8 Kinds of Training Where Scenario-Based Learning Works

In her book Scenario-Based eLearning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, Ruth Clark identifies 8 learning domains where scenario-based learning can be used effectively. These common topics for workplace training all involve more strategic decision-making rather than simply following a checklist of tasks.

  1. Interpersonal skills
  2. Compliance policies and procedures
  3. Diagnosis and repair
  4. Research, analysis, and rationale
  5. Trade-offs
  6. Operational decisions and actions
  7. Design
  8. Team coordination

Let’s look at each one of these kinds of training with some examples of what might be included.

8 Kinds of Training that Work with Scenario-Based Learning

Interpersonal skills

Simulated conversations as branching scenarios are great ways to practice interpersonal and communication skills. This is a common place to use branching, and one of the types of scenarios I most commonly build for clients.

For example, this branching scenario helps doctors practice talking to a patient about alcohol use to motivate the patient to change his behavior.

Compliance policies and procedures

We’ve all taken boring compliance training. “Oh look, another course on corporate ethics or blood borne pathogens, how exciting.”

But think about the drama in ethics or sexual harassment–those topics are ripe with stories and examples of what happens when things go wrong.

Blood borne pathogens always seems to be taught as a straightforward “here’s what they are, here’s why they’re bad, here’s what to do” approach. Why not grab people’s attention right from the start by telling a story about someone who didn’t pay attention and might have gotten infected? Use the story to show them why it matters.

The Lab by the Office of Research Integrity is a great example of ethics training with a compelling story and consequences for poor decisions. (Note that this is a few years old and requires Flash.)

Diagnosis and repair

Diagnosing a problem requires deeper analysis than can be practiced or measured via a single multiple choice question. You might try several different questions or tests to determine the root cause. Those steps might not need to always happen in the same order, which makes a non-linear practice exercise ideal. However, sometimes a troubleshooting skill would be better practiced with a more complex simulation than a branching scenario.

Examples of diagnosis and repair skills:

  • Doctors asking questions to diagnose a patient
  • Technicians determining how to fix an intermittent problem on a car
  • Managers investigating why performance has dropped in a team
  • Network engineers troubleshooting network reliability problems

Diagnosis and repair may have a single “right answer,” which makes these skills a little different from some others where branching scenarios are helpful.

Research, analysis, and rationale

Research and analysis require gathering and using information from multiple sources. Usually there are multiple possible acceptable solutions, rather than a single correct answer. They gray area makes these skills a good fit for scenario-based learning.

Providing a rationale for decisions requires context. You can’t tell someone “What’s the best car?” without knowing who that car is for and how they’ll be using it. A scenario provides the context that allows you to analyze the situation and provide a rationale for your recommendation.

Trade-offs

The classic project management joke says, “Fast, good, and cheap: pick any two.” You can have something that is fast and cheap if you’re willing to sacrifice quality. You can have something that is fast and good if you’re willing to pay enough for it. Those are trade-offs we make all the time in our jobs.

A great example of this is deciding which software to use. Storyline and Captivate both have advantages and disadvantages; which tool is the best choice for any given project is a matter of trade-offs. Which LMS is the best for an organization depends on a huge number of factors. Every system has some trade-offs for power, ease of use, and other functionality.

Operational decisions and actions

Operational decisions are exercises in analysis and trade-offs, balancing multiple factors. Clark recommends that these skills be practiced in a simulated environment, so they may need a less structured treatment than a branching scenario.

Design

Design skills often have a wide range of acceptable solutions. If you ask 5 people to design a website given the same constraints, you’ll get 5 very different solutions. All of those might be functional websites that would solve problems for an organization, although with some trade-offs. 

It’s hard in self-paced elearning to really effectively simulate designing something new. Unless you can create a very open-ended simulation, you have to sacrifice some realism and complexity. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t practice and assess parts of a design process through decision-making scenarios.

Team coordination

Several years ago, I designed a scenario-based course on improving equity in school systems. A scenario about a specific school system was woven throughout the course, including a number of key characters. One of the first exercises in that case was picking the team to work on the solution. Learners needed to include a variety of specialists and roles, as well as making sure different groups were represented.

The skills for communicating and coordinating with a team benefit from a scenario to provide context and practice making decisions. This domain can overlap and include several of the domains mentioned earlier, such as interpersonal skills, research, and trade-offs.

Looking for more?

Note that this list of domains isn’t intended to be a complete list, but a starting point to show a variety of ways scenario-based learning can be used.

Check out When to Use Branching Scenarios and 40+ other posts on scenarios and storytelling.

Scenario-Based Learning Experiences Podcast Interview

Jacqueline Hutchinson of The Lounge podcast and I had a lovely conversation on scenario-based learning. She had some great questions about how to use scenarios and storytelling in learning experiences that led to a really fun chat. We talked about some “horror stories” and scenarios gone wrong, using scenarios to make compliance training not sleep-inducing, and options besides branching scenarios for incorporating storytelling.

Listen to our conversation on scenario-based learning on her site or follow the links to listen on other platforms. The episode is about 45 minutes long.

As a side note, since Jac and I are both tea drinkers, I mentioned that I was drinking an iced lemon basil oolong from my local tea shop while we recorded.

What we talked about

  • What is a scenario
  • When are scenarios useful
  • Branching scenarios versus simple one question scenarios
  • Getting started with a simple scenario
  • Process for designing a scenario
  • How to determine when to use a scenario
  • Working with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts)
  • How long does it take to design different scenarios
  • Manage the complexity of the scenario

If you’re looking for more, check out my other posts on storytelling and scenarios.

Podcast interview on scenario-based learning experiences

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Podcast Interview on Freelancing and Consulting

I recently had the pleasure of recording an interview for Kristin Anthony’s Dear Instructional Designer podcast. We spoke for about 45 minutes on moving into freelancing and consulting, positioning yourself in the market, finding clients, pricing strategies, and managing my business. Our discussion ranged from the practical topics of liability insurance and accounting software to the strategic topics of specializing in a niche and finding the right clients.

Listen to the episode on her site or on iTunes.

This season on Kristin’s show will be all about freelancing, consulting, and working independently. If you haven’t subscribed yet, now is a good time so you can catch the future episodes on this topic.

Podcast interview on freelancing and consulting in instructional design

Transitioning from Teaching to Instructional Design

Last week I gave a webinar through UCI on transitioning from teaching to instructional design. I shared my story of moving from teaching to instructional design as well as tips for finding a job. While this presentation was primarily aimed at teachers, much of the content also applies to others looking to change careers. The recording is now available on YouTube.

The links and resources mentioned during my presentation are listed below.

Instructional Design Competencies

Comparing lists of instructional design competencies to your current skills is one way to determine what you already know and where you need to focus on improving.

Portfolios

A portfolio is a critical tool for showing prospective employers and clients your skills.

Resumes

If your resume is currently focused on teaching, you’ll need to do some updating to focus on the relevant skills for instructional design.

Interviews

One way to prepare for interviews is thinking about how to answer potential questions by employers.

Podcasts

Listening to podcasts is one way to learn about the field and become familiar with  terminology and trends.

Book Recommendations

Whether you enroll in a graduate certificate program, masters program, or are learning on your own, reading books is a way to learn skills to fill in the gaps in your skills.

Check out my posts on instructional design careers for more information.

Transitioning from Teaching to Instructional Design

Combining Branching Scenarios with Other Approaches

When you think of branching scenarios, do you think of self-paced elearning, maybe of an entire course with nothing but a complex branching scenario? While a lengthy branching scenario can be effective on its own, that isn’t the only way to use this approach. Combining branching scenarios with other training approaches lets you use branching scenarios for the activities where they matter most, while using other methods where they are effective.

Sometimes I hear people worry that using a branching scenario means they are committing to creating a whole 30-minute or 60-minute course with branching, or that it has to approach the complexity of a video game to be useful. That’s not usually the case (although larger simulations can be very effective in certain circumstances, if you have the resources).

combining-branching

Plan Specific Activities

In her book Map It, Cathy Moore argues that we should focus on planning activities to match specific performance goals, rather than always creating a course or single event of training. Designing this way means we may use branching scenarios for part of the training, but not for the whole thing.

Her advice is to choose “the best format for each activity, not one format for the entire project.”

If you need an activity for a skill that requires decision-making to discern between choices that aren’t absolutely right or wrong, a branching scenario may be a good choice. If you need an activity for a skill that is purely procedural, with no nuance, some other kind of practice activity is probably better. Think about your goals and when a branching scenario helps meet those goals.

Branching Scenarios for Practice

You can combine branching scenarios with other training formats. The branching scenario can be a practice activity as part of a larger program.

  • Culminating Practice: A branching scenario might be the final practice activity in a course where learners string together all the steps they previously practiced individually.
  • Spaced Practice: Short branching scenarios could be delivered over time to reinforce and improve skills as a follow-up to a live training event.
  • Prework Practice: A branching scenario might be the prework practice activity to build skills before a live session for role play practice.
  • Refresher Practice: Branching scenarios could be available for people to access on demand to practice as a refresher right before applying the skill.

Live Training with Branching Scenarios

In her book, Cathy Moore describes using branching scenarios in live and virtual training as well as eLearning. Live training (whether in a physical or virtual classroom) can be a great way to facilitate discussion about the gray areas of a topic. Cathy explains how one scenario worked with small groups in a live training.

Each group ran the scenario separately, debating their options. Then the larger group discussed the issues raised by the scenario. During the discussion, the facilitator helped participants identify the main takeaways.

You could also post the choices for a branching scenario on a slide in virtual training and ask people to make a choice in the chat. While polls are fast, chat gives people opportunities to explain their decision. I might consider asking a few people to describe their rationale. You can proceed through the scenario based on which choices make the points you want to demonstrate, or go through the scenario multiple times to show the results of different decisions.

Interested in Reading More?

Check out these other posts on branching scenarios.

I’m now up to over 40 posts on storytelling and scenarios if you’re looking for more.