Scenario-based learning (SBL) is one of the most effective ways to create highly effective learning content. Why? Because, unlike the “click next” type of content, scenarios force learners to engage with the content. And, depending on how they structure the scenarios, trainers can stimulate critical thinking among learners (or groups of learners), and build anticipation (“I wonder what happens next!”) to produce highly sticky courses.
eLearning Building Blocks
The objective of SBL is to provide realistic (or as close to real-life as possible!) skills to learners, that they can subsequently transfer to the workforce. However, to produce realistic scenarios, we sometimes go overboard with too many details and lots of situational data. In doing so, we risk causing cognitive overload among learners. Conversely, not providing sufficient data related to the “teachable items”, or framing scenarios without first offering proper context, may leave learners hamstrung in their decision-making.
Here are eight building blocks that help to create highly effective scenarios.
- The Context
There’s plenty of evidence to show that learning best occurs in the context in which learners plan to apply what they’ve learned. When building your eLearning scenarios, therefore, give consideration to the course objective (Sales Training, Fire Safety Drill, Convalescing Patient Care Protocols), and create your scenarios accordingly. For instance, if this is a Sales Training course, having scenarios related to acute patient care situations might not be the best way to go.
- The Story
Unless the scenario is an extremely simple one, story-based scenarios are more effective than disjoint, stand-alone situations. Building scenarios around a story not only helps learners relate to the course curriculum but also generates interest and promotes engagement.
- Make it relatable: Use a real-life work situation and captivating headlines and titles. For instance, use a company failure as a teachable story: “Losing the Meg Industry account – An in-depth look at what happened and why”.
- Weave a compelling plot: In the above scenario, it’s tempting to dive right into the story and list “what’s” and “why’s”. However, building gradual momentum in each segment of the scenario aids engagement. Create an effective “beginning” and suitable “ending” as bookends for the rest of the scenario.
- Be realistic: Identify key functions (if not actual personalities) involved in the story. Instead of being vague, highlight the role of Pre-sales or Marketing, or Legal to make the story realistic.
- Be descriptive: The best eLearning scenarios leave nothing to the imagination or dual interpretation. Since the objective of the scenario is to “learn from doing”, learners must know what they’ll learn from the scenario, and what they must do right to reach a successful outcome. Descriptive language, scripts, and dialogues aid in accomplishing those objectives.
- Focus on behavioral change: Some eLearning courses aim to inform learners. For such courses, multiple-choice “mini-scenarios” work fine. However, where behavior modification is involved, make sure your scenarios include specific behavioral elements you are attempting to change. For instance, if one cause for losing the Meg Industries account was the submission of a weak proposal, ensure the scenario highlights specific weaknesses, how they came about, and how learners can avoid them in the future.
- Highlight consequences: Real-life actions have consequences – and actions/decisions made in scenario settings must mimic that reality. This is especially true when building branching scenarios. In line with our lost sales opportunity, an example of highlighting a set of consequences might be:
- What would have been the outcome if the proposal was well-written, but that delayed submission beyond the deadline? Rejection. Loss of qualification points. Subject to dispute by competing firms.
- Could the outcome have been different had there been additional (more senior) resources deployed to the account: Other sales activity might have suffered? Proposal cost would escalate?
- What might have been the result if some activity (proposal writing, costing) happened in parallel with client negotiations? More rework. Multiple revisions to account for additional information as/when it became available.
To be an effective learning tool, learners must be able to explore the consequences of each of these outcomes through the scenario.
- Build scenarios with jump-off points and exit ramps: Some scenarios work best when learners go down a certain path and, upon realizing they have erred, can backtrack and go down a different path. Alternatively, they may decide to use the feedback they’ve received to date to pursue a different branch in the scenario. Best practices in scenario-building are to provide jump-off points and exit ramps so learners may decide when to stop exploring a scenario and, either make a decision or seek a different line of inquiry.
- Build interactivity in your scenarios: The best scenarios are ones that don’t simply “move the story along” by asking learners to click “Yes” or “No” or “Next”. Create inflection points in the scenario so that, upon providing a certain amount of information, learners must then interact with the scenario “engine”. Interactivity might take any forms, for instance:
- Seek a meeting with legal to discuss the non-disclosure clause in the contract
- A request for additional information about specific product features
- Asking SMEs if a less expensive product/service might meet client requirements
This type of interactivity not only encourages critical thinking but also stimulates engagement among learners, especially if this is a group participation scenario exercise.
- Provide constructive and critical feedback: Some scenario-builders prefer to use the “big reveal” approach – where learners only receive feedback at the end of the scenario (maybe 2-hours into the exercise!). Most learners would, however, prefer to receive critical feedback throughout the exercise. That way, they can review the consequences of their previous decisions, and pivot to a new path if necessary.
What’s the point of giving feedback at the end, such as “Sorry…we lost the Meg Industry Account – Please try again!”. Instead, provide helpful feedback at suitable milestones: “The quote you just selected is priced at $5 million. That’s $150k above the client’s budget!”.
Feedback doesn’t necessarily have to tell learners whether their responses are correct or incorrect.
As learners move through the scenario, constructive feedback (such as “Remember to also include Post-sales Support in the final cost”) can also help deliver teachable lessons.
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