We held a TILE Network webinar in April and hosted Dr Jill MacKay who introduced us to a novel approach to teach and – most importantly – let her students experience ethical decision making and coping with failure. Jill explained that these two things are important skills that veterinary students need to acquire. I would even go broader and say that these skills are crucial for all students to acquire in a wide range of different disciplines. So, her innovative teaching idea is applicable in many domains.

Jill’s approach involved a role-playing game that was set up so that different groups of students had different roles with different information. As it is the case in such games, no group of participants has full information and the vital aspect is the incomplete information that you must deal with. This inevitably leads to obstacles and problems that you need to overcome. They can be accomplished by communicating with members of your group and with members of other groups. The spreading of information (right or wrong – hence, the ethical decision-making part of the game) can be used as a vehicle to reach your goal.

Why using a role-playing game to teach the skills of ethical decision making and coping with failure? Students feel more comfortable to make risky ethical decisions and explore failure in a low-consequence environment than in a high-consequence scenario (e.g., in the later workplace).

Jill and her colleagues collected data to gather students’ perception of the game – particularly asking them how they rate their development of four skills: teamwork, communication, ethical decision-making, and coping with failure. See the students’ ratings assessed right after the game was completed. As you can see, students seem to agree that their communication and teamwork skills have improved by playing the game. Interestingly, their rating of ethical decision-making and coping with failure was not particularly high. Why is the latter finding an interesting one? It’s because when looking at how students were behaving in the game, there was clear evidence for ethical conflict and ethical decision-making. Probably, this was not recognised as such from the students. One idea why this was the case could have been the game setting itself: Students may not have recognised ethical conflict because it was embedded in a game. The same can be said for the coping with failure skill. It is possible that the students did not see the link between the game and the real world when it comes to ethical conflict/coping with failure. We discussed how helping students draw this analogy could further elevate the impact of the game as a teaching tool for the desired skills.

Jill has kindly shared the material pack for the role-playing game. She is in the process to make changes to the theme and some aspects of the game, but it gives a good idea of it.

Hope this helps!

Supporting material:

Webinar recording (including chat window)

Presentation slides

Role-playing pack (Theme: Zombie)


Education programmes have a responsibility to teach their students resilience and adaptability, and this is particularly important in professionalised programmes such as veterinary medicine where ‘failures’ can be high cost and relatively common. Playful scenarios can be a useful tool in these settings, particularly if they encourage learners to deal with uncomfortable situations in a managed space. In partnership with students, we developed a playful roleplay scenario for first year veterinary students in a UK veterinary school. After our second year of running the scenario, we offer our perspective on the value of play in professionalised settings, and how failure and resilience training can be scaffolded into learning and teaching throughout a programme.

About the speaker:

Dr Jill MacKay is a Lecturer in Veterinary Science Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. Her research interests mainly lie within research methodology and exploring how students learn in digital environments. She has been known to play the odd video game. You can follow her on Twitter: @jilly_mackay.