Scenario-based learning – a quick guide

As a former lecturer, I say this with a degree of sheepishness but I hate being lectured to! I want my learning to be individual and fill me with curiosity. It should allow me to explore, collaborate, discuss.

When I design eLearning and professional training, I always try to remember that – to treat others as I’d wish to be treated. This is where scenario-based learning is so crucial. Through scenario-based learning, participants can confront challenging, real-world decisions. They can be provided an opportunity to explore in an environment where mistakes can be made safely. They can replicate errors they may be making on the job and can see the consequences of their mistakes.

That’s the theory – but why is it so difficult to make scenarios that don’t make us cringe??

My view is that there are a number of reasons.

Apply Instructional Design Principles

Don’t regard scenarios as a filler – treat them as you would any other core content, and ensure there is a well defined problem. What is the issue, how does it manifest and what are the behaviours you need to change. All very standard ID – yet too often overlooked when we make scenarios.

After identifying and analysing the problem in need of a design solution, if you can’t move from that to explain why a scenario’s the ideal approach, question why you’re using one.

To help you answert that, remember that scenario-based learning is generally used to address observed or anticipated problematic behaviour rather than knowledge gaps. The latter tend to lend themselves to job aids and other tools.

If you build a scenario from the standpoint that it’s to address a knowledge gap it’s likely to involve your characters using too much explanation in their diualogue – their words will sound contrived as you attempt to have people explain concepts to your audience in the context of a fictitious discussion with one another.

On the other hand, if your issue involves modifying behaviour and relates to complex decision making, read on – you have a candidate for scenario-based learning!

Our first step is to decide which path to take, remembering that there are two broad categories of eLearning scenario.

Path 1: Mini scenarios
Mini scenarios consist of just one question that presents a realistic, challenging workplace decision. The feedback reveals the respective realistic consequences of each provided response while the consequence could be immediate or far in the future. Mini scenarios can be applied when you would like learners to practice the same scenario or task with different variables.

For example, if you want people to practice the correct response to a series of  emergency scenarios, you could repeat a similar scenario with varied circumstances and the same or similar responses to various emergencies.

… “okay now let’s imagine the polar bear is armed with an AK47 assault rifle – do you still climb the tree to escape?”

On the plus side, mini-scenarios are significantly easier to write than the branching scenarios.

The disadvantage it that they can be limiting in that the basic situation is repeated with a change added. They are best used for less convoluted behavioural problems.

 

Path 2: Branching scenarios
For some reason this gets all the press. I’m often asked to include it in work I prepare for clients but I wonder if those clients are always asking why they want it. Certainly “choose your own adventure” seems fun, but I don’t think that’s a reason to use it. Too many “fun” things in training come across as cringeworthy where they are more ellaborate than they need to be. It’s easy to forget just how fixated on purpose learners are!

Branching scenarios, otherwise known as choose your own adventure stories, contain multiple storylines. They present a series of opportunities for participants to make decisions and are built such that the responses determine what happens next. Typically, these scenarios provide multiple layers of backstory and involved narratives to inform the questions.

It follows that branching scenarios are most appropriate for practicing making decisions in ambiguous situations, gathering and applying information and recognising and recovering from mistakes moving forward. They create space for participants to explore multiple realities and see a problem from multiple angles.

The downside is that the format tends to be dense with backstory which can be difficult to plan and navigate. In fact it can be a bit tedious if people start to ask why it’s needed.

Branching scenarios are designed using a map. We use a tool to work backwards from the ends we have in mind through the various pathways that lead to them. The master of branching scenarios is Geoffrey Robertson. His hypotheticals, based on an educational technique used to train university law students became a popular TV series. Every branch is carefully planned. The host takes us through a story that makes sense and allows the panellists to be the experts. They surprise him with responses yet he is ready. Along the way we get humour and word pictures. What we don’t get is explanation from the narrator. His job is to pose the questions and know the consequences. The facts come from the participant.

If you aren’t prepared to invest that level of planning, don’t expect your branching scenario to work well.

Many scribble the pathways out on paper or a whiteboard. There are also software options – a quick search on Google will reveal a number of online storyboarding tools including Twine or XMind.

Don’t forget that this will be a complex piece. Be kind to your learner and allow them to navigate back and forth to refresh their memory of the story to date when they need to.

Writing the scenarios
The English essayist Percy Lubbock’s work The Craft of Fiction offers us many insights on storytelling. One of the most important for scenarios is the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. 

Be descriptive. Use word-pictures to engage the learner. Inevitably, this will require more text but will allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. More importantly it engages the imagination. Whenever you find yourself making a factual statement ask – can I reword this as an exchange between my characters – replace it with dialogue?

While we’re on the subject of dialogue, don’t forget to keep it real. Write the dialogue as you would say it yourself – never be afraid of using contractions (isn’t, don’t, can’t) or of utilising informal words. You might also break the sentences into varied lengths to switch up the rhythm.

That said, the other extreme is cringeworthy too. Always remember what people woudl be likely to say in the real world. Having characters articulate something just to build the plot can be artificial.  Dialogue’s not for narrative – its function is to assist in characterisation and to keep the reader’s interest.

Quick tips 

  • Provide responses that include mistakes concealed as reasonable choices.
  • Add time and interpersonal pressures to mimic realistic challenges in decision making.
  • Consider how best to run these scenarios in the given context. For instance, would it be most effective for learners to engage with them online or in person, in isolation or as a small group? It may be more fitting to have learners act out a scenario, or even design their own scenarios.
  • Consider whether the learners will require a debrief or further discussion.
  • The best scenarios have no ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ decisions. Each decision has a realistic positive or negative consequence. Showing these consequences encourages the learner to draw conclusions about the effect of their decision, rather than dictating explicitly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

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