Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Medical Education and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Role-play for medical students learning about communication: Guidelines for maximising benefits

Debra Nestel* and Tanya Tierney

Author Affiliations

Department of Biosurgery & Surgical Technology, 10th floor, St Mary's Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Queen Mother Building, Imperial College London, South Wharf Road Street, London W2 1NY, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Medical Education 2007, 7:3  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-7-3

Published: 2 March 2007



Role-play is widely used as an educational method for learning about communication in medical education. Although educational theory provides a sound rationale for using this form of simulation, there is little published evidence for its effectiveness. Students' prior experiences of role-play may influence the way in which they engage in this method. This paper explores students' experiences with the aim of producing guidelines for maximising the benefits of role-play within this learning context.


First-year undergraduate medical students participated in a role-play session as part of their communication programme. Before and after the session, students completed questionnaires. In the pre-session questionnaire, students were asked about their experiences of role-play and asked to identify helpful and unhelpful elements. Immediately after the session, students answered similar questions in relation to the role-play activity they had just completed. Descriptive statistics were used to analyse quantitative data and qualitative data was thematically analysed.


284 students completed evaluation forms. Although 63 (22.2%) had prior unhelpful experiences, most students (n = 274; 96.5%) found this experience helpful. Summary findings were that students reported the key aspects of helpful role-play were opportunities for observation, rehearsal and discussion, realistic roles and alignment of roles with other aspects of the curriculum. Unhelpful aspects were those that evoked strong negative emotional responses and factors that contributed to a lack of realism.


Role-play was valued by students in the acquisition of communication skills even though some had prior unhelpful experiences. Guidelines for effective role-play include adequate preparation, alignment of roles and tasks with level of practice, structured feedback guidelines and acknowledgment of the importance of social interactions for learning.