Faculty Club / Student Engagement / The Power of Role-Playing: Engaging Students in Soft Skill Development

The Power of Role-Playing: Engaging Students in Soft Skill Development

To bolster emotional intelligence in a tech-minded generation, Virginie Kidwell, PhD, provides software-based practice problems in a workplace setting.

To bolster emotional intelligence in a tech-minded generation, Virginie Kidwell, PhD, provides software-based practice problems in a workplace setting.

Virginie Kidwell, PhD


Assistant Professor of Management,
University of North Texas

PhD in Management, MS in Economics, BS in Finance

Dr. Virginie Kidwell is on a mission that is both rational and emotional: She is determined to amplify emotional intelligence in a world that is increasingly focused on artificial intelligence and technology. As a result, Kidwell has written numerous research papers on social network analysis—the process of mapping and measuring relational dynamics between people in various settings. Emotional intelligence is the ability to process (perceive, facilitate, understand, and manage) emotional information to better inform our thinking, decision-making, and social dynamics. Being more emotionally intelligent helps people navigate and foster higher-quality relationships by recognizing and addressing the emotional signals of those around them as well as those occurring within themselves.

“I have always been fascinated by why and how people do things and the impact it has on others,” she says. A less technical way of explaining Kidwell’s expertise would be to say that she teaches the art and science of engaging people in constructive, productive, creative teamwork—the kind of teamwork that drives many of today’s workplaces.

Fortunately, Kidwell has the perfect platform for sharing her passion: As an assistant professor of management at the University of North Texas G. Brint Ryan College of Business, she is doing her best to highlight for her Organizational Behavior students the importance of personal interaction, focusing on how to build high-quality relationship with others in the workplace.

“Spending time understanding people as human beings, not just as workers or users of technology, is important,” she says. “Emotional learning—not just technology—is what will help young minds better navigate the world.”


Providing practice problems for soft skills

Some of the most sought-after talents in corporate America today, says Kidwell, are also the hardest to acquire without on-the-job experience. These are the so-called “soft skills” that include such things as having an aptitude for forming healthy relationships; for writing and thinking analytically; and for leading, listening, and understanding nonverbal language. These intangible talents take years to cultivate, even in the most emotionally aware adults. For college-age students, strengthening soft skills in the classroom can provide a distinct competitive advantage for when they enter the workforce.

Learning soft skills and developing emotional intelligence requires more than memorizing strategies, says Kidwell. It also requires practice. “This is why my students learn the theory but also practice what they learn in a safe classroom environment,” she explains.

Most of the time, the work of applying emotional intelligence to workplace scenarios is done by students partnering with other students in the classroom, she says. This sort of role-playing can be effective as it allows students to practice solving real-world problems; thus in their eventual careers they can be proactive rather than reactive, with more confidence in their own soft skills.

However, because it involves two real people, the personal feelings of each of the students involved can affect the outcome. Each student brings their own preconceived notions, personal habits (good or bad), opinions, and triggers into the conversation. As a result, Kidwell realized, partner role-playing in the classroom can expose students to only limited experiences.

Surprisingly, it was technology that would provide a solution to her conundrum.


Using technology to practice soft skills

After engaging in person-to-person role-playing, Kidwell’s students are introduced to SimuLearn, a virtual role-play program that recreates scenarios of negotiation in meetings. Through on-screen simulations of common workplace interactions (think of a video game from The Sims series, but in an office setting), students can “attend” a meeting with simulated characters, try to determine what other people at the table are thinking, and make decisions about how to react in order to create the best outcome possible. The simulation goal is not to teach them what to think but to give them opportunity to learn how to think.

Kidwell notes that both student-student and student-sim role-playing provide “safe spaces” for students to practice engaging in multilevel conversations, making inferences, and listening—without real-life consequences. Ultimately, all this practice guides students from behavioral theory to its application.

“I highlight the importance of soft skills and emotional intelligence because students receive very little formal training on how to think about how they feel—and how their feelings may affect their success in life,” she says.

This simulation Kidwell uses is called vLeader from Simulearn, and it is recognized as a leadership training for which a certificate can be obtained upon completion. Students play three to five scenarios in which they are each a new mid-level supervisor at a tech company. Each scenario presents a unique “workplace mission” (for example, first day on the job, meeting with your assistant and creating rapport while ensuring that certain key tasks get done asap), and each scenario becomes progressively more challenging. The students must understand the right mix of skills to use to convince others to support them, using their formal power, informal influence, and the right mix of tension (low, high, or neutral) as they interact.

Once they complete the scenario, the students receive detailed feedback, with a summary of how well they did overall in term of business result, employee morale, and customer service. They get a sense of how their social dynamics (power, ideas, tension) impacted their company and themselves.

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“I highlight the importance of soft skills such as emotional intelligence, because students receive very little formal training on how to think about how they feel—and how their feelings may affect their success in life.”
-Virginie Kidwell, PhD

Course: MGMT 3720 Organizational Behavior

Frequency: One 2.5-hour class meeting per week for 15 weeks per semester

Class size: Capped at 50

Course description: Individual behavior in formal organizations. Cases, lectures and experiential exercises in organizational culture, motivation, leadership, dynamics of power, perception and attribution, communication, decision making and performance, and individual differences.

Lesson: Viewing business interactions through the lens of organizational behavior

Even for business professionals, soft skills like active listening, public speaking, and leading a team can take a lifetime to learn, which makes the class much more challenging than it may seem initially. But, as a professor at several different institutions, Kidwell is experienced at keeping students motivated and lowering the temperature in the room.

She starts by fostering a personal and relatable environment in her classrooms. “I learn each student’s name and try to be available to all students who are having difficulty or simply want to further interact beyond the classroom,” she says. And because the latest issues on students’ minds change constantly, Kidwell focuses on keeping her lesson plans current. (Relying on storylines from the last decade or last year is a sure way to lose students’ interest, she notes.) “My students are challenged, treated fairly and respectfully, and [given] timely and constructive feedback.”

Kidwell also offers the following advice when developing a successful experiential learning class:

Create a “safe space”

In the beginning of the semester, practicing emotional learning skills can feel like a therapy session—difficult, uncomfortable, and revealing. Students generally have different reactions to the subject matter. Many bring their “whole selves” to class, while others fail to attend altogether as the class gets tougher. Kidwell makes a point of figuring out what makes each student feel comfortable and willing to fully participate.

For example, in the first scenario of the vLeader business simulation, the subordinate (Olly) with whom the students have to interact is somewhat arrogant and unpleasant (interrupting, bringing up ineffective ideas, and so on). Students experience real emotions, and some become frustrated and disengage all together. Kidwell says she usually starts the debrief session by asking, “Has anyone found the “fire” button yet to let Olly go?” There is no such button, and the students usually start to laugh, which decreases the tension. “From there,” says Kidwell, “we discuss why they felt they would we want to fire him on the first day on a new job. But more importantly, we also discuss who established a good rapport with him so that he revealed something on his mind that was causing him great stress.”

Share your passion—it will prove contagious

Kidwell has a deep interest in the business courses she teaches. “I keep current on developments in both academic writings and the popular business press,” she says. “I can also relate my industry experience to the topics we discuss in the classroom.” In addition to being knowledgeable about the subjects she teaches, Kidwell says that being enthusiastic, organized, and student-oriented are important when it comes to effectively teaching soft skills. She points out, “I can only teach what I truly believe in and also try to practice in my own life every day!”

Keep your students engaged

A course on organizational behavior is not likely to connect with students unless the professor directly engages them by mixing up the media. For Kidwell, that includes supervising a lot of live conversations and fast-moving debates. This is not exactly a textbook approach. Along with the role-playing simulations, she uses video clips, class debates, online discussion boards, and class polls to keep learning interactive, while relying very little on the lecture format, where students are passive. Part of her strategy is to provide lecture slides ahead of time, and to run discussions as well as quizzes online so that the classroom itself becomes the fun, lab-style, experiential space.

Do your research before settling on a simulation platform

While there are plenty of professional and organizational behavior programs on the market today, Kidwell notes that they can be expensive—and though SimuLearn worked well for her, it may not mirror the theory and applications being explored in other educators’ classes.

Kidwell advises exploring a variety of options rather than just adopting her choice. She found vLeader almost a decade ago, and it took her a few semesters to learn to best use the simulation and to create a great learning experience for her students. She notes that, for educators and institutions without the budget for something like SimuLearn, there are plenty of simulations and practice modules on YouTube that can be accessed for free.

Keep students’ eyes on the real prize

For Kidwell, the real “prize” she wants her students to achieve from these games is to leave her classroom with skills employers will value, and that will enhance each student’s career and life success. Her students enjoy the simulations because they look like simple video games, and the technology is helpful in working on multilevel issues. But none of it is meant to be a substitute for person-to-person interaction. The point, after all, is to help students succeed in a real (not virtual) workspace.

This is why, inevitably, interview and career questions become a topic of conversation in Kidwell’s class. That is just fine with her. “I often advise students about career and graduate school choices,” she says. “I believe that a professor’s responsibilities extend beyond classroom instruction.”

Student feedback

Kidwell is a self-described lifelong learner who is forever honing her own skills. After years of working with students, her passion for the topic is very clear to students. Some remark that she has a fun, energetic style and great teaching methods. Many consider it the highlight of their business courses, probably because they can start practicing their skills when they leave her classroom. Indeed, the words of one student echo the sentiments of many:

“I was able to apply the knowledge. The simulations in particularly interesting and insightful. Students finish the course having learned the basics of organizational behavior theory and how to apply soft skills to their own lives.”

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