Feedback in Branching Scenarios: What Works for Novices, Experts, and Everyone
When we provide feedback in branching scenarios, we have several questions to consider.
- Should we provide consequences (intrinsic feedback) or coaching (instructional feedback)?
- Should we provide immediate feedback or delayed feedback?
- What works for novices versus experts?
Intrinsic and Instructional Feedback
In Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, Ruth Clark recommends combining intrinsic and instructional feedback.
Intrinsic feedback is the consequences for an action. It’s what happens because of the learner’s decisions. If you have a scenario where an employee falls off a ladder, a customer agrees to buy a more expensive product, or a patient recovers from a medical emergency, that’s intrinsic feedback. You show the learner what happens.
Instructional feedback is coaching that tells the learner about their choice rather than showing them. In a branching scenario, instructional feedback could come from a coach or character that guides learners. Instructional feedback doesn’t necessarily have to mean telling people directly if their choice was correct or incorrect. Learners should be able to figure that out from the intrinsic feedback. Instead, instructional feedback can focus on addressing misunderstanding or explaining why a choice had a certain result.
Novices may need more instructional feedback than experts. Experts are less likely to have problems with cognitive load from sorting through multiple pieces of information in a scenario. Experts are better at diagnosing their own problems based on contextual information like intrinsic feedback. Novices, on the other hand, may need more direct coaching to make sense of the intrinsic feedback, especially when they fail a scenario.
Immediate and Delayed Feedback
When we build branching scenarios, immediate consequences provide realism and keep learners engaged. Every time learners make a decision, something happens: the customer responds, the equipment breaks, or sales go up.
Note that “immediate” here refers to when the learner receives the feedback, not how quick the results would happen in real life. If a learner makes a choice to ignore recommended equipment maintenance to save money, you could jump ahead in time three months to show that equipment breaking and costing more money in the long run. As long as you show the feedback right away, it’s immediate because it gives learner information about their choice immediately.
Delayed consequences happen in branching scenarios when you show one consequence immediately, but a different consequence appears later.
For example, let’s take a scenario where a manager asks an ID to create training. The learner chooses to have the ID start building it right away, trusting that the team requesting the training knows their needs without further analysis.
- The immediate consequence is that the ID’s manager is happy.
- The delayed consequence is that the ID creates ineffective training that doesn’t actually solve the business problem.
You can also use delayed feedback, or coaching delivered to the learner later. In his report on Providing Learners with Feedback, Will Thalheimer suggests that feedback should be provided before learners try again. While that research was more related to retaking tests, I think that’s a good guideline for scenario-based learning. If learners fail a scenario and are asked to try again, give them some feedback to help them learn from their mistakes and make better choices next time.
Novices may benefit from more immediate feedback and coaching, while experts may be fine just receiving coaching at the end of a scenario.
Recommendations for Feedback
Here are my overall recommendations for feedback in scenario-based learning. These are based on a combination of research reviews from Clark and Thalheimer, along with recommendations from Cathy Moore, Michael Allen, and others, plus my own experience.
- Provide frequent, immediate consequences that show learners what happens as a result of their decisions.
- Provide coaching before learners retry a scenario.
- Use delayed consequences in scenarios where they are realistic, although note that novices may need more coaching to help them understand delayed consequences.
- Provide immediate coaching for novices, especially to correct misconceptions or incorrect strategy selection.
- Use more delayed coaching with expert learners.
Don’t Assume the Recommendations are Perfect
None of these recommendations are correct 100% of the time for every situation or every group of learners. I’m fairly confident recommending frequent immediate consequences and coaching before a retry, but you may find exceptions even to those recommendations. The research on feedback is sometimes contradictory, so there is little firm guidance.
To quote Will Thalheimer, describing conflicting research results, “First, it tells us that we should be skeptical of absolutism. In particular, it would be perilous for us to say, ‘Immediate feedback is always better,’ or, ‘Delayed feedback is always better.'”
Let’s use the research to guide our decisions in providing feedback, but let’s also acknowledge that the research has limitations. Sometimes we have to use our best judgement on how to best support our learners.
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