Idea Learning Group

The Vital Role of Scenarios in Learning

In the world of website development, they say content is king. In the world of training/education, you can provide truckloads of content, but it’s really context that rules.

Why Include Scenarios?

The most effective way to create context in an online course is with an immersive challenge, right at the beginning. Throw the learner right into the action! Don’t make her read a slideshow of linear screens in a prescribed order. (There’s no quicker way to extinguish the yearn-to-learn spirit than with boring content.) You have the learner’s attention right at the start. Don’t take that for granted.

In the most basic sense, a scenario is a story, usually involving characters who go through some sort of metamorphosis. We are all programmed to learn through stories. As Marsha Rossiter observes in her article “Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning,” “Stories enable us to engage with new knowledge, broader perspectives, and expanded possibilities because we encounter them in the familiar territory of human experience.” A scenario can be a paragraph, or it can be a whole world with 3D images and interactivity along with a plot, action, and complex characters.

scenarioblographic1b ILG

Structuring an Interactive Scenario

Scenarios in online courses usually have the following components:

  • Relevant storyline
  • Description or demonstration of the situation along with a role for the learner to play
  • Hook into the action
  • Opportunity to interact by answering questions, choosing a direction, or explore a landscape
  • Opportunity to make mistakes and even correct them in a “safe” (i.e., fictitious) environment

When preparing to write scenarios, one question I ask SMEs is, “How will this information help the learner on the job?” The answer can help form the arch of the story for the course. Cammy Bean offers a great list of additional questions to ask SMEs in her article, “Use Scenarios to Keep e-Learning Real.”

Scenarios don’t have to be complex to be effective. Take a look at this arresting example of a scenario involving a life-or-death situation. You don’t see a list of learning objectives here, followed by pages of narrated “how-to” content. Instead, you are on the scene right away as a character in the story. The decisions you make help the narrative unfold. After going through the scenario, you have the option to review additional information to reinforce what you’ve learned through your experience in the course.

When planning the structure, it’s helpful to create a flow chart for the scenario before writing the dialogue and interactive elements. Flow charts are great tools that writers can share with programmers and designers. They’re also very useful when communicating about the scenario with clients. Here’s an example of a fairly simple scenario flow:

If learners need practice thinking through complex decisions and recognizing consequences, check out Tom Kuhlmann’s “3 Cs” model: Challenge the learner by exposing him to a situation; provide choices to work through the challenge; and present realistic consequences with feedback to round out the learning experience.

Creating Characters that Matter

Characters can help bring an interactive scenario to life. Here are a few guidelines for creating good characters:

• Avoid “character clutter.” There’s no need to overpopulate the scenario. Even with a healthy budget and access to a high-quality sound studio, make sure every character has a clear role.

• Characters can be indirect participants. If the audience for the course includes people in leadership or mentoring roles, consider inviting the learner to help a character instead of taking on a direct character role. For example, the instructions might be, “In this activity, your job is to help the manager effectively interview a candidate. Listen to each conversation exchange, and then suggest ways that the manager can respond.”

• If the learner is a visible character in the scenario, provide different options for appearance. When I play a board game, I need to be the yellow token (or in Monopoly, the thimble) or I just don’t feel like “myself.” Remember that the idea is to make the characters and the story as relevant to the learner as possible. If the learner is expected to take on the role of a visible character in the course, don’t assume the learner wants to be the man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Provide other options. They don’t have to be fancy.

There’s a lot of inspired thinking out there on this topic. Check out the articles on that I’ve been curating on scenarios and learning.

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