A Range of Options for Scenarios and Storytelling

In addition to complex branching scenarios, you have a range of options for scenarios for learning, such as examples, and mini-scenarios.

When someone mentions scenario-based learning, do you automatically think of complex branching scenarios? While that’s one way to implement scenarios (and a very effective one!), I don’t think it’s the only option. A range of options for scenarios are available, from passive to active. Even if you can’t convince your organization or clients to invest in full-blown branching scenarios, you can use less intensive alternatives to incorporate scenarios and storytelling. Some of these options can work for both elearning and instructor-led training. In fact, you may already be using some of these methods.

A range of options for scenarios. Full description in caption.
From passive to active: Trainer-provided examples, mini-scenarios, two narrators with decisions, case studies with responses, branching scenarios, and role play or simulation.

Provided Examples

In instructor-led courses, often the most valuable part of the training is the stories the trainer tells. The stories are often about how a real person applied this training in their jobs or about how a failure to apply principles caused problems. Stories with examples make the abstract concrete. Imagine this example in a course on Microsoft Word:

We’re going to review how to customize footers in Word. Sounds simple, right? But let me tell you about why it matters. One of my past students from my software training days ended up manually typing in each and every page number for a 400+ page document because she didn’t know how to do it automatically. In her defense, it wasn’t straightforward numbering. Do you know how to add chapter numbers and how to exclude the first page from the count? She was down to the wire with a publication deadline, so she got it done the only way she knew how: by typing the number on every page, one at a time. But I can teach you how to wrangle those footers in Word to do even complex numbering automatically.

Examples are the most passive method of using scenarios and storytelling, but they still work. You can use examples in both classroom training and elearning. Examples can grab attention, make concepts relevant, show why a topic is important, or show how others have solved problems.


Mini-scenarios, or one-question scenario assessments, are slightly more active than just listening to an example. Set up a short scenario and ask learners a multiple choice question. I frequently use this technique with clients who are just dipping their toes in scenario-based learning but aren’t ready to jump into full-blown branching or simulations.

You can use this technique for practice or assessment, even in a linear elearning course. In ILT, use a scenario to pose a question to the class. Ask which choice they would make with a show of hands. You can follow up the scenario with reflection, or use it to prompt a discussion.

Here’s an example:

You’re a doctor working with a 47-year-old male patient, Blake. Blake is diabetic, and his last A1C was 8.4. His blood pressure has been slightly elevated for the past 3 visits. You’re providing a brief intervention to encourage healthier diet and exercise choices. What is the best question to ask, according to motivational interview techniques?

  • Are you concerned about your A1C number?
  • What concerns do you have about your diabetes?
  • Do you understand the connection between your diabetes and blood pressure?

Two Narrators with Decisions

Pamela and Michael discussing coaching

Rather than using a single narrator for elearning voice over, you can use two narrators having a conversation to deliver content. Set up a story where one character has a problem to solve, and a more experienced character mentors and trains the first character how to improve. This is still mostly passive delivery, but it’s more engaging than traditional elearning. Adding a few questions where learners help the narrator solve a problem makes it more active and lets learners practice in a realistic context.

Case Study with Practice

If learners just read a case study, it’s a passive example. If you use the case study as a prompt for practice, it’s more active. Case studies are used in both ILT and elearning. You can use them to start discussions (either in person or online) or for group work.

Branching Scenarios

Branching scenarios are an active method of using scenarios for learning. In a branching scenario, learners make choices and see the consequences of their actions. It gives them a safe space to fail and learn from mistakes. When people think about options for scenarios, this is often what comes to mind first. It’s a great method, but it shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of everything else here.

Role Play or Simulation

Role play exercises and simulations are some of the most active ways to use storytelling. Simulations and role plays are more immersive and open-ended. Learners must make multiple decisions. The feedback is the consequences for or effects of those decisions, and those effects might not always be immediately obvious. Role play exercises require skilled facilitation to keep everything running smoothly and to debrief afterwards. Simulations require more intensive development and resources. Both of these tools can be very effective at practicing skills to improve job performance.

Clark Aldrich’s Short Sims are one option that lie somewhere between branching scenarios and simulations. They don’t have the open-ended complexity of traditional simulations, but they use a branching structure to create a simulation in a much shorter time frame than more complex or game-based simulations. Check out his example short sims for inspiration.

More options for scenarios?

What did I forget from my list? How are you using storytelling in your courses? Which of these options for scenarios do you find works best for your audience?

Upcoming branching scenario training

I’m creating an 8-week training program on branching scenarios, and I need your help figuring out the best title. If you have 2 minutes, could you please answer this 2-question survey? Thanks!

Originally published 11/10/2016. Updated 10/4/2021.

14 thoughts on “A Range of Options for Scenarios and Storytelling

  1. As a twist on using scenarios, I use audio that has been re-recorded from actual customer calls. When re-recording the calls, all the personal information is removed and additional call characteristics such as voice tone and attitude can be added. I will then have the learner select the best resolution to the call using skills they have learned through the training.

    1. Sure, there are a number of other options not included here. I’ve seen student-generated stories work very well in educational settings, for example.
      Slobodan, what’s your favorite method that isn’t included in my list? What do you find works well for your audience?

  2. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of learner involvement. Passivity is not a good way to learn. You offer some great ideas for making sure the learner has to think through the material and make informed decisions.

    1. I also think sometimes people get stuck thinking the interaction has to be all or nothing. I have talked to people who knew they didn’t have the resources for a branching scenario and therefore thought a passive boring course was the only option.

Leave a Reply