INTRODUCTION: The purpose of our TRIO program is to retain and graduate students who are low-income, first-generation, or students with disabilities. Tutoring is one of the services provided to SSS students, and tutors go through a formal training of 16 hours during their first year and 12 hours during their second year. Among the topics covered are communication skills, learning styles, questioning skills, study skills and working with students with disabilities. Many of our SSS students have hidden disabilities: learning disabilities, brain injuries, attention disorder, or are on medication that interferes with their ability to process information. This training session was designed to increase tutors’ awareness that many of our students bring hidden disabilities with them to a tutoring session.  However, this exercise could be used with any student population where you want to increase awareness of disabilities. 


  • To introduce tutors to the concept that each person they work with is a unique individual with strengths, weaknesses and possible hidden disabilities.

  • To foster interdependence. (Although tutors are trained together, they often work in isolation from each other.)

  • To practice group decision making.


  • Nametags with various work roles listed. I used the following work roles, but you can substitute any you wish: biologist, computer technician, accountant, systems analyst, landscaper, lawyer, counselor, inventor, organic gardener, doctor, mechanic, politician, radiological technologist, engineer, carpenter, optical scientist, teacher, and woodworker.

  • Post-its with a disability written on each. I used the following disabilities: “has Alzheimer’s” “has cancer” “has chronic fatigue syndrome” “unable to walk without assistance” “is dyslexic” “is clinically depressed” “lost right hand” “deaf, reads lips” “has diabetes” “suffers from anxiety attacks” “has obsessive-compulsive disorder” “is bulimic” “has attention deficit disorder” “is legally blind” “has a family member with a terminal illness” “has traumatic brain injury” and “has agoraphobia.” You can substitute any other disabilities that you wish. I assigned disabilities randomly to the work roles by attaching a Post-it to the nametag holder, then adding the work role, written on the cards that come with the nametag holders, on top so that for the first part of the exercise the disabilities were hidden. 

  • Whiteboard and markers to record the group’s decisions.

  • Workshop Evaluation Form (appended below)

DIRECTIONS:  As students enter the room, ask them to pick a work-role nametag out of a plastic bag and put it on.  Begin the activity as follows:

1. “The world you live on is dying and to continue survival of the species, a spaceship will take some of you to a new planet. The spaceship, however, can only support half of you. There is simply not enough food and water for all of you to make the journey.

“You must decide who will go on to survive on the new planet and who will remain here to die. Keep in mind that the new planet is uninhabited and you must build your own shelter, grow your own food, and gather your own resources such as water. Good luck with your mission!

“You must take on the role your nametag gives you. You may plead for your survival or persuade everyone to keep you, but remember you cannot sway from what your nametag says about you.

“You have 10 minutes to complete the task.”

2. At the end of 10 minutes, ask the group whom they chose to go on the spaceship and write their work roles on the board under Round #1.

3. Then introduce the twist to this exercise: “You have just been given some additional information about your team members. Please remove your work roles from your name tag. Underneath is another set of characteristics that you may or may not want to consider in planning who goes and who stays….Please review everyone’s additional information and, as a group, decide what changes, if any, you want to make in your original selection. You have 10 additional minutes for this activity. As before, you can beg, plead, or persuade.”

4. When time is up, ask the group for its new selections and write the work roles for Round #2 on the board.

5. Process the activity by discussing the following questions:

  • Who did you pick to survive and why?  What criteria did you use to select them?

  • How did your group make its decision? Was it group consensus or did the strongest person decide for you?

  • How did those who didn’t have the opportunity to speak up or participate in the decision making process feel about the group process?

  • If there was a change, how significant was the change?

  • What did you do when you confronted a disability and you didn’t know what it was?

  • Was it difficult to stay in character when the additional information about you was revealed? Why or why not?

  • Were you able to be as assertive in pleading your case once the additional information about your disability was made available to the team? Why or why not?

  • Are you now aware of prejudices and stereotypes that were formerly hidden to you? What will you do with this new awareness, especially when working with students?

  • What have you learned from doing this exercise about hidden disabilities in relation to the people you tutor?

  • Did anyone think of taking everyone but eating and drinking half of what would be allocated for one person? Why or why not?

6. Lastly, ask students to fill out the Workshop Evaluation form. Besides providing a written record of the students’ thoughts about the exercise, a written evaluation gives each person the opportunity to respond to the exercise without regard to whether the group agreed or disagreed with him or her. Also, it provides one last opportunity for students to dig deeper for additional insights.


My tutor group’s process is summarized here, and a longer version, responding to each of the processing questions, is included in the Support Materials section.

One student started the activity by creating a format: identifying her work role and why she should be chosen to go. Others then followed her format with one or two very minor changes. Naturally, some students participated more than others. (i.e., some gave only their work role and whether they wanted to go or not; others “persuaded” the group that they should be picked.)

The politician said, “You don’t need me.” Then others told him why they did need him; he couldn’t see any value in his work role but others could; they felt the politician would be an organizer, although the engineer, in response to the politician’s comments, said, “You’re out.”

The woodworker removed herself, “I don’t need to go,” although others thought they would need her skills. Her reply, “What if you’re building structures out of metals? I wouldn’t be able to help.” The optical scientist came late and missed the instructions, stood by the biologist, who was acting in a leadership position, and then after he got the gist of the game said, “You don’t need me.”

When they were down to 30 seconds of time and I reminded them that they had to have a decision, I heard: “Let’s take a vote—who thinks we need an accountant? A systems analyst?,” etc. through all the work roles. The group may have been influenced by the persuasiveness of individuals in one or two cases, although overall the group did look at work roles and what was needed for survival.

The Roles chosen in Round #1 included: biologist, organic farmer, mechanic, systems analyst, and engineer.

After the hidden disabilities were revealed, some asked, “What is that?” when they encountered a disability they were unfamiliar with. No one knew what agoraphobia was; one person volunteered “fear of heights” and the rest of the group went along with that definition. Later in the processing, some felt that they needed more information about the disabilities before making a decision.

The consensus model was more in evidence in Round #2; after all shared their disabilities, some discussion followed on how that disability would affect an individual’s performance. The discussion included opinions by the individual themselves and by other members of the group. This was probably the most participative part of the activity; I observed everyone getting involved in the discussion at that point. They were verbalizing their thinking processes and group members really listened to each other as they were all trying to figure things out!

The group reached their second decision in only 3 ½ minutes. They focused their discussion mainly on whether a person’s disability was severe enough to affect his/her job performance; if it wasn’t, that person stayed on the “To Go” list. Only one work role changed in Round #2—the biologist removed herself and the group substituted the counselor. The group felt that they needed a counselor after finding out all of the hidden disabilities. The counselor felt that he was “pushed” by the others into going. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with the enormity of his future job; perhaps he doesn’t value the counselor’s role.

The biologist (who had Alzheimer’s disease) took herself off the “To Go” list because she felt her disability would seriously impair her ability to do the job. In processing the activity afterwards, though, she realized that Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, and she said, “I could’ve been useful for many years. Maybe I should’ve fought to stay with the group.”

The engineer, who was legally blind, at first took herself off the list, but then convinced herself aloud that if she knew the concepts she could teach others how to do what she knew. She was included in the second round.

My objective “to introduce tutors to the concept that each person they work with is a unique individual with strengths, weaknesses and possible hidden disabilities,” based on written feedback: “I realize that everyone I work with comes with some unknown factors.” “I realize that learning disabilities are hard to see and the people that come into tutoring may have baggage that we aren’t going to be aware of.” Another commented that they approached each person they worked with as an individual and got to know them first before they tutored them.

My objective to encourage interdependence was also met due to the structure of the exercise. There were group discussions, consensus making, and group processing. There was even a lesson on interdependence for the facilitator! (See Personal Lessons section.)

The students also had several suggestions on how to improve the activity the next time. In response to Question #9 (everyone going), they pointed out that the way the situation was set up, taking everyone didn’t seem to be an option. We reworded the introduction to: “The spaceship, however, cannot support all of you,” rather than specifying “only half of you.”

One student wanted a religious worker added as a work role. (I guess they didn’t feel my secular “counselor” role would address their needs.) Another disability category suggested was age. The politician said that he wouldn’t have picked that role for himself because he didn’t like politicians; he said he would have liked to pick his work role rather than drawing it at random.


This is how I would alter the activity for the next time:

l. Put all the name tags out. Ask students to pick the work role they would like. Then explain the activity.

2. For Round #2, have them pick from a separate pile their “hidden disability.” Either ask students to choose one or ask them to pick one randomly out of the pile. If we use post-its again, the post-it could be placed below the work role on their nametag for reference as they do Round #2 of the activity.

3. The students suggested a third category to consider: “outlook on life” or “character/personality types.” One student said, “What if we picked a person to go and they turned out to be a real negative person that brought everyone else down? What an awful trip.” Some types they identified were: optimist, pessimist, controlling, indecisive. It would be fun to see how complicated the decision making process could become by adding a third level! I hypothesize that the students would need more time to reach consensus on who goes and that there could be some lively discussion on the way to their solution!

4. Another suggestion was to indicate a time issue: how much time would the group have before the spaceship left? If there was sufficient time, some people could be cross-trained to take on more than one role.

Question #7 didn’t work well; maybe too vague? Or they didn’t know what “stay in character” meant? Or too soon to know what they learned?

I would add a processing question or two that address how they learned in this activity (discovering the lessons though a well-designed experience rather than being lectured) and see if they could identify how to apply this method of learning to their own tutoring.

I might have tutors write the answers to the processing questions first, then discuss. Since they didn’t write first, some of the answers in the group processing may not have been as honest or well thought out as they would’ve been if they wrote first. For example: one person identified the biologist as “a leader” in the verbal processing of the exercise, and several other members of the group added positive verbal feedback about the helpfulness of her role. In the written feedback, however, several felt the biologist “dominated” the process (their word choice, not mine). There is a difference between a leader and a person who dominates. I felt there was some “group think” or “peer pressure” going on here—everyone wanted to be accepted by the group so no one was willing to express opinions that strayed too far from the unexpressed group norms. Asking them to write out their answers first may have promoted more authentic verbal responses.

The group as a whole got into a very basic survival mode. They didn’t see surviving and using the high-level technology that was going to enable them to move from this planet to another planet. Instead they were into basic survival thinking (food, shelter and clothing) rather than cloning, using spaceship on-board computers once they got there (even though they did take the systems analyst). I wonder if my thinking as I designed the activity may have influenced the outcome, because, I was also thinking “basic survival” (although I did include some high-tech work roles). It wasn’t until we were doing the activity that I realized they could quickly develop a sophisticated society on the new planet if they used the available technology.

I learned that simulations like this exercise can produce learning. Even though this activity was not real life, it gave individuals the opportunity to look at themselves and learn and grow and be able to apply what they learned back in real life.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned is to ask for feedback on how to improve the exercise for the next time. The group had lots of good suggestions—many more than I could’ve thought of on my own. How’s that for a learning experience in interdependence for the facilitator! From a participant’s perspective, I think that knowing your ideas would be implemented could create greater buy-in for future exercises as well.


The directions were given to me by a student. There was no source listed on the sheet and the student didn’t know where the exercise originally came from. The exercise was called “Spaceship Survivor.” I changed how the activity was structured by adding the piece on hidden disabilities and revised the directions to include Part 2. I also developed the questions for processing the activity and the written evaluation form.


Workshop Evaluation

I’ve added my students’ responses to the four evaluation questions.

1. One thing I learned about myself from doing the exercise is ….

*I understand what my job is and how I can use my knowledge to help others.

*That learning disabilities are hard to see and the people that come into tutoring may have baggage that we aren’t going to be aware of.

*I assume things. I don’t take the time to look further into people’s characters.

*We are quick to see the apparent qualities a person possesses, but are sometimes shunned when we come to discover their faults.

*That I don’t know everything about the people I encounter on a daily basis.

*That I do have some certain prejudices that often times are hidden. Now I think I can approach tutoring better.

*I learned how to understand people’s disabilities better.

*Realizing that people can look good on (the) cover but not be OK on the inside.

*In certain cases, I am too quick to judge.

*Everyone views the importance of occupations and necessities in a different way. Some occupations that I thought were completely unnecessary I started to see how important they were!

2. One thing I learned about our group process was….

*We didn’t explore far into who we each were; therefore our decisions were not the best they could have been.

*We tended to lean our decisions towards survival of the species.

*The importance of communication and group roles (leader, etc.)

*We worked together to pick out the scenario which would be of greatest benefit to the whole group.

*A particular leader roll [sic] took over the process. If one has a strong roll [sic] in the process, one should expect leadership from it.

*Jen is very assertive.

*We were very survival oriented and didn’t look at long term or extended persons going (i.e., food).

*Some people up front said they were not necessary for a new planet—so that made it easier. But someone had to take charge and organize the end decision.

*Team work, argue the decision, help others out, what (is) necessary to overcome.

*That the more assertive people got to go and also the disabilities had an effect on who got to go.

3. One thing I learned from this workshop that I will use when working with the students I tutor is ……..

*Not to be quick to judgment.

*I learned not to judge a person by their appearance but by their abilities to perform a task.

*To observe them closely. To work with them step by step rather than all at once so I can get a better idea of who they are.

*No matter how great a person is or sounds, a person’s view is completely changed when they learn of *something that is different or a disability.

*To recognize any hidden faults and not be thwarted by these when trying to assist someone.

*Choose the way to work for them, show the students more than one way to do the problem.

*To assume nothing without prior facts. (Start out with a clean, equal, non-biased session, then accommodate as needed.)

*Ask questions/watch body language. Be understanding.

*To look for clues that may help identify disabilities to help students more.

*Without probing, try to pick out signs of certain disabilities or shortcomings; that way I can approach tutoring that particular person better.

4. Another comment I’d like to make about the workshop is…

*The workshop will work better if it is a larger group. Otherwise, it is interesting and fun.

*I think the conclusion could have been more clear. I would have liked to discuss further the ways to identify disabilities.

*I thought it was interesting.

*It’s great to have a learning experience actually be fun! I appreciate you doing this—it does open your eyes!

*Very informative and beneficial. Made me realize certain things about my own prejudices.

*Very well organized.

*Is new to me.

*It was an interesting scenario. I liked it!

–Kathie Oehme, Director, Student Support Services (TRIO), Northern Arizona University

Forum Image OptionThe Space Ship Forum