Scenarios are a great learning solution but aren’t necessarily the right solution all the time. It’s important to seriously consider when scenarios make sense. We’ll suggest it’s more often than you think, but not as often as you fear.
A second, associated question, is what scenario structure to use. You’ve seen that there are several, and it pays to know which to use when. So that’s a second goal here.
When to Scenario, or Not
Scenarios are contextualized practice, which is what learning generally requires. While scenarios, by themselves, aren’t a total solution, they’re part of an effective solution.
Learning science tells us that asking learners to use knowledge to make decisions, like those that will be required in the performance situation, is the best way to develop the ability to perform. Retrieval practice, where you are required to access the knowledge and put it into action, is reliably demonstrated to be the best form of learning.
While you can do mentored live performance, e.g., apprenticeships, there are times when this isn’t viable. Such as when the performance is too critical to trust to those still learning. Similarly, individual mentoring doesn’t scale well. However, scenarios are a good stepping stone on the way to such performances. For instance, Microsoft Flight Simulator didn’t start out as a game, it started out as a training tool on the way to allowing learners to pilot real planes!
Thus, scenarios make sense for practice. They can and should be supplemented with mental models to guide the decisions and serve as a basis for feedback. They also should be accompanied by examples, where learners see how the models play out across different contexts. For instance, showing worked examples (examples where the underlying thinking is made explicit), leads to better performance for novices than just providing practice!
What examples do, then, is demonstrate contexts. To do so, it makes sense for it to be a narrative, so they’re scenarios, too. For skills that need to be transferred to different situations, having a suite of mini- or branching-scenarios can be more useful than real practice. By providing a broader set of experiences, you enable learners to abstract and internalize the underlying model, equipping them to perform in situations where you haven’t time to provide all instances.
There are times when learning isn’t the answer. Too often, we use courses when we could use performance support, putting knowledge ‘in the world’, instead of trying to put it in the head. Tools like look-up tables, decision trees, procedural guides, and more, can be more effective than learning. However, when learning is required, particularly at scale, scenario-based learning makes sense.
What Scenario to Use
The other situation to consider is which scenario to use. Given that there are different structures, different situations can call for different approaches. Which to use when? The key is to map the structure of the task to the structure of the scenario. If it’s several steps or can be, you’ll need a branching scenario. Maybe not for all of the learning experience, you can use mini-scenarios as preparation, but at least to close off the learning.
As discussed in the previous chapter, linear scenarios make sense when you’re trying to ensure that each learner faces the same question. You could do that with separate questions, but embodying it in a situation with a story, and playing out the whole process, provides the opportunity to assess the understanding at every stage.
Similarly, there are times when decisions are linked. If you make a mistake in dealing with a customer, can you find a way to get back in their good graces? If you’re working through a process, what happens if you make a mistake? Decisions sometimes travel in packs, and then branching scenarios make sense. Anything that takes a sequence of decisions, such as approving a loan, or overseeing a project, is a plausible candidate.
Of course, you can test the individual decisions alone, or at least first. This is a time when mini-scenarios make sense. They’re easier to develop and deploy than branching scenarios. Not that they’re trivial to write, as experience has let us know. A series of them frequently precedes a branching scenario as steps along the way.
Scenarios are a very powerful tool to achieve learning, and most learning situations will benefit from them. They should be the default, in fact, in most learning designs. There will be times they don’t make sense, but most of the time having learners perform in settings that reflect the tasks they’ll have to perform is the shortest path to mastery.
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