Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios

One way to engage learners is to make content immediately relevant. People naturally pay more attention to information they can use right away than information they “might need someday.”

One way to engage learners is to make content immediately relevant. People naturally pay more attention to information they can use right away than information they “might need someday.”

Create a Sense of Immediacy

In August, I attended a webinar by Julie Dirksen on the Science of Attention and Engagement. One of her tips to promote learner engagement is about making learning immediately relevant.

Create a Sense of Immediacy

It’s easiest to pay attention to content that you can use right away. Use strategies like test-then-tell, scenarios or problem-based learning to create an immediate use for the learning content.

Julie Dirksen

Check out Tracy Parish’s sketch notes from the webinar as well.

Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios

What Does The Research Say?

If someone offered you $10 today or $11 one year from now, what would you choose? Most people would choose the $10 today. A reward is worth the most in the moment; the perceived value of the reward drops the if you won’t get it until some date in the future. This is known as hyperbolic discounting.

For example, the reward for exercising is generally long term. You have to do a lot of work over weeks or maybe months before you start seeing results. That makes it hard to stay motivated.

However, if you can make exercise immediately rewarding, it’s easier to stay motivated. People with diabetes can test their blood sugar before and after exercise to see an immediate change. If a 20 minute walk drops your blood sugar from 150 to 120, it’s easy to see the value in that activity.

Immediacy in Learning

Similarly, the rewards for learning are often long in the future. We train people on principles which we say will be important, but they might not get to apply that new knowledge for weeks or months.

We can create that sense of immediacy in learning by giving people a scenario where they apply it right away. We can create an immediate reward for learning. That helps learners stay motivated and engaged with our training.

Example Comparison

Before (Traditional Training)

Reasonable Accommodation: What Managers Need to Know

It’s important to remember these 5 factors when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation…

After (Scenario-Based Training)

You’re working with your team to keep everything running smoothly. You have an aggressive schedule for the next month with an upcoming product launch. Rosa just asked if she can take a two-day training on how to use her new assistive technology more effectively. What should you do? Do you approve the request for training, or do you tell Rosa she can’t take the training until after her upcoming deadline?

What feels more important to you, the traditional or scenario-based version? Which version would you find more motivating? Using scenarios to create a sense of immediacy shows how learning is relevant and useful.

6 thoughts on “Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios

  1. Case scenarios not only relate new information in a real world application type of way, they also help learners to create a picture of how they themselves might need to use the information in the future. Through research it is thought that when the brain thinks in a futuristic type of way, it is easier to remember more information. Like you stated, information learned can either have applicable use now or later. The thought is, when students or learners think of themselves in the situation later, they can move the information they learned into storage as “useful information I can use later” instead of information that may or may not ever be used. I like the idea of case scenarios as a way of futuristic thinking. I have personally benefited from the use of scenarios in a training environment. When going though and working though the multiple scenarios, generated by past experiences of the company, i felt more empowered to take on the task at hand (summer camp counselor to high school students). Through scenarios I was able to imagine “how would I handle this situation if I was faced with it?” and with that extra thought and extra time spent drawing connections between present learning and future application, I was able to commit more useful training to long term memory.

  2. It makes a lot of sense to make knowledge immediately relevant. Being able to apply knowledge to a case scenario assists learners in application of knowledge, which can support retention. However, before someone is able to apply knowledge, they need to understand the fundamentals of the material. In the example, a manager may first need to know what 5 principles to consider before they apply to the case scenario. It is also important that the case scenario fit with the manager’s experience. Another strategy would be to have to have managers identify scenarios they are or have experienced. Being able to apply knowledge immediately to the work setting, not just to an abstract case scenario, can help the information come alive and to motivate learners to engage with the learning material. This builds on principles of andragogy.

    1. An “abstract case scenario” isn’t an actual thing; that’s a straw man fallacy. Scenarios are concrete, not abstract. Scenarios have characters learners identify with, with names, job roles, and goals. Those characters face challenges similar to the challenges learners face so they can practice making realistic decisions to overcome those challenges. All of those concrete details help make the scenario relevant, triggering memories of similar situations. Those details help learners make the connections between their personal experience and the training, in keeping with andragogy principles. Nothing about that is “abstract.”
      One of the problems with closing your argument with this straw man fallacy is that it undermines everything you said before it–which is a shame, because some of it is solid. For example, I (mostly) agree with your point about learning fundamentals prior to applying knowledge. That’s one reason I often use branching scenarios as a culminating practice exercise at the end of training, after a combination of direct instruction and multiple smaller, scaffolded exercises.
      Scenarios can also be used in other ways, however. That’s why I only “mostly” agree; application of knowledge isn’t the only time scenarios can be used. Scenarios can be used to deliver those foundations of the content in a conversational way. You can use a short scenario to “hook” learners and engage them right at the beginning of a course. A worst case scenario can help learners understand why training is important so they’re more motivated to engage with the training. It’s OK to let learners fail sometimes; that can actually deepen their learning if handled appropriately.
      Claiming that application of knowledge, after learning foundational principles, is the only way to use scenarios for learning ignores a wide range of options for scenarios and storytelling. Maintaining such a narrow view will mean you miss opportunities to support your learners in other ways.

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