Consider 4 Cs in Scenario-Based Learning

When I create scenarios for learning, I keep these four elements in mind: characters, context, challenge, and consequences.


4 Cs of Scenarios: Characters, Context, Challenge, and Consequences

The main character of your scenario who drives the action should generally be someone similar to your learners. Even if the main character isn’t named and the scenario is in second person (What do you do next?), the role of that character should be familiar to your learners. Give your main character a goal that aligns to the learning objectives and that your learners share.

The other people your main character interacts with should be typical and mostly realistic, with perhaps a little exaggeration. If you’re doing customer service training, think about the different types of customers employees interact with. If you’re creating manager training, the other characters might be employees and coworkers.


The context is the background for the situation. This is often implied by the training, especially if the scenario is part of a larger course. The context isn’t just shared with words. When you add a photo background for a scenario, you show learners the context rather than telling them. Your learners’ work environment should match this context. It’s easier to transfer learning to a similar situation than one that’s radically different.

A hospital room on the left; comfy chairs in a corporate lobby on the right

These two backgrounds provide very different contexts for scenarios.


Your characters face challenges in the scenario. Those are the points where learners have to make a decision or take an action. The challenges are where the learning happens. Think about the frequent obstacles: faulty technology, impatient customers, or a limited budget. Common mistakes are good challenges to include. If sales associates often forget to provide a recommendation at a specific point in the sales process, include that point in the scenario. Give learners a choice to make a recommendation or not. You might also include challenges that happen less often but are critical to address correctly. Sales associates won’t often have to deal with a customer so angry that they threaten violence, but it’s important to know how to handle that volatile situation.


Especially in branching scenarios, the feedback should be part of the scenario rather than something you just tell them. A customer gets angry, a patient refuses to follow your recommendations, the technology continues to malfunction, or you run out of budget two months before your project is finished. Show learners the consequences of their mistakes rather than just telling them. You might also provide coaching or instructional feedback, especially for novice learners, but don’t neglect the consequences of their actions.

While this isn’t a complete list of everything you need for scenarios, these are elements I see people omit or downplay. Which of these four elements do you find most challenging to incorporate into your scenarios?

More Reading

Interested in reading more? Check out all my posts on storytelling and scenarios.

This is post number 1000 on my blog! Thanks for reading!

Benefits of Scenario-Based Learning

Why are scenarios effective for learning? They provide realistic context and emotional engagement. They can increase motivation and accelerate expertise. Here’s a selection of quotes explaining the benefits.

Benefits of Scenario-Based Learning

Accelerating Expertise with Scenario-Based e-Learning – The Watercooler Newsletter : The Watercooler Newsletter: Ruth Clark on how scenario-based elearning accelerates expertise and when to use it

What is Scenario-Based e-Learning?

  1. The learner assumes the role of an actor responding to a job realistic situation.
  2. The learning environment is preplanned.
  3. Learning is inductive rather than instructive.
  4. The instruction is guided.
  5. Scenario lessons incorporate instructional resources.
  6. The goal is to accelerate workplace expertise.

As you consider incorporating scenario-based e-Learning into your instructional mix, consider whether the acceleration of expertise will give you a return on investment.  For example, interviews with subject matter experts indicated that automotive technicians must complete about 100 work orders to reach a reasonable competency level in any given troubleshooting domain.  Comparing delivery alternatives, OJT would require around 200+ hours, instructor-led training would require around 100 hours, and scenario-based e-Learning simulations require approximately 33–66 hours.

Finally, many learners find scenario-based e-Learning more motivating than traditional instructional formats.  Solving a work-related problem makes the instruction immediately relevant.

The Benefits of Scenario Based Training: Scenario-based training better reflects real-life decision making

There is no linear path into what they are subjected. The situations are complex. They often fail and they learn by reflection, becoming much better at the judgements they make next time, even though next time the environment and the scenarios presented are different.

After completing a few exercises, they build their own view of the patterns that are evident and are able to move into a new scenario with confidence even if the environment and scenario is radically different.

Learning on reflection before plunging into the next scenario helps to build the patterns in the participants’ minds that are the evidence that they have learnt.

Quizzes based on scenarios with a, “What would you do next?”, question builds quick and fun repetition into the training programme, helping transfer from short term memory to long term memory.

Scenario-based-learning: PDF explaining theory and how to decide if SBL is the right strategy

Scenario-based learning is based on the principles of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991), which argues that
learning best takes place in the context in which it is going to be used, and situated cognition, the idea that knowledge is
best acquired and more fully understood when situated within its context (Kindley, 2002).

SBL usually works best when applied to tasks requiring decision-making and critical thinking in complex situations. Tasks
that are routine to the students will require little critical thinking or decision-making, and may be better assessed using
other methods.

Checklist: Is SBL the right option? (Clark, 2009)
* Are the outcomes based on skills development or problem-solving?
* Is it difficult or unsafe to provide real-world experience of the skills?
* Do your students already have some relevant knowledge to aid decision-making?
* Do you have time and resources to design, develop, and test an SBL approach?
* Will the content and skills remain relevant for long enough to justify the development of SBL?

Learning through storytelling | Higher Education Academy: Why storytelling works for learning

Stories are effective tools for learning due to their ability to facilitate the following cognitive processes: i) concretizing, ii) assimilation, and iii) structurizing (Evans and Evans 1989).

Top 7 Benefits You Get From Scenario-Based Training: Infographic on benefits. “Falling forward,” accelerating time, critical thinking, shared context, engaging emotions, retention, trigger memories

Scenarios allow “falling forward”: Providing a safe space to fail helps build the capacity to fix mistakes as you would in real life

ID and E-Learning Links (9/5/16)

Instructional Design and E-Learning Links

  • Whether male or female voices are better for elearning narration may depend on what tone you’re trying to achieve, although the research results are a bit weak. Breaking tradition and stereotypes can sometimes be effective.

    tags:voiceover research gender

    • “Men’s voices are associated with neutrality, with authoritative, factual information,” explains Arthur Chu, a Cleveland-based artist who’s done voice over work for brands like Safeway and Intel. “The voiceover you want for some kind of authoritative instructional video, or something asserting dry historical fact, is going to be that baritone, somewhat monotone, slightly stern voice.”
    • “Because females tend to be the more nurturing gender by nature, their voices are often perceived as a helper, more compassionate, understanding, and non-threatening,” says Debbie Grattan, a veteran voice over artist for brands like Apple, Samsung, and Wal-Mart. “This can be important in instructional videos, (sense of patience and compassion in teaching a new skill), corporate/web narration, as well as commercial spots (conveying a less aggressive, more persuasive approach.)”
  • This research found a slight benefit to recall when using male narrators, but it’s a small study and the difference wasn’t large

    tags:voiceover research gender

    • There was a marginal difference in percentage of extrinsic words recalled in female vs. male narrator. There was no difference in number of extrinsic words recalled in male-visual, male-no visual, female-visual, female-no visual.
    • However, when percentage of extrinsic words recalled was analyzed between male and female voice conditions, there was marginal significance, where subjects in the male voice condition recalled a greater percentage of extrinsic words than subjects in the female voice condition. This marginal significance is not enough to definitively conclude that there is a relationship between gender of narrator and recall of extrinsic words.
  • Some gender stereotypes affect the perception of voice over, but gender is likely not the most important characteristic for retention. This post is older and not all the links to citations work

    tags:voiceover research gender

    • But most studies that I have seen indicate no statistically significant difference between retention by an audience of one gender of content delivered by a voice of another, or the same, gender.

      In my experience there are characteristics other than gender that play a much bigger role in engaging a learner audience. Things like dynamism, clarity, ’emotional bonding’ with the content, enthusiasm, and perceived subject matter expertise are more important than whether it is a male or a female voice.

  • This survey is about advertising, not elearning, but the results might be applicable in some situations. A male voice is viewed as more forceful, and a female voice is perceived as more soothing. Half of those surveyed said it made no difference though, and other results were mixed.

    tags:voiceover research gender

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Book Review: Performance-Focused Smile Sheets

On a scale from 1 to 5, how useful are your current level 1 evaluations or “smile sheets”?

  1. Completely worthless
  2. Mostly worthless
  3. Not too bad
  4. Mostly useful
  5. Extremely useful

Chances are, your training evaluations aren’t very helpful. How much useful information do you really get from those forms? If you know that one of your courses is averaging a 3.5 and another course is averaging a 4.2, what does that really mean? Do these evaluations tell you anything about employee performance?

Personally, I’ve always been a little disappointed in my training evaluations, but I never really knew how to make them better. In the past, I’ve relied on standard questions used in various organizations that I’ve seen over my career, with mixed results. Will Thalheimer’s book Performance-Focused Smile Sheets changes that by giving guidelines and example questions for effective evaluations.


Raise your hand if most of your evaluation questions use Likert scales. I’ve always used them too, but Thalheimer shows in the book how we can do much better. After all, how much difference is there between “mostly agree” and “strongly agree” or other vaguely worded scales? What’s an acceptable answer–is “mostly agree” enough, or is only “strongly agree” a signal of a quality course?

The book starts with several chapters of background and research, including how evaluation results should correspond to the “four pillars of training effectiveness.” Every question in your evaluation should lead to some action you can take if the results aren’t acceptable. After all, what’s the point of including questions if the results don’t tell you something useful?

The chapter of sample questions with explanations of why they work and how you might adapt them is highly useful. I will definitely pull out these examples again the next time I write an evaluation. There’s even a chapter on how to present results to stakeholders.

One of the most interesting chapters is the quiz, where you’re encouraged to write in the book. Can you identify what makes particular questions effective or ineffective? I’d love to see him turn this book into an interactive online course using the questions in that quiz.

I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in creating evaluations that truly work for corporate training and elearning. If you’re in higher education, the book may still be useful, but you’d have to adapt the questions since the focus is really on performance change rather than long-term education.

The book is available on Amazon and on If you need a discount for buying multiple copies of the book, use the second link.



ID and E-Learning Links (8/21/16)

Instructional Design and E-Learning Links

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.