Three Ways to Use Scenarios

We’ve all heard the story by now that storytelling enhances learning; that sharing relevant examples helps both the expert and the novice forge connections with the content to ensure knowledge transfer. We’ve heard that flight simulators save lives and that practice makes perfect.

And yet, scenarios and simulations can feel intimidating. They take time. And money. And fancy 3D worlds with blue-haired avatars.

We’re here to say that it can be all that, but it can also be something simpler.

So let’s look at three approaches to creating scenarios in your e-learning – a bit of a scenario spectrum as we go from simple to more complex.

Tell the story and then ask some questions

This is a simple approach and one we use a lot, especially in more rapid e-learning programs when time is of the essence.

Tell your story – as always, keep it short and sharp. And make it relevant to the content. When it’s done, ask a series of questions to go a little deeper, confirm understanding, and – most importantly – forge a memorable connection in the learner’s brain.

For example in a program on behavior in the workplace, tell the story of a manager that might have crossed the line. Make it a bit gray – life is messy that way. Then ask a set up question, “Did Amelia do the right thing by contacting HR?” The possible responses pick up on that gray zone and those common mistakes that people make – “Well, Alex did cross a line by yelling at his team that way, but calling HR was an overreaction.”

The next question then goes even deeper. “Alex’s behavior was inappropriate. But why?” Now the responses can get under the surface and address specific policies and workplace attitudes. Follow up questions like this can make your scenario feel like a Socratic dialogue, peeling back the layers of the situation.

Ask questions throughout the scenario

We sometimes call this approach “fake branching”. Which is no disrespect to forests anywhere. You create a linear scenario – perhaps it’s a dialogue between two people. At crucial points in the conversation you stop and ask for the learner’s input: “Joe’s not sure what to do next? What would you advise him to do?” The learner chooses from one of a set of plausible options.

Customized feedback for each response helps you address common mistakes and misperceptions. “While that might be a good option because of [a sound reason] that approach could make her defensive. We think the third choice is the best response because it does abc. Click Continue to see what happens.” The scenario continues in the same linear path following the learner’s response, but there is some feeling of consequence or impact of having chosen the wrong answer. The value is in the quality of the feedback given and the plausibility of the choices. You need to have both here - it only works if the learner has to really stop and consider the actions, because there's no obvious right or wrong ones. That takes close working with your subject matter expert to make sure the choices are all plausible.

Use questions for branching

For a more realistic simulation of consequences you might need to create a true branching experience, creating the blur of reality by allowing the learner to go down a path to see where it leads.

From a development perspective, this type of program makes people sweat – too complicated! too expensive! too much time! And while that is true on some level, it can really be the right design path – especially when you think experiencing the consequences are a crucial part of the learning. Remember, we learn from our mistakes – so let the learner make the mistakes here and see what happens.

As you design a branching program, first set out the “perfect route”. That is, go through the entire scenario the right way. Get that documented, and then do some critical error analysis to find those natural points where learners diverge from the ‘Yellow Brick Road’.

Tools like Articulate now support branching questions, so don’t feel like this approach is out of reach from a technical perspective. You just need to be sure you really need full branching for your scenario, as there's some design thinking to be done. Is learning what's down all of those paths really important for the learner to experience, or could you explain the consequences and get the point across?

Points to keep in mind

Regardless of which approach you end up using, keep in mind the key traits of a simulation:

• Accurate representation of real situations

• Opportunities to make realistic choices

• Accurate representation of the consequences

• Feedback and remediation on suboptimal choices

When you keep these principles in mind, your scenarios will be more focused, relevant and effective. And if you still want to put 3D Avatars in them - well, we won't stand in your way. Just don't put them in instead of the other good stuff...