Category: Instructional Design

3 Tricks for Working with SMEs on Branching Scenarios

If you’ve ever worked with a SME on scenario-based learning, you know it can sometimes be challenging. SMEs who are accustomed to working on traditional elearning may be uncomfortable or unsure how to help you write scenarios. I have used these 3 tricks to help SMEs get “unstuck” while working together.

Working with SMEs on Branching Scenarios

Ask for Their Stories

SMEs almost always have a collection of good stories about their topic. The trick is figuring out how to get those stories out of their heads and into a format you can use in a course.

Try these questions to gather for stories and consequences:

  • Can you give me an example of how someone used this technique successfully? What were they able to accomplish by doing it right?
  • What are the common mistakes people make? What happens when they make that error?

You may have to keep probing for more details with follow up questions like, “Tell me more about…” or “What happened next?”

The questions above give both positive and negative examples, plus the consequences for actions. The success story can become the outline for the correct path in your branching scenario. The mistakes help you identify the decision points in your scenario and the consequences following those choices.

Start Writing Even If It’s Wrong

Sometimes it’s hard to get anything from a SME. We’ve all worked with SMEs who were too busy to get on the phone or sit down for a meeting, or who replied to all of our questions with one- or two-word answers. I worked with one SME whose thought processes are so linear that she literally couldn’t read a flow chart unless someone physically sat next to her and pointed at each box while explaining it.

For whatever reason, if you’re having trouble drawing information out from a SME, start writing something yourself. Do your research–review existing training materials, online articles, books, blogs, etc. Make your best guess and start writing a scenario as best you can. The trick is, it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong. At this stage, you’re just trying to get something other than a blank page. Ask the SME to review it and point out all your errors. Even a recalcitrant SME will have a hard time not correcting your mistakes–and now you suddenly have more realistic mistakes or consequences.

Prototype Early

SMEs frequently have a hard time envisioning how a storyboard will translate into a final product. Creating a prototype early helps them see how everything will work and how learners will progress through the scenario.

No matter how hard you work on the storyboard, even with multiple rounds of revision and a final approval, expect at least some small changes once the scenario is built and functioning. Build a few iterations into your project plan. An early prototype helps catch major problems before you build the entire scenario. If your SME is stuck, a prototype of part of the scenario might help them see how to fill in the gaps for the rest of the scenario.

Your Tricks?

Do you have a great trick for working with SMEs on branching scenarios? Tell me about it in the comments!

Read More

Read all my posts about Storytelling and Scenario-Based Learning.

A Range of Options for Scenarios and Storytelling

When someone mentions scenario-based learning, do you automatically think of complex branching scenarios? While that’s one way to implement scenarios (and a very effective one!), I don’t think it’s the only option. A range of options are available, from passive to active. Even if you can’t convince your organization to invest in full-blown branching, you can find less intensive alternatives to incorporate scenarios and storytelling. Some of these options can work for both elearning and instructor-led training. In fact, you may already be using some of these methods.

Scenario-Based Learning Options from passive to active

Provided Examples

When I take instructor-led courses, often the most valuable part of the training is the stories the trainer tells. The stories are often about how a real person applied this training in their jobs or about how a failure to apply principles caused problems. Stories with examples make the abstract concrete. It’s one thing to talk about customizing footers in Word; it’s another to tell the story of a past student who manually typed in page numbers for a 400+ page document because she didn’t know how to make it work. (That is a real example from my software training days. In her defense, it wasn’t straightforward numbering. Do you know how to add chapter numbers and how to exclude the first page from the count?)

Examples are the most passive method of using scenarios and storytelling, but they still work. They can be used both in classroom training and elearning. Examples can make concepts relevant, show why a topic is important, or show how others have solved problems.

Mini-Scenarios

Mini-scenarios, or one-question scenario assessments, are slightly more active than just listening to an example. Set up a short scenario and ask learners a multiple choice question. I frequently use this technique with clients who are just dipping their toes in scenario-based learning but aren’t ready to jump into full-blown branching or simulations. You can use this technique for practice or assessment, even in a linear elearning course. In ILT, use a scenario to pose a question to the class. Ask which choice they would make with a show of hands.

Here’s an example:

Andrew is a sales manager who has been struggling to motivate his team. He sent his team to a workshop 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

Two Narrators with Decisions

Rather than using a single narrator for elearning voice over, you can use two narrators having a conversation to deliver content. Set up a story where one character has a problem to solve, and a more experienced character mentors and trains the first character how to improve. This is still mostly passive delivery, but it’s more engaging than traditional elearning. Adding a few questions where learners help the narrator solve a problem makes it more active and lets learners practice in a realistic context.

Pamela and Michael discussing coaching

Case Study with Practice

If a case study is just read, it’s a passive example. If you use the case study as a prompt for practice, it’s more active. Case studies are used in both ILT and elearning. They can be used to start discussions (either in person or online) or for group work.

Branching Scenarios

Branching scenarios are one of the most active methods of using scenarios for learning, short of simulations and serious games. Branching lets learners make choices and see the consequences of their actions. It gives them a safe space to fail and learn from mistakes.

Role Play or Simulation

Role play exercises and simulations are some of the most active ways to use storytelling. Simulations and role plays are more immersive and open-ended. Learners must make multiple decisions, and feedback comes in the forms of consequences and may be delayed. Role play exercises require skilled facilitation to keep everything running smoothly and to debrief afterwards. Simulations require more intensive development and resources. Both of these tools can be very effective at practicing skills to improve job performance.

What Else?

What did I forget from my list? How are you using storytelling in your courses? Which of these methods do you find works best for your audience?

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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.

Characters

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.

Context

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.

Challenge

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.

Consequences

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!

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.

smile_sheets

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 SmileSheets.com. If you need a discount for buying multiple copies of the book, use the second link.

 

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Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills

Do instructional designers or learning experience designers need to know how to use development tools, or should they focus just on analysis and design? What about people who only do development but no design; are they instructional designers? How much project management falls under the role of instructional designer? What about LMSs—do instructional designers need to know about those too? Psychology, cognitive science, graphic design, usability, and other fields also overlap with instructional design. The Many Hats of an Instructional Designer game describes us as counselors, performers, users, artists, and problem solvers.

Many of us in the instructional design field struggle to explain to others what we do for a living. I usually say, “I’m an instructional designer; I develop online learning.” I think part of our struggle is that we haven’t agreed even among ourselves what exactly an instructional designer does. The range of roles and responsibilities is pretty wide. Lots of us do a little bit of everything. Nearly 16% of respondents in the eLearning Guild’s 2015 salary report identified their job as “do a lot/little of everything.” Clearly many people do work that doesn’t fit neatly into a single job category.

The core skill for instructional designers is creating learning experiences. I would argue that anyone who isn’t creating learning experiences isn’t an instructional designer; they’re working in a related role. That doesn’t necessarily mean only designing formal learning and courses. Creating job aids or supporting informal learning could be a core task for instructional designers too. However, if your role is taking a storyboard created by someone else and building it in a rapid development tool, you’re not really doing instructional design. I would classify that as elearning development or media development instead.

T-Shaped: ID Skills. On the horizontal bar of a T, broad skills. On the vertical bar of a T, deep skills.

Cammy Bean refers to this as a “T-shaped” skill set in her book The Accidental Instructional Designer (p. 16).

We need broad skills and understanding (the top of the T), with potentially one area of deep expertise (the vertical bar of the T). The horizontal bar enables you to communicate and collaborate with experts across a wide range of disciplines, making you a versatile generalist with a well-rounded point of view. The deep vertical bar makes you a specialist.

I love this idea. It’s a great visual for thinking about how people have different strengths in a field where we all wear a lot of hats. Knowing where you’re strong helps you focus your career. You can work on your weaknesses or gaps in your skills, but you can also emphasize and focus on your strengths. As a freelance ID, I can focus on design and writing, especially writing scenario-based learning. That’s my strength, and it’s where I can differentiate myself from others in the field.

What about you? Does this metaphor resonate for you, or does it not quite fit your role? What do you consider to be the vertical bar in your T?

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