Scenario-based learning: Success Factors

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An Image depicting the intricate elements of effective scenario-based learning, emphasizing context, choices, feedback, and overall learning experience.

Scenario-based learning is a valuable approach, but as with all design tasks, that value comes most clearly when things are done right. So, what are the keys to successful design? These include the elements as well as the process. Some of these elements have been mentioned before, but here we’re pulling them together.

Elements in Scenario-Based Learning

Designing scenarios involves getting all the elements correct. This includes the setup, the options, and the feedback. There are nuances on each element that can spell the difference between effectiveness or not. For example, it’s instead the setup, decision, consequences, and outcomes.

For one, the initial setting has to meet two criteria. First, it has to be a situation that’s a natural application of the decision-making. The performance objectives established should clearly be represented in the choices of action the learner chooses from. The second element is that learners have to recognize that the situation portrayed is relevant to them. It doesn’t have to be the exact same situation they’ll be in, but they should recognize that it’s a legitimate application, even in a fantastic setting.

The choices of action should be plausible and be active. That is, it’s not identifying the choices, but making one. The alternatives to the right answer ideally are the ways performers typically go wrong. This serves two purposes. For one, it gives you a way to make the decision sufficiently challenging. While it’s possible for questions to be too difficult, more frequently we see questions that are too easy, and they don’t lead to learner engagement nor meaningful outcomes. The other reason is that it is better that learners make mistakes (and get feedback) in practice rather than when it matters.

Which means the feedback should be specifically related to the choice they make. If they choose one wrong answer, it’s typically for a different reason than they’d choose another wrong answer. Thus, the feedback should be specific to the mistake, and provide the opportunity to remedy the misconception before it occurs in performance. Obviously, bad choices aren’t useful to support learning.

We should also match the scenario structure to the performance needed. If the decisions are tied together, a branching structure makes sense. Individual decisions can be handled through mini-scenarios, which can also serve as scaffolding to support developing the component skills before pulling them together in a larger scenario. Linear scenarios make sense when you need to control the decisions learners will experience, for instance for assessment.

Another success factor is having a sufficient quantity of scenarios, with increasing complexity, and set in an appropriately broad series of contexts. Our goal here is to ensure that we’re developing the ability to make decisions to a level sufficient to support the necessary performance and to develop sufficient confidence on the part of the learner to be willing to attempt when it matters. We also have the goal of ensuring that we’ll successfully prepare the learner for all the situations they’ll face. To do so requires choosing an appropriate set of contexts across which they see (both in examples outside the scenarios as well as the ones experienced within). This is coupled with increasing the challenge to the point where they are facing the level of difficulty they’ll see after the learning. We want them to generalize from those to a transferable ability to apply at a capable level where useful.

That focus on contexts across examples and practice is an important consideration for supporting transfer. For example, while the settings need to meet the criteria above, the decision needs to articulate the underlying thinking, before showing the consequences of the choice and the longer-term outcomes. We want to explicitly refer to the model, and the story should be compelling, also.

Experience in Scenario-Based Learning

Getting the elements right comes together as an experience. Generating the overall flow is more than just the elements, but it’s also some overarching principles. These, too, matter to achieve success.

First, we should not assume that our first draft will be perfect. While we have good principles upon which to design, there are gaps, and people are complex. As such, it should be an expectation that we should test the design, and then tune the experience. We may not need a commercial level of play, but we need learners to not resist nor reject the experience.

Our goal should be to address emotional elements as well as educational effectiveness ones. ‘Emotion’, here, is a shorthand for motivation, anxiety, and confidence. As stated above, we want learners to leave sufficiently confident. As such, we need sufficient quantity and a low level of anxiety. Too much anxiety interferes with learning, and so even if we eventually need learners to perform in stressful environments, we start with a low level. As skills are mastered, then we can address performing those skills in stress.

We also want learners to be motivated, ideally as close to their live level as possible. That comes from ramping up the story a bit: not just by working on an ordinary situation, but by making it extraordinary. There should be an initial hook, beyond the scenarios that engages the learner’s interest, delivering a valid ‘What’s In It for Me’ proposition, and the scenario should deliver on that promise. That comes from ensuring that the challenge is balanced, the context plausible, and the feedback impersonal but relevant.

We also want to use the appropriate technology for the task. We don’t want to over-invest, so we should save something like VR for when immersion is needed, but we do want to appropriately use media — video, graphics, audio, etc. — in ways that suit the need. Similarly with choosing branching or full simulation engines.

That also includes how the experience is situated in the larger context. In addition to an introduction hook, if there’re tools used in performance, they should appear in the learning experience. Similarly, the examples should complement the practice in creating the overall experience.

With all that, there’s also a benefit to minimalism. Extraneous details undermine educational effectiveness, so you want to convey context but not overload the details. Allow our knowledge of how the world works, such as office events, to fill in the gaps instead of conveying all the details. Just as a good book or movie doesn’t tell you everything, let the action do so as well. Reining in detail is cognitively good, and good on the budget as well.

Mastering scenario-based training involves understanding the intricate elements that make it effective. This blog encapsulates key success factors, emphasizing the importance of context, choices, feedback, and the overall experience. Ready to delve deeper into this impactful approach? Download our eBook, “Scenario-Based Learning: The Ultimate Asset in Your L&D Toolkit,” for comprehensive insights that will enhance your learning strategies and maximize learner engagement. Explore the power of scenarios and take your learning and development efforts to new heights!

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