both of these workspaces are great for engaging in debates and discussions that are better suited to a longer time frame to allow the debate to play out. What I especially like about Slack and Teams is that students can upload videos instead of typing their input.

What would you tell someone who has considered trying role playing, but is nervous about giving it a go, especially in an online environment?

Pre-Covid, I think online students wanted to get online, see the assignment, do the assignment, and then log off. But at the moment, we have so many online students who don’t want to be online, and they want a class that feels more like a pre-Covid live class. I think most students would appreciate honesty from their instructor. “Look, I want to try this RTTP gaming thing. If it works, we will do more. If it doesn’t, I’ll go back to lecturing and you can take notes and tests.” In fact, this is the perfect time to try new things because most of us are in a mindset of thinking nothing is normal anyway. But honesty and flexibility are key for success. The instructor has to put in the work on the front end to get everything set up, get it explained (videos help), and get the materials to the students. After that, the instructor can sit back and watch the magic. Be flexible in adding days if the students are struggling to get it. So many of us say even a bad Reacting day is better than a good lecture. But in my experience, bad Reacting days are pretty rare.

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