In her book Scenario-Based eLearning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, Ruth Clark identifies 8 learning domains where scenario-based learning works effectively. These common topics for workplace training all involve strategic decision-making, rather than simply following a checklist of procedural tasks.
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Training topics where scenario-based learning works
- Interpersonal skills
- Compliance policies and procedures
- Diagnosis and repair
- Research, analysis, and rationale
- Operational decisions and actions
- Team coordination
In this post, I look at each one of these kinds of training and provide some examples.
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. This customer service chat simulation is another example.
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.
Many IDs use a straightforward approach blood borne pathogens: “here’s what they are, here’s why they’re bad, here’s what to do.” Instead, you can 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 your audience 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 it’s easier to practice a troubleshooting skill 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 scenarios may ultimately have a single “right answer,” which makes these skills a little different from some others where branching scenarios are helpful. They still have multiple potential paths to arrive at that correct diagnosis though, which is why scenario-based learning works in this area.
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.
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, Captivate, Camtasia, and Vyond all 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 practicing these skills in a simulated environment, so they may need a less structured, more “open world” treatment than a branching scenario.
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.
Several years ago, I designed a scenario-based course on improving equity in school systems. Throughout the course, I wove a scenario about a specific school system, 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 they represented different groups.
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 where scenario-based learning works isn’t intended to be a complete list. Instead, you can consider this a starting point to consider a variety of ways scenario-based learning can be used.
Originally published 9/18/2018. Updated 4/22/2021.