Show, Don’t Tell For Scenario Feedback

One of the most common mistakes I see in scenario-based learning is using feedback to tell learners what was right or wrong instead of showing them.

Take the following example of a branching scenario to practice counseling someone on dietary choices. One mistake learners can make in the scenario is setting a goal that is too difficult. If the learners recommend a goal of cutting out all added sugar and soda, you could simply tell them they’re wrong and why it’s a bad choice like this:

“Sorry, that’s incorrect. If a goal is too difficult, it can reduce motivation. A smaller interim goal may have a better chance of success.”

In scenarios, it’s better to avoid explicitly stating that a choice is right or wrong. That breaks the realism of the scenario and makes it an academic exercise rather than a practice simulation. Instead of just telling learners that it’s a bad choice, you can show them the consequences of their decision. In this example, I used both the dialog showing the response of the person being counseled and his facial expression.

Frustrated college student saying, "o soda or added sugar at all? Wow, that sounds too hard. I don't think I could do that."

I selected a character from the eLearning Brothers library and picked five poses with a range of expressions from upset to happy. This is one place where it’s critical to have photos showing more than the standard stock photo happy expressions.  For each response in the branching scenario, I determined the motivation level on a five-point scale and matched the corresponding photo to the response.

1 person, 5 expressions

For many scenarios, the dialog and expression of the person would be enough to show whether or not the choice was right, wrong, or somewhere in between. Sometimes you need additional feedback though. Because this scenario deals with an invisible factor (motivation), I created an additional consequence with a motivation meter. The level of motivation increases and decreases depending on the choices the learner makes. This is another way to show consequences within the context of the scenario without becoming so academic as to say “Sorry, that’s incorrect.”


If your learners are novices, you may still need to provide coaching or instructional feedback about their choices. I prefer to use a coach for that instructional feedback to maintain some realism, and I always pair that instructional feedback with consequences that are shown to the learners.

How do you handle feedback in branching scenarios? Do you have a great example of how you showed learners consequences rather than simply telling them they were right or wrong?

9 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell For Scenario Feedback

  1. Hi Christy,
    Great points. I’ve not designed or delivered a scenario based learning solution but I do appreciate the force of the argument behind sticking with the scenario rather than jumping out at them with the teacher stick.
    I think Cathy Moore talks about something similar when she describes a scenario based on her ‘action mapping’ approach. The assumption is that the Instructional Designer is helping to provide a solution to the actual problem at hand rather than just to deliver a training course of indeterminate efficacy, and to ask people to make decisions in realistic situations.
    I was wondering whether you see more requests for a solution based approach such as you describe compared to an ‘off the shelf’ style training course? I currently work with a company in Japan who are selling an LMS, but because the LMS doesn’t come in a package with certain generic training courses , the HR department is unable to check off their boxes for ‘training solution’, and the LMS is not receiving due attention. In Japan, a potential client might not presume to suggest a solution different to that which existed last year, and the process of evaluating a potentially different approach may me seen as too much bother. How would you judge the climate in relation to the approach you describe in your own markets?

  2. Ruth Clark has argued that we should use both “intrinsic feedback” or consequences and “instructional feedback” in most situations. Some research supports that strategy, but it can be challenging to provide that instructional feedback without pulling people out of the scenario. You can make the feedback conversational and come from a coach character rather than a “teacher stick.” You can focus on providing hints and explanations WHY an answer is wrong rather than overtly saying, “That’s wrong.” In the real world, we usually have to figure out if something is right or wrong based on the consequences of our decisions. It makes sense that our learning environments should reflect the real world.

    Generally the clients who contact me are at least somewhat open to a scenario-based approach. Partly, that’s because I write about that and most of my portfolio examples demonstrate it. If you’re completely resistant to the idea of using scenarios, chances are, my portfolio won’t appeal to you and you’ll never even contact me.

    The big strategy for getting clients to do a more solution-based approach is to ask questions about the problem they’re trying to solve. I wrote an example conversation with a client about using scenarios. You may have to adapt that for Japanese culture, but if you can talk to someone who is connected to the real business need you may get more traction.

    Try asking questions like this to steer the question towards an underlying problem rather than just “checking a box” (several of these come from Bob Pike’s approach to prospective clients):
    Tell me about the problem you’re trying to solve.
    What is the cost or consequence if you don’t solve that problem?
    What have you already tried to fix the problem, if anything? What were the results?
    How would you know if the solution was successful? (Alternatively, What would success look like for the learners? What would success look like for the training?)

    To be honest, sometimes this won’t work. I turned down a project a few weeks ago where the answer to the questions above was basically that they needed to create courses so they could show that they provided training. They don’t care about business results, just checking a box. I walked away from that project.

    • Thanks for the detailed response. Yes, I can see what you’re saying. The scenario based approach with intrinsic feedback becomes a more emotional experience. I think people would find that refreshing. I’m not much of a gamer but I can sense elements of role playing games that allow people to roam freely within an environment and make choices about how to interact with the characters they meet.
      The solutions based approach is something that I’m familiar with. It helps the client to develop a vision. It was interesting that in your example conversation the ID reverse engineered the prospective client’s vision from the point that they had reached themselves, the need for an online training solution, and took them back to the reasons for that decision being made before heading in a more creative direction.
      Yes, I believe that the equivalent conversation in Japanese would require adaptation, and that ultimately it would depend on the willingness / ability of the client to be guided to a potentially more successful approach. I currently work with many universities across Japan and the mix is roughly 50/50 for those who will entertain an option different to the conclusion they have arrived at themselves and those who will not.

      • 50% isn’t a terrible starting point. Maybe after you did a few projects like this you’d gain a reputation and be able to convince more people. In a university environment, I’d focus the conversation more on long term learning maybe rather than short term goals. It can be an uphill battle. If you can make even a little progress, that’s something.

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