The Art of Building and Using Scenarios in ELearning Courses

At a very macro level, a scenario is a story-based learning aid, set around realistic (or real-like) situations, which highlight potential consequences of behavioral choices. They are built to generate learner interaction with the content and provide meaningful feedback between learner and trainer. Sounds rather complex at first read. So, let’s explore scenarios in greater detail, and understand their role in creating highly engaging and impactful eLearning content.

Understanding what scenarios do

Sometimes, learners dread the thought of attending training – for instance, mandatory certification courses. They’re dull, routine, and repetitive, with not much to look forward to. At other times, eLearning topics may be extremely simple – for instance a course on building fire protocols, or exceptionally technical and complex – for example, a course on calibrating and troubleshooting digital weighing scales.

The result in all these instances: Instant learner disengagement!

By switching to scenario-based eLearning, trainers can:

  • Breathe new life into dull and lackluster topics
  • Inject elements of practical application to stimulate learner interest
  • Increase learner engagement by encouraging thought, reflection, and action throughout the course

The challenge, for most eLearning instructional designers and L&D professionals, however, is deciding how to design scenarios that work, and when to use them effectively.

Scenario building blocks

Like any component of eLearning creation, scenario-building is a rules-based enterprise. Here are 3 golden rules to keep in mind when putting your scenarios together:

  • Focus scenarios to your training goals and objectives

In their eagerness to make scenarios “interesting”, many L&D teams focus on introducing interesting situations, characters, and circumstances into the scenario. Excessive focus on “interest” often leads to scenarios that are only tangential to the learning goals to be accomplished, or the performance objectives to be met.

Takeaway: Make learning objectives the center of any scenario.

  • Make your characters and situations realistic

Hypothetical scenarios often trigger hypothetical reception in learners: “Oh…that’ll never apply to me!”. To stimulate interest and foster learner engagement, make your eLearning scenarios as realistic as possible. Model your script around a real-life work situation or challenge (“Why we lost the Meg Industry Account last month”). And keep roles and titles as realistic as possible (“Foreman” instead of “Boss”; or “Account Manager” instead of “The Executive In charge”).

Takeaway: Building learning scenarios around real-life situations and characters put learning into relatable context to the learner instead of making it a hypothetical occurrence.

  • Be as descriptive and visual as possible

Sometimes, focusing on a real/realistic scenario may result in learner myopia – i.e. learners are so laser-focused on the “plot” itself (loss of a major account), that they fail to grasp the “teachable moments” of the scenario. To make eLearning scenarios more effective, provide adequate context so learners wade through the situation as it unfolds, and don’t dive into it head-on.

Why did we lose the account? Don’t just enumerate the reasons why. Explain what lead-up to the issues, and provide remedial steps that might have resulted in a positive scenario outcome. Show learners (redacted – if needed) actual examples of poor communications. Underscore weaknesses in the proposal with live examples.

Takeaway: Don’t just make the story a focus of the scenarios, add a beginning and end, along with descriptive annotations and exhibits, to provide context and connection to the scenario

Effective use of scenarios

There are two basic types of course content used in typical eLearning courses: Informational content, and content aiming for behavioral change. Typically, scenarios to support the former objectives are simple in construct; whereas it’s better to train and assess learners on higher-level critical thinking and performance using more complex scenarios.

Simple scenarios

A simple scenario, sometimes called a mini-scenario, might work well to assess comprehension of basic instructions or information. It does not seek to assess performance gaps, encourage decision-making, influence behavioral changes, or highlight consequences from decisions or actions resulting from the scenario.

One way to use simple scenarios effectively is through multiple choice questions around short, simple scenarios:

SCENARIO: It’s after hours and the office is closed for the day. A courier brings an important package for the CEO. What should the night-watch staff do?

  1. Give the courier the CEO’s address and ask him to re-route the package?
  2. Call the CEO and ask for her instructions?
  3. Receive the package and hand it to the CEO’s secretary the next morning
  4. Call the night Supervisor and ask for instructions

ADDITIONAL NOTE: The company has a strict “no personal info exchange” policy, and it enforces its chain-of-command very rigorously.

This simple scenario may work well in a training course on standard operating procedures (SOPs). All information related to the scenario may already be covered in detail in appropriate SOPs or employee manuals. Additional notes don’t offer a hint of which response is right or wrong – just provide additional context to help learners make the right choice.

Complex scenarios

Advanced behavioral change, assessment, and remediation of performance gaps, and encouraging complex decision-making require more than simple scenarios. These types of learning needs may be met through the use of complex scenarios, including branching scenarios.

Branching scenarios typically involve a cascade of decisions, where one decision from a scenario might lead to subsequent situations requiring additional decision-making. One common mistake, in assuming that complex branching scenarios are necessary, is when trainers create content to explain lengthy processes. That’s a mistake! Repetitive process steps, however lengthy, aren’t suited to complex eLearning scenarios.

Complex branching is also of great use in scenarios where one situation could potentially have multiple causes, but the correct resolution of the situation may only occur if learners respond correctly to multiple series of questions. This use case of branching teaches learners the effectiveness of not just asking the right questions; but also, of determining when to stop asking questions and start acting on the assimilated information.

A great example of the effective use of complex branching scenarios is in IT customer support training. When a customer calls the helpline, he/she might only be aware of the possible reasons that lead to the call. They simply know there is an “issue”. Using complex branching scenarios, trainers may sharpen a learner’s troubleshooting skills to enable them to determine the root cause quickly, and start remediation action soon thereafter.

Making eLearning scenarios work

In their publication (Lave, J., & Wenger, E. 1991). Learning in Doing: Social, cognitive, and computational perspectives. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation.) Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger advanced learning the theory that learning best occurs in the context in which knowledge learned (or skills acquired) is to be applied.

These views, on situated learning and situated cognition, are what makes scenario-based learning so engaging and effective. When learners can’t fully benefit from learning-by-doing in a real-life environment, scenario learning is the most effective method to deliver stated learning objectives.

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