INTRODUCTION: For five years I have facilitated training for Peer Learning Assistants (PLAs are similar to tutors). Critical thinking and ethical decision making are skills necessary for our PLAs to possess because they often work with very little supervision. I use this activity to engage them in discussions about unclear issues they may encounter, such as how much help to offer a desperate student. Case studies can be adapted to provide a different focus for the discussion. This strategy works best within a 90 minute period.


  • To develop critical thinking and ethical decision making


  • Case Study, a copy for each student (appended below)
  • 3 x 5 Cards with terms ‘BEFORE’ on one side and ‘AFTER’ on the other
  • Blank Name tags
  • 3 copies of Time Table (appended below)
  • Timer
  • Gavel (hammer)
  • Robe (old graduation gown works well)
  • Marker


STEP 1. Set the stage for the Trial (10 min)

A. Place the gavel, robe, and timer at a desk in the front of the room. Hand out 3 x 5 cards and the case study to everyone in the room.

B. Announce: “We will be holding a trial today. After we read a case study, I’ll be asking for volunteers to become characters in the role play of the trial, including the story characters, witnesses, the prosecuting team, defense team, and the judge. Those who do not volunteer will be the jury members whose role will be to listen to the proceedings and deliberate/discuss the case. You will be expected to determine a verdict through a discussion that we all will hear. The characters may make reasonable additions to the facts of the case study. Court characters will have duties that are typical of a real court. Are there any questions before we begin reading the case study?”

C. Direct the class to read the case study aloud, taking turns reading each paragraph.

D. Ask all who are present in the room to write their vote of guilty or not guilty of unethical behavior on the BEFORE side of the card and hold onto it until after the trial

E. Assign roles and distribute nametags to volunteers for Marty, Cynthia, Roy, Frank, Dr. Wymee, prosecuting team (2-3 people), defense team (2-3 people), and Judge.  Give ‘Time Table’ to prosecuting team, defense team, and Judge.

STEP 2. Pre –court preparations (10 min)

A. Explain to the group, “The Defense and Prosecuting Teams will be sent out of the room to prepare witnesses and prepare arguments. These teams and Judge must review the ‘Time Table’ as they prepare. The teams may select one witness for their arguments. You may prepare the witness by bringing him or her with you as you’re getting ready for trial. I suggest you use an outline or notes for arguments since you are under time limits, which the Judge will enforce.”

B. “The rest of you are the Jury members. Your duties are to listen to the proceedings. The Judge will indicate the closing arguments and direct the jury to begin deliberating whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of unethical behavior. You may not speak during the trial. After the trial, only jury members may deliberate. Are there any questions?”

C. Send the Defense and Prosecuting Teams out of the room for 10 minutes.

D. Ask the remaining students to assist with arranging the room for the Trial. The Prosecuting teams’ chairs need to be to the right of the Judge and the Defending team needs to be to the left of the Judge.  A witness stand/chair is placed to the left of the Judge. All other chairs can remain in a classroom style for the Jury members to observe the trial.

E. Direct the Judge to sit at the desk in front and use the gavel, gown, and timer. Encourage him/her to take control of the next section of the Trial by announcing and staying with the time limits and using the gavel if needed. Demonstrate how to use the timer if needed. The Judge has complete control over the proceedings and will start when everyone is in their places.

F. As the facilitator, sit in one of the Jury chairs, observe, make notes, and be alert to possible discussion points for the Jury to deliberate. Let the fun begin and the students run the trial.

STEP 3. Trial begins – Judge presides over this section using the ‘Time Table’ (30-40 min)

STEP 4. Public Jury Deliberation/Discussion (10 -20 min)

A. Instruct the Jury: “Now the Jury will begin deliberating and determine if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of unethical behavior. The Jury will deliberate publicly so everyone can hear how evidence is being weighed; those who had a role in the presentation of the case please remain silent and do not interrupt. Jury members, stand when you speak. Introduce yourself before you make your statement or argument. Use information from the written case study AND the trial proceedings. You will have 10 minutes to deliberate. Are there any questions? Begin.” (Allow non-jury members to interject if you believe it may enhance the discussion.)

B. The facilitator judiciously poses questions throughout the discussion. Jury does not have to come to a clean verdict by the end of 10 minutes.

NOT GUILTY: If the jury is arriving at a not-guilty verdict, ask, “At what point would his behavior be considered unethical? What are the possible outcomes and the impact this behavior has on the reputation of the program (other staff)? How have you considered the location, timing, and potential representation that this behavior communicates to others?”

GUILTY: If the jury is arriving at a guilty verdict, ask, “What should be the consequence of this type of behavior? What are the potential outcomes of this behavior on the program, the other staff, the director, the students etc.? At what point do you believe his choices took the wrong turn and what could he have done differently?’

STEP 5. Voting (2 min) (supplies: same 3 x 5 cards on reverse side marked AFTER)

A. After 10 minutes say, “The jury deliberation time is over. Everyone take your voting card and write on the AFTER side your verdict. Finally, on the AFTER side, please write a brief sentence of what you learned from this experience. Then pass your cards to the judge. We will tally them and find out if there was a change in opinion. While we tally the votes you will have 5 minutes to write your response to this question and turn it in before you leave the room: What were the choices that Marty had and the possible outcomes for each? Which would you recommend as the best possible outcome?

B. The judge and facilitator collect the cards and post the voting results before and after.

C. Debriefing questions: “Why do you think there was a change in the votes? What were the issues that Marty needed to address in order to avoid this trial? How did you respond to the assigned question – what choices did Marty have and which would you recommend? Describe how employing ethical behavior can impact others around you. In closing, are there any comments on the results of this case or your experience today?”


There is a bit of chaos during the set up time in order to coordinate everyone; however it is worth it because once attorney parties are in place, the jury settles in their seats and the judge takes control, the trial really gets going. The witnesses usually have to extrapolate and sometimes exaggerate his/her story in order to answer questions. I’ve had a student volunteer for a character of the opposite gender and create a very funny voice and story.  Everyone in the room was laughing so hard, the judge had to use his hammer to quiet everyone down and proceed. Cross questioning the witnesses is more impromptu and seems to perpetuate some odd questions which invoke giggles and smiles. Sometimes the judge is very strict about the time and the attorney exhausts his/her questioning time with a monologue. Although the students are laughing throughout this role playing, I observe students being attentive to the questions, stories, and arguments.

The closing arguments are a good wrap up as the attorneys make a clear statement of their position. After these arguments are completed and the judge makes a closing statement, I stand up and provide directions again in order to keep the activity moving. During deliberation I’ve observed students taking it very seriously, voicing their opinions and capitalizing on the witness statements.

I’ve used different case studies for this activity. With the appended case study, the jury debated whether Marty was really taking a risk being alone with a student, whether he technically had permission to stay late, if his behavior was student-centered and if he was being good role model. Several students questioned Marty’s motivation, the risks he took, and the options he had available but did not invoke.  There are students who sit silent and students who have a lot to say. I require speakers to stand to keep some order regarding who has the floor. 

The voting cards comparison gives concrete evidence to students of the existing ‘grey’ areas; however this role play offers opportunity for the teacher/trainer to provide immediate feedback about ‘grey’ issues raised related to job expectations.


My goal with the Trial by Jury is to develop students’ ethical decision making skills and personal responsibility.  The 30 PLAs provided feedback at the end of the semester responding to the question, ‘What was your favorite discussion during PLA training and what was learned from the experience?’  Responses included…

  • I think the role-play event was extremely beneficial (court and who was guilty).  It made me realize how I am indirectly responsible through my actions.

  • The discussion on tutor ethics was valuable.  It made me keenly aware of the grey areas in ethics and made me more mindful of what I was doing.

  • The trial discussion was the most exciting debate.  It was interesting to learn that you can’t stay in the working location after hours.

  • The best discussion was during the courtroom trial.  We learned about some difficult areas that are often in the gray area.

  • I learned about what is professionally appropriate and inappropriate and how to avoid questionable situations.

Feedback from clients indicates that the PLAs are professional in how they represent the program. After listening to the PLAs’s discussion, I feel more confident in their ability to make ethical decisions associated with the program.


I have not been a fan of role playing exercises, but find the Trial by Jury is one that can be a serious topic and also allow for some fun.  The Trial can be embellished with additional characters and props, such as a bailiff, court reporter, Student Conduct Code as the Bible, and articles of evidence i.e. Cynthia’s lab report. When I’ve embellished, it adds to the fun and laughter.

During the jury deliberation, I hear the PLAs’ perceptions and opinions that may need more shaping (addressed in later training sessions). I have to listen very closely during the deliberation and pose a guided question when the discussion strays from the case study or the evidence provided.  Although students might demonstrate a strong need to arrive at a verdict, it is okay; and it works better to focus on guiding deliberation if needed. I’ve learned that the PLAs who demonstrate strong ethics and critical thinking become role models for the other PLAs.

I also have learned that the voting provides a concrete illustration to the PLAs that there are gray areas and a need to employ good ethics and critical thinking.

SOURCE: Adapted from 101 Ways to Make Training Active by Silberman, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer Copyright 1995, pages 139 and 140.

SUPPORT MATERIALS: The Case Study: Trial by Jury

MARTY, a tutor, is having a slow night for walk-in tutoring, and no student has come in for help.  With a half-hour to go, one of Marty’s regulars, CYNTHIA, rushes in.  She explains that she has a major laboratory report due tomorrow in the class that Marty normally tutors for, but she hasn’t had a chance to work on it much because she has been ill.  There are many calculations associated with this particular lab and she says that she has been having problems with understanding what equations to use.  Cynthia tells Marty she needs to score well on the report because “as you know, I’ve been having problems with this course.”

Marty asks Cynthia to explain what the laboratory task was and to describe the data she collected.  She is flustered and anxious as she speaks, making her difficult to understand. So Marty reads the laboratory assignment and looks through her data.

By this time, Marty’s normal tutoring time is up but he stays to help her.  He starts going through the methodology of analysis appropriate for the assignment with the student.  Time is running out for Cynthia and she starts to cry.  Marty says all will be fine, and starts to structure the data, write down the necessary equations, and demonstrate where the data goes into them.  Cynthia calms down and listens intently.  Marty continues to do the calculations and Cynthia parallels calculations with another portion of the data set.  They get done in an hour, and Marty outlines what she should say in the report.  The student leaves in an upbeat state, and says she will see him next week for normal tutoring.

Cynthia’s lab report is returned with an ‘A’. She is so thrilled that, during a study group for the course, she tells ROY, her friend, what happened. Roy is a tutor for another class and is surprised that Marty provided such extensive help. Roy is happy for Cynthia because she tries so hard and he expresses congratulations.

Another student in the study group, FRANK, hears the story and seeks out the tutor supervisor, DR. WYMEE. Frank says to Dr. Wymee, “I think it’s unfair that some students get such help with lab reports.”

Marty is called in by Dr. Wymee to determine if his actions were ethically inappropriate.

We are in a courtroom. We will decide if Marty is guilty of unprofessional (unethical) behavior.

TIME TABLE: (Recommended~60 minutes total)


  • 10 minutes

Opening Arguments

  • 3 minutes (Prosecutor)
  • 3 minutes (Defendant)

Witness stand for prosecuting witness

  • 3 minutes (P)
  • 3 minutes (D)

Witness stand for defending witness

  • 3 minutes (D)
  • 3 minutes (P)

Closing Arguments

  • 5 minutes (D)
  • 5 minutes (P)

Jury Deliberation

  • 20 minutes

Jury Decision

  • Marty is guilty of unethical behavior
  • Marty in not guilty of unethical behavior

–Tammy Pratt, Director, Assessment and Learning Center, University of Oklahoma, OK

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