Make Your Stories Relevant

Not all stories for learning are successful in engaging learners. Stories that are just there to be entertaining without being relevant can waste people’s time and annoy them. It might be entertaining to add a Mission: Impossible or wild west bank robbery theme to your corporate training, but is that the best way to engage your learners? In most cases, I don’t think it’s effective to add something totally unrelated to the content itself. In fact, it can backfire, as some companies have learned.

Let’s take the example of employee onboarding training. You could set up a story about an adventure on a remote island, where you explore different areas of the island to find information about your company. You could have flashy animation and professional voice actors, but this probably isn’t the best setup for a training.

Tropical island

Not all stories for training are created equal. Relevant context is critical. I think it would be more interesting to show the journey of a new employee in the company. If you create a completely fake context for learning, you might actually reduce the transfer to the job. In general, the more realistic the context for practice, the easier it is to transfer those skills to your real job.

I also hate sending learners the unspoken message that “your job is so boring that the only way we can get you to learn about it is with a silly story about a remote island.” No one intentionally sends that message, of course, but that can be the result.

You could exaggerate a bit for humor or drama, depending on the culture, as long as the main plot within the context of the job.  I once saw a great onboarding with intros to the team roles as sort of super versions of themselves. The multimedia developer had super powers of visual design; the project manager could juggle 10 projects at once. It was exaggerated and lighthearted, but it also emphasized the relevant parts of each role. It’s a tricky balance, and it depends a lot on the company culture. Sometimes companies are less open to that kind of playfulness.

Some tips for relevant stories:

  • Identifiable Characters: Learners should be able to identify with the characters in the story, especially the protagonist. The main character making decisions should be similar to the learners, both in role and in other characteristics if possible.
  • Obstacles: The obstacles the protagonist faces should be realistic and relevant.
  • Decisions: If there’s a simulation, the decisions learners make should be the kinds of decisions you want them to practice.
  • Distractors: The distractors should be plausible errors, ideally common errors.
  • Consequences: The consequences for decisions should be realistic (if a wrong choice would result in the customer getting angry, show that).

If you’re faced with the choice between an entertaining story that doesn’t directly connect to your learners’ jobs and a relevant story that emphasizes their actual day-to-day work, opt for relevancy. Don’t strand your learners on a remote island.

Image credit:

No Perfect Courses

One truth I have learned about instructional design is that I will never create a “perfect” course; there’s always something that could be better if I had more time or more resources or more skills.

When I interviewed for my first ID job, I asked my soon-to-be-peers the hardest part of their job. One answer stuck with me all these years. He said the hardest thing was knowing when to let go of a course. There’s always something more you could do, but at some point, you have to stop fiddling and launch it.

Handwritten word "imperfect" with doodles

When I go back to my old courses, I always find something I could improve—tightening up my language, tweaking the visual design to improve clarity, making an interaction more effective. Partly that’s because I always find something to revise in my writing after I’ve had time away from it. Partly that’s because I’m always learning, so I know how to do something now that I didn’t know when I created the course. I can make courses free of errors (typos, factual errors, etc.), but “perfect” is a goal that doesn’t really exist.

It’s hard for someone with perfectionist tendencies like me to admit that perfection isn’t attainable. This is, perhaps, an argument for rapid prototyping or agile development like SAM. If you release a minimum viable product to your audience, then you can keep iterating closer and closer to the ideal. You can let go of trying to be perfect at the start because you know you have lots of opportunities to fix it.

This is also an argument for planning to review and revise courses on a regular basis. I admit I haven’t been doing enough of this, especially since I’ve been consulting and not working as an internal ID. Too often, I hand off a course to a client and never even find out what happens after launching. I could do a better job selling clients on the idea of reviewing a course 60 or 90 days after launch and making improvements if needed.

Do you agree that there are no “perfect” courses? How do you handle it in your own work?

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?

Mini-Scenarios for Assessment

Scenario-based learning often means complex branching or simulations, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. You can use mini-scenarios to make your assessments more relevant and valuable. One of the big advantages of using mini-scenarios is that they’re fast and easy to build. You don’t need any special tools; any tool that can create a multiple choice question can be used for mini-scenarios.

Traditional Assessment or Mini Scenario

Imagine you’re creating a course for managers about motivation and using rewards effectively. You could ask a fairly typical comprehension question like this:

What is the best strategy for encouraging long-term behavior change in your employees?

  1. Threaten punishment for anyone not changing their behavior
  2. Offer a small reward for changing behavior
  3. Offer a large reward for changing behavior

If you have introduced this concept already, this question probably aligns to that content and to your learning objective. However, it’s very abstract. Compare that question to this one:

Andrew is a sales manager who has been struggling to motivate his team to better performance. He sent his team to a conference where they learned about sharing stories about previous happy customers to improve sales. A few salespeople really like using this technique, but he wants everyone to start using it more. In the long term, he wants to change their attitudes about the technique.

What should Andrew do to encourage his team?

  1. Threaten punishment for anyone not using storytelling
  2. Offer a small reward for using storytelling
  3. Offer a large reward for using storytelling

In the second example, a mini-scenario sets up the question. This provides context and makes it a concrete situation with a problem to solve rather than an abstract comprehension question. Now this is about applying the concept in a relevant situation rather than just remembering what you read.

Using a mini-scenario added a total of four sentences to the question. This is actually longer than many of my mini-scenarios; one or two sentences are often enough. You could use this assessment question in any tool, even using the built-in quizzing for many LMSs. It doesn’t take much more time to write than a traditional multiple choice question.

I have often found mini-scenarios useful for helping clients try out scenario-based learning without having to commit to something more complex and expensive. This is a way they can dip their toe in the water without having to do a completely scenario-based course. Even in a fairly traditional linear e-learning course, using mini-scenarios can make your knowledge checks more engaging and effective.

Image Credit: Graphic Stock

Giving Thanks

"I'm thankful for mommy and dada and the leaves and the cookies." Happy Thanksgiving! E

As we celebrate Thanksgiving in the US this week, I’ve been reflecting on how much I have to be thankful for.

I have a career where I get to write, be creative, and solve problems. I’m always learning new content, skills, and technology.

I’m grateful for working from home and the flexibility of setting my schedule. Yes, I often work at night after my two-year-old daughter goes to bed or early in the morning before she wakes up, but that means I get to spend more time reading and playing with her.

My daughter, “E,” made the card above at preschool. As you can see, she has her own list of what she’s thankful for. I can’t argue with anything on her list. :)

I’m thankful for everyone who reads my blog, comments, and shares. Social media has allowed me to connect with so many wonderful, smart, talented people.

Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this week or not, I hope you have much to be thankful for in your work, friends, and family.