Category: Instructional Design

What to Write First in Branching Scenarios

Writing a branching scenario can be intimidating or overwhelming. Unlike a linear course, it’s not as easy to know where to start writing. Do you write the endings first? Do you write all the mistakes first? Do you start at the beginning and then flesh out each path as you write those choices?

I have found that it’s easiest to write the ideal path from start to finish first. I note decision points and sometimes draft bad choices along the way, but I don’t fully write anything else until I finish the ideal path.

What to Write First in Branching Scenarios

Writing the Ideal Path from the Outline

In my last post, I explained how I create an outline of the steps in the scenario. This is my plot outline for the story if learners take the “ideal path,” making the best decision at every step. For each step in the outline, create a situation in which the learner must choose to take that action. You create a decision point where the best choice is the first step in your outline.

Write the First Decision

Building on the example from my last post, a course on screening potential consulting clients, I have a process with 4 steps.

  1. Send client initial screening questions.
  2. Review client responses for fit and feasibility.
  3. Learn more about client needs during preliminary phone call.
  4. Propose a short road mapping engagement.

Because I did that planning in advance, I know exactly what I’m writing first: a decision where the right choice is sending the client initial screening questions.

Sophie receives an email from a prospective client, Robert.

Hello Sophie,

My company has 4 classroom training courses we’d like to convert to online. One of them is a half day course; the others range from one day to four days long. Can you please tell me what you would charge to convert these courses to online?

Regards,

Robert

What should Sophie do?

    1. Send Robert a price estimate.
    2. Send Robert some client screening questions.
    3. [[Some other OK choice TBD]]

Write the Remaining Ideal Decisions and Consequences

Once you have the first step written, the next thing you will write is the consequence from making that best decision in step one. In this example, the prospective client will reply to the email.

Robert replies with his answers to the screening questions.

[placeholder–questions and answers here]

What should Sophie do?

  1. These answers look reasonable. Schedule a call to discuss it further.
  2. [[OK choice TBD]]
  3. [[Bad choice TBD]]

Continue writing until you get to the end of the ideal path, showing the consequences for good decisions and how they lead to the next decision.

Don’t Write the Mistakes Yet

When I write my initial draft of the ideal path, I focus just on the correct or best choices first. I don’t write all of the mistakes and their consequences on the first pass through writing. As I draft choices, I might write down some of the bad choices if I already know them. For example, in step one, I know the mistake I’m trying to avoid is the first choice above of sending a price estimate without understanding the problem and scope first. However, at this stage of writing, it’s OK to just leave a placeholder for the other choices.

I find it helpful to indicate what kind of choices I still need in the placeholder. For most scenarios, the majority of decision points have a Good, OK, and Bad choice.  You can see how I noted that in my placeholders as “OK choice TBD” or “Bad choice TBD.”

Write the Ideal Ending and Feedback

At the end of the scenario, after learners have made all the correct decisions, write the ending. This should show the positive consequences of those choices. The ending should show what it looks like when people meet the learning objectives. In this example, the ending will show Sophie and Robert working together with a productive relationship.

You may also choose to include some more instructional feedback or coaching. At the end of the scenario, it can be helpful to tell people why the decisions they made were correct to reinforce what they learned.

Use Twine for Writing

I have tried a number of different tools and methods for writing branching scenarios. The open source tool Twine is my favorite for writing scenario drafts and creating quick prototypes. This makes it easy to see the connections between decision points. It’s also easy to leave placeholders for other choices that you will flesh out later.

More Reading

In my next post, I’ll describe how I write the mistakes and flesh out the rest of the scenario.

You might also be interested in my other posts on branching scenarios.

 

Planning a Branching Scenario

After I have completed my analysis for a branching scenario, I spend time planning before I start actually writing the content.

My planning includes three components:

  • A scenario concept and summary
  • An outline
  • A list of mistakes

Planning a branching scenario

Scenario Concept and Summary

I create a summary of the scenario and the narrative. This is included in the design document and signed off by the client and SME before I start writing. I want everyone on the same page for the basic concept of the scenario.

The summary includes the name and role of the main character, plus any other critical characters. I describe the problem the main character faces and how it will be addressed. This is just a few sentences to give the overall feel of the scenario without getting into much detail.

Here’s an example:

Sophie is an instructional design consultant. She’s tired of spending hours and hours writing proposals for clients who don’t end up hiring her or really aren’t a good fit in the first place. She has been contacted by Robert about a potential project. Sophie will attempt to follow a new process for screening clients to see if this is actually a good fit for her skills and to establish a professional relationship with Robert.

Create an Outline

I start with a rough outline or checklist of steps in the ideal process. Let’s say I’m creating a course on screening potential consulting clients, and I have a process with 4 steps. Each of these steps will be a decision point in the scenario.

  1. Send client initial screening questions.
  2. Review client responses for fit and feasibility.
  3. Learn more about client needs during preliminary phone call.
  4. Propose a short road mapping engagement.

It’s possible that when I write the scenario that I’ll realize I need to add another choice in this process, but this gives me the basic flow.

Identify Mistakes

Based on my analysis (including conversations with SMEs, learners, and/or other stakeholders), I also create a list of mistakes or errors people could make. This list tends to be fairly fluid for me; I try to brainstorm more mistakes and problems that I’ll actually use in the scenario. Some mistakes might be critical for the learning objectives, while others might be possible options.

Continuing the previous example, here is a list of potential mistakes I might use.

  • Agreeing to a client request for a project before screening for fit (critical–must include)
  • Sending client screening questions without a budget question
  • Ignoring red flags in client responses (not enough money, unrealistic timeline, etc.)
  • Rejecting a client because they don’t know what they want (that’s what road mapping is for)
  • Jumping right into asking about project logistics without understanding goal/problem
  • Writing a big proposal for free

I try to include both major, critical errors and some errors that are partially correct or in the gray area. Sometimes this list of mistakes also includes notes on consequences, although usually I have that in my notes from the SME.

I find it helpful to include both the outline and list of mistakes in the design document if possible. I haven’t always done it that way, but it seems to help set clear expectations with SMEs and clients.

Start Writing

Once I have all of those pieces together and approved, I start writing. In my next post, I’ll explain my process for creating the first draft.

Geometric background image: Storyblocks (7-day free trial, unlimited downloads $149/year)

Book Review: Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning

Patti Shank’s Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning is a summary of tactics you can use to create memorable, relevant practice opportunities and provide constructive, beneficial feedback for learners. Everything in the book is backed by research and written to be immediately usable by instructional designers and trainers.

Cover: Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning

This is the second installment in Patti’s “Make It Learnable” series, which is shaping up to be one of those sets of fundamental reading in the field of instructional design. The first book is Write and Organize for Deeper Learning; you can read my review of the first book. As with that book, this book gives you a shortcut to what really works based on evidence, without having to wade through complex (and often contradictory) research yourself. Specifically, this is based on training research, not research on K-12 or higher education learners.

Have you ever wondered…?

  • How do we create practice activities that will help transfer skills to the workplace?
  • Ho can we create practice activities that are more memorable?
  • How can we create more effective feedback than just “correct” and “incorrect”?
  • Do novice and experienced learners benefit from the same strategies?
  • How do we make sure learners are practicing the right skills and behaviors?
  • How can we help learners deal with errors and mistakes?
  • If we’re training a complex task, should we divide the task into small parts or train a simple version of the whole task?
  • Is it better to give feedback right away or to delay it?
  • What kinds of realism are important to training practice? Is it necessary to use lots of multimedia to make training look exactly like the work environment?
  • Is it better to set goals for specific performance levels or goals for making progress in learning?

All of these questions are addressed in this book through 5 overall strategies divided into 26 tactics.

Go buy Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning now. Read it, and then pick something relevant to apply to your own work. After all, the best way to improve your own learning design is to practice using these tactics yourself.

Adapting Resumes from Teaching to Instructional Design

Current teachers who are looking to make a career change often ask me for advice on how to adapt their resume for instructional design. Teachers already have many relevant skills for instructional design, but they don’t always know how to convey that to employers.

Principles for Adapting Teaching Resumes

    • List writing, lesson planning, and content creation first: Switch the order in which you talk about your skills and accomplishments. Instead of starting with teaching and training (even though those are the skills you use the most), put creating lesson plans and curriculum first. Emphasize all the points about writing over the ones about being in the classroom.
    • Say more about lesson planning and curriculum creation: You can probably reduce how much detail you spend on the actual teaching and focus more on the lesson plan creation. In many respects, it’s more important that you created curriculum and lesson plans to meet objectives and give students opportunities to practice skills. The fact that you then taught those lessons you created is secondary.
    • Use active verbs: Use active verbs to describe how you “designed,” “created,” or “wrote” lesson plans and “developed” curriculum, activities, and handouts.
    • Include objectives and assessment: You may want to include how you wrote objectives and assessed student performance in meeting those objectives.
    • Mention collaborative development: Talk about collaborative work. Committees are OK, but collaborative curriculum design is better if you have that kind of experience.
    • De-emphasize or eliminate course info: If your current resume talks about specific courses you taught, de-emphasize or remove that.
    • Remove or reduce standards: If your current resume mentions specific state or national standards that you are meeting, remove or reduce that. I would remove them for most corporate work, but those standards might be relevant for some highly regulated industries or for higher ed jobs where you need to meet accreditation standards.

 

Adapting Resumes from Teaching to Instructional Design

Example Revision

As an example, let’s look at how my resume evolved over the years. My summary for my first teaching job was pretty much just a list of what I taught, and therefore not very effective.

Original Version

Music and Band Teacher

  • General Music: Kindergarten, 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades
  • 5th grade Beginner Band and small group lessons
  • Junior High Band
  • High School Band, High School Music Appreciation and High School Pep Band

First, I summarized all of that teaching into a single bullet point.

Revision 1

  • Taught General Music, Band, and Music Appreciation for Kindergarten through High School

Next, I added a bullet point about content I created. The new bullet point comes first

Revision 2

  • Designed curriculum for a pilot high school Music Appreciation class, including readings, review worksheets, quizzes, tests, and group projects for engaged learning
  • Taught General Music, Band, and Music Appreciation for Kindergarten through High School

I followed a similar process for my second teaching position.

Revision 3

Music, Band, and Choir Teacher 2000-2002

  • Developed curriculum in collaboration with other teachers in the Specials team to ensure consistency and alignment with long-term goals
  • Measured student achievement of objectives
  • Revised plans in response to assessment of student understanding
  • Adapted instructional materials to meet varied needs, including learning disabilities
  • Provided technical assistance to fellow teachers using Excel, Word, and PowerPoint
  • Taught General Music, Band, and Chorus classes for 5th through 8th Grade

Music and Band Teacher 1999-2000

  • Designed curriculum for a pilot high school Music Appreciation class, including readings, review worksheets, quizzes, tests, and group projects for engaged learning
  • Taught General Music, Band, and Music Appreciation for Kindergarten through High School

Some of the old versions of my resume listed other skills and tasks performed. Phrases like this might be helpful in resumes as well.

Researched best practices in education to continually improve teaching.

Designed and implemented curriculum for multiple classes for varied age and ability levels.

Assessed student understanding and adapted instructional materials to meet varied needs.

Translated long-term goals into daily objectives

Looking for more info?

Immediate and Delayed Consequences in Branching Scenarios

In branching scenarios, we can use a combination of immediate and delayed consequences and feedback. Consequences are what happens as a result of decisions; feedback is what we tell learners after decisions.

Immediate & Delayed Consequences

Use Immediate Consequences Often

Immediate consequences are the intrinsic effects of decisions. A customer who responds angrily, software that doesn’t produce the desired result, or time lost on a project could all be immediate consequences. These consequences don’t directly tell the learner, “Sorry, that was incorrect.” Learners have to perceive and understand the cues in the scenario. They have to draw conclusions based on those cues.

If your learners will need to follow cues when they apply what they’re learning, it’s helpful to provide real-world consequences in your scenario. It’s beneficial to practice interpreting cues.

Immediate consequences that simulate real-world cues can also be more engaging than the omniscient narrator dictating what you did right or wrong.  It keeps learners in the mindset of the story without hitting them over the head with a reminder that they’re learning something.

Use Immediate Feedback with Novices

Immediate feedback is different from intrinsic consequences. This is the instructional feedback or coaching that directly tells learners why their decisions are right or wrong. While this can pull people out of the “flow” of a story, immediate feedback can be helpful in some situations.

First, novice learners who are still building mental models of a topic may benefit more from immediate feedback. Novices may not have the expertise to sort through real-world cues and draw accurate conclusions from them.  Therefore, it may be more important to provide immediate feedback after each decisions in a branching scenario if your audience is new to the topic.

In his research report “Providing Learners with Feedback,” Will Thalheimer explains the benefits of immediate feedback for novices.

“On the surface of it, it just doesn’t make sense that when a learner is piecing together arrays of building blocks into a fully-formed complex concept, they wouldn’t need some sort of feedback as they build up from prerequisite concepts. If the conceptual foundation they build for themselves is wrong, adding to that faulty foundation is problematic. Feedback provided before these prerequisite mental modelettes are built should keep learners from flailing around too much. For this reason, I will tentatively recommend immediate feedback as learners build understanding.”

Provide Instructional Feedback Before a Retry

I always use feedback before restarting a scenario.  If a learner has reached an unsatisfactory ending in a scenario, it’s beneficial to do a short debrief of their decisions and what went wrong. Especially for more experienced learners, some of that feedback may be delayed from when they made the decision. You can summarize the feedback for several previous decisions on the path that led to the final decision.

This feedback should happen before they are faced with the same scenario decisions again. Otherwise, they could make the same mistakes again (reinforcing those mistakes) or simply guess without gaining understanding.

Thalheimer’s research also supports this.

“When learners get an answer wrong or practice a skill inappropriately, we ought to give them feedback before they attempt to re-answer the question or re-attempt the skill. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should give them immediate feedback, but it does mean that we don’t want to delay feedback until after they are faced with additional retrieval opportunities.”

Use Delayed Feedback with Experienced Learners

Thalheimer notes that delayed feedback may be more effective for retention (i.e., how much do learners remember). That effect might be due to the spacing effect (that is, reviewing content multiple times, spaced out over times, is better for learning than cramming everything into a single event). The delay for feedback doesn’t have to be long; one study mentioned in Thalheimer’s report showed that delaying feedback by 10 seconds improved outcomes.

Delayed feedback may also be more appropriate for experienced learners who are improving existing skills rather than novices building new skills. Experienced learners already have mental models in place, so they don’t have the same needs for immediate correction as novices. They can get the benefit of delayed feedback.

Use Delayed Feedback with Immediate Consequences

In branching scenarios, we can use a combination of immediate intrinsic consequences (e.g., an angry customer response) and delayed instructional feedback (e.g., you didn’t acknowledge the customer’s feelings). Feedback before a retry or restart could count as delayed if it includes feedback for multiple decisions. If you let learners make 2 or 3 wrong choices before a restart, the combined feedback will effectively be delayed.

Use Delayed Consequences When Realistic

We  don’t always immediately know our mistakes are wrong in real life. Sometimes the consequence isn’t obvious right away. Sometimes it seems like a gain the short run, but causes problems in the long run. If that’s the kind of situation you’re training for, letting people continue on the wrong path for a little while makes sense. Neither limited branching nor immediate failure allow you to show delayed consequences.

Providing these delayed consequences has the advantage of better learning from delayed feedback, plus it creates a more realistic and engaging story. Delayed consequences shouldn’t be forced into a scenario where it’s not realistic, but they are a good way to show the long-term effects of actions.

Think about how delayed consequences could be shown in these examples:

  • A bartender gives away many free drinks. The immediate consequence is that the customers are happy, but the delayed consequence is a loss of profit for the bar.
  • A sales associate sells a customer a product that is less expensive but meets the customer’s needs. The immediate consequence is that the sales associate makes less commission that day, but the delayed consequence is that the customer is loyal and refers 2 friends. In this case, the total commission earned is higher even though the immediate sale was lower.
  • A doctor could skip a screening question with a patient. The immediate consequence is finding something that looks like the problem, but the delayed consequence is the actual underlying problem remaining.
  • A manager asks an ID to create training. The ID gets started building it right away, trusting that the team requesting the training knows their needs. The immediate consequence is a happy manager, but the delayed consequence is ineffective training that doesn’t actually solve the business problem.
  • If you’re teaching ethics, a small ethical lapse early in the scenario might not seem like a big deal. The immediate consequence might be meeting a deadline or increased recognition.  In the long run, that small lapse leads a continued need to cover up your actions. The Lab: Avoiding Research Misconduct is an example with delayed consequences in some paths.

Looking for More?

Read more about branching scenarios: