Role Playing as a Teaching Tool in Wildlife Curricula
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2000
Jerry C. Haigh, BVMS, MSc, FRCVS, DACZM
Department of Herd Medicine and Theriogenology, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, SK, Canada


During 5 years of courses role-playing was used as a method of teaching in the second-year exotic animal module of the veterinary curriculum at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Subjects were topical, controversial, relevant to the broad field of zoological medicine, and interesting, at least to me. The specific subjects discussed were: wolf (Canis lupus) translocation from Canada to the United States, endangered species breeding, wildlife contraception, and the occurrence of bovine tuberculosis (Tb) in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Michigan.

The students were urged and guided to develop positions and debate them in “town hall” environments. The objectives of teaching by this method were to broaden understanding of the issues involved, to increase the learning achieved by students, and to create an enjoyable experience for all concerned.

There has always been a need to engender interest among students in what they are learning. The didactic lecture is undoubtedly the most common method of information transfer, especially to large classes in which attention to individual students may be impractical, but used alone it cannot easily help to change a student’s attitude or behavior.1

Role-playing is one method, which requires students to take an active role in their learning. It is “a representation of a real-world event in a reduced and compressed form that is dynamic, safe, and efficient.”4 Other methods include self-directed learning, problem-based learning, group research and reporting, laboratory exercises, and simulations.

There were approximately seventy students in each class, and the time during which students presented their material “in role” in “town hall” or “public enquiry” was set at 2 hours.

At the beginning of each course, the intent to use role-playing was flagged. Two to three weeks later the actual “town hall” took place. For instance, the wolf topic was advertized as “Should further wolf translocations from Canada to the United States be permitted?” The deer topic title was “Managing Michigan’s white-tailed deer into the new millennium.”

In each case, on the first occasion, the students were asked to consider and call out all of the issues that might be involved, and then name any stakeholders concerned with these issues. Because I was responsible for teaching veterinary students it was necessary to ensure that some issues and stakeholders be mentioned if the students did not identify them. In each case there were one or two topics that had to be planted. For instance, students had to be informed that the US Endangered Species Act was a critical component of the nexus in wolf translocation. I found myself playing the part of the director of an unscripted drama.

Students were encouraged to source information from any source and came in many forms, including relevant home pages on the internet, books, proceedings of meetings, reports, scientific articles, videotapes, and of vital importance, the names of individuals who were willing to act as further resource providers.

A group of persons not known to the students who had been given some background by the instructor, was chosen to act out the roles as members of a government appointed commission to which the members of the public participating in the “town hall” would put their positions.

The environment in which the actual drama took place was changed from the formal classroom setting of a large lecture hall. The intent was to change to room dynamics so that students might be able to suspend disbelief and temporarily accept that they were in a “town hall” or other similar environment. When possible the sessions were held in a room with which the students were not familiar. A dummy microphone was placed at a lectern, and a dummy television camera, operated by an assistant, was brought into the room for a brief period near the start of the session.

The conduct of the “town halls” involved short presentations by leaders of each stake holding group, limited to 5 minutes at most. The majority of the time allotted was a question-and-answer period, run by the chair, in which panel members had a first round, followed by anyone in the town hall.

The majority of students entered into the spirit of the event, and many arrived in costume. We had students dress up as power-suited politicians, Stetson-hatted ranchers, red-coated hunters, bib-overall dairy farmers, hippie look-alike “greenies,” and others as took the students’ fancies. Many of these were somewhat “over the top” and stereotypic. They caused some ribald comments and a good deal of laughter. There were “pickets” and placard carrying citizens concerned about the habit of wolves to eat sheep and cattle in preference to wildlife species and the potential of tuberculosis deer to infect their children. A group of radical hunters wanted to eliminate all the exotic animals (meaning cattle, sheep, and goats) from the State of Michigan. One student almost stole the show with a depiction of a super market tabloid reporter. Her banner headline read “my dying baby caught tb from sick deer.”

Questions that might not be asked by students were prepared and planted with panel members in order to ensure that issues that I considered important came to the attention of the students.

For about 5 minutes at the end of each “town hall” a debriefing session was held. The complexity of the material was emphasized, and students were asked to think about what they had learned. If any student had been exposed to ridicule, or performed poorly I tried to ensure that everyone was reminded that this had not been a real event. Finally, all participants, including the students, were thanked for their involvement.

Feedback was obtained from students in a subjective questionnaire and via the objective use of a Likert scale.

Subjectively was a preponderance of approval and enthusiasm for this method of instruction. Written surveys to evaluate the teaching method were provided at the time of course examination, and allotted a 10-minute time slot. Participation in the survey, at any level, earned 1% of the total class mark. The most common response to the non-numeric question as to what was learned during these sessions that might have been missed in a didactic classroom setting can be summarized as “The intensity of the emotional components and the variety of issues.” Forty-nine and 51 students (total 71%) in the two translocation and all 65 (100%) of those in the Tb exercises made responses of this nature. Eight students commented that they enjoyed being asked to think, three students considered that they learned nothing extra in the translocation classes, and one student stated that she learned that her class had some talented and creative people in it.

On the Likert scale, for example, in response to the statement “Didactic lectures would have been as valuable” the mean score, on a scale of 1–7 (strong disagreement to strong agreement), was 2.3. On the same scale “The role-playing exercise was a waste of time” was scored at 1.9, and “Role playing was an enjoyable learning experience” was scored at 6.3.

A major disadvantage was that the exercise took up substantially more time than would have been devoted to the topic had it been taught in a didactic manner. Group preparation work averaged 7.5 hours per topic, and individuals spent an average of an extra 4.4 hours devoted to information gathering.

However, I believe that the judicious use of role-playing as a method of teaching can be applied in many situations beyond the veterinary curriculum. Students of all ages, and many disciplines, can derive both enjoyment and meaningful experience from such an exercise.

I found that a substantial advantage of this approach was that, as instructor, I was entertained and rewarded by the attitude of the students. The simulation appeared to “rekindle the enthusiasm for learning that some students have lost along the way and provide welcome relief from much of higher education’s prosaic everyday pursuits.”2

The result of this may be that students feel that they too are part of a continuum in the veterinary profession. Osler (1905) put it most eloquently when describing attempts to “put a cantilever across the gulf” between student and teacher. He wrote, “The successful teacher is no longer on a height, pumping knowledge into passive receptacles” and “So animated, the student feels that he has joined a family whose honour is his honour, whose welfare is his own, and whose interests should be his first consideration.”3


Many people assisted in some way with the successful use of role-playing in the settings that were chosen. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Paul Paquet PhD, who provided a wealth of material for, and participated in, the panels on wolf translocation. Colleagues at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine who assisted with drama direction and panel participation included, Dr. Carl Ribble and Dr. Murray Woodbury. For the session on Tb in Michigan white-tailed deer we received valuable help from Dr. Scott Fitzgerald and Dr. Steve Schmitt. Others, in Yellowstone National park, and in the town of Jasper provided invaluable insights to those students who contacted them. Faculty, staff and graduate students at the University of Saskatchewan helped as panel members and resource personnel, and of course, the entire exercise would have been a failure if the undergraduates had not participated with enthusiasm.

Literature Cited

1.  Habeshaw S, Gibbs G, Habeshaw T. 53 Interesting Things to do in Your Seminar and Tutorials. Britsol, England: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.; 1992:135.

2.  Meyers C, Jones TB. Simulations. In: Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.; 1993:89–182.

3.  Osler W. The student life. Farewell address to American and Canadian medical students. Med. News (N.Y.). In: Camac CNB, ed. Counsels and Ideals From the Writing of William Osler. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin & Company; 1905.

4.  Rockler MJ. Applying simulation/gaming. In: Milton O, et al. On college teaching; a guide to contemporary practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1978:288.


Speaker Information
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Jerry C. Haigh, BVMS, MSc, FRCVS, DACZM
Department of Herd Medicine and Theriogenology
Western College of Veterinary Medicine
Saskatoon, SK, Canada

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