The What and Why of Scenario-Based Learning

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Discover why scenarios are a vital component of effective learning, how they enhance decision-making skills, and why they provide a meaningful practice environment. Learn how scenarios, whether presented as simulations, branching options, or narratives, offer valuable insights into contextual problem-solving and retention, making them an essential tool for educators and learners alike. Dive into the 'What' and 'Why' of scenario-based learning and uncover the key principles that drive successful skill development and knowledge application.

What are scenarios, and why are they important for learning? In short, it’s because they provide meaningful practice. There’s more to them, however, so it’s worth looking at the what’s and why’s of scenarios. If you care about learning outcomes (and you should), you definitely should know about scenario-based learning.

The “What” of Scenario-Based Learning

First, what are scenarios? In my book Engaging Learning, I argued that simulations are just a model of the way a part of the world works. They can be in any valid state, and taken to any other valid state. A motivated and effective learner can engage with the simulation to discover the important relationships. However, that’s not the way to bet.

So, we, as learning designers, put the simulation into an initial state, and ask the learner to take it to a goal state (which we’ve chosen to require them to master the necessary relationships to achieve). I call that a scenario. I go on and suggest that we can tune that into a game. That is, make the scenario engaging enough that people consider playing it to be ‘hard fun’.

In many instances, such games are built upon actual simulation models of how the world works. However, a shortcut to such an implementation is what are called branching scenarios. Here, the model’s relationships aren’t explicit in rules but are instead implicit in the branches. In situation 1, if you choose option A, you go to situation 2. If you choose option B, you go to situation 3, etc. Theoretically, you’re just taking it from one valid state to another, however, it’s not done by rules (as in simulations), but by hard-wiring.

This provides a much easier way to build a learning experience than programming the actual underlying domain model. There aren’t the essentially unlimited replay possibilities that a programmed model would possess, because you can’t program in probabilistic responses, but they’re easy enough to build (relatively speaking) that you can do several, instead.

There’s another role for scenarios. For interactive ones, the learner plays a role in how the scenario plays out. However, we can think about scenarios as stories. Examples, where a model is shown in context, are best communicated as narratives. Even an introduction can use a scenario, where it’s not as explicitly instructional as an example, but communicates the essence and the consequences.

So why would we want to do this?

The “Why” of Scenario-Based Learning

There are several reasons to consider scenario-based learning, but the prime one, in my mind, is because it works. If you design applying what’s known about learning science, it’s clear scenarios provide the right support.

The important point is that you’re being put in a situation that requires applying knowledge to make a decision, e.g. to take an action. From a learning perspective, that’s a contextual practice. As Patti Shank defines scenarios in her book Write Better Multiple-Choice Questions to Assess Learning, they’re “a realistic situation that prompts participation to make decisions using provided details”.

What we do in a scenario is establish a particular circumstance that requires a decision. I’ll stipulate that what will make a difference to your organization is unlikely to be the ability to remember arbitrary information. Instead, I suggest that what will make a meaningful difference is the ability to make better decisions, and that’s what scenarios do! They inherently have you make a choice and experience the consequences thereof. Then, you can provide feedback as well, but the consequences themselves are a powerful form of feedback.

One of the demonstrable results of learning science is that solving contextualized problems leads to better retention and transfer than solving abstract problems. Retention over time until the learning is needed, and transfer to all appropriate (and no inappropriate) situations, are the goals instruction should strive to achieve. Scenarios are problems set in contexts, so they’re natural vehicles for meaningful practice.

What’s happening is that we’re tapping into our natural proclivity for comprehending stories. In a scenario, we establish a setting and choices of actions that learners, by their decisions, continue the story. Our brains are wired to comprehend stories, and stories are context.

This is what works for examples, too. Instructionally, we know that having models that explain how the world works gives us a basis for making decisions about actions to take. However, it assists learners to see those models as they manifest in particular contexts as a basis to support performance once it comes to practice.

That’s the role of an example, but using a narrative, with context, setup, decision, and consequences is a powerful way to leverage our brain’s alignment to stories. Similarly, they work for introductory examples as well. They can communicate the value in high-stakes examples to motivate performance.

Thus, scenarios are, next to mentored live performance, the best practice that you can achieve, and a valuable adjunct as well. Further, mentored live performance has a couple of potential downsides: failure can be costly, as can individual mentoring. Scenarios simulate live performance and provide scripted outcomes and coaching.

Scenario-based learning provides powerful learning for a reasonable cost. As such, we maintain that it’s an important tool in your repertoire of learning solutions. There are many tradeoffs to be explored, of course, hence the subsequent chapters.

In conclusion, scenario-based learning offers a powerful pathway to meaningful skill development and decision-making abilities. To delve deeper into this impactful approach, we invite you to explore our comprehensive eBook, “Scenario-Based Learning: The Ultimate Asset in Your L&D Toolkit.”

Explore the benefits of scenario-based learning – click here to download our eBook and uncover more insights!

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