One Large Branching Scenario or Multiple Smaller Ones?

Is it better to have a single, large branching scenario or a series of smaller scenarios? It depends on the audience and skills.

If you have several desired behaviors or skills, is it better to use one large branching scenario or break it into several smaller scenarios? One of the attendees asked that great question during my DevLearn presentation.

My recommendation depends on the audience and how the skills are used. Sometimes, you want a single, large branching scenario; other times, a series of smaller scenarios may be more effective.

One Large Branching Scenario or Multiple Smaller Ones?

Audience skill level

The first factor to consider is your audience and their existing skill level. Are your learners mostly novices? If they’re novices and this is a brand new skill, several shorter scenarios will be easier to understand and more effective.

Alternatively, do they have experience and this is just a new add-on to what they already know? If they’re experts, you can tax them more with a more complex combined scenario. Experts may need more practice using multiple skills together, or with more involved scenarios, to reflect the complexity of their work. In that case, a single large branching scenario may be a better choice.

Independent or combined skills

The second factor to consider is the skills themselves. Do learners use the skills used in combination, or are do they use them independently? If they’re mostly independent, a series of shorter scenarios (maybe with some frame story to tie them together) might be better.

For example, in help desk training, you might have several different types of problems that the analysts need to know how to resolve. However, those are all independent issues. How they solve the first call to the help desk won’t affect how they solve the second one. In that situation, a series of smaller scenarios more closely matches the actual work environment.

However, in other cases, people need to use the skills in combination. I’ve created several branching scenarios for clients related to motivational interviewing. For that skill, people need to combine multiple specific communication skills: open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summaries. Those skills are used together, and the order in which the skills are used can be fluid. In order to use the skills effectively, they have to use them all together.

Small and large branching scenarios together

In practice, what I often do for those complex skills like motivational interviewing is a combination of small and large scenarios. I start with several smaller scenarios to practice each component skill. I often intersperse smaller scenarios, even one-question mini-scenarios, throughout the training. For example, I might provide a 2-3 sentence scenario and ask learners to select an open-ended question from a list of choices.

At the end of the training, after they have practiced the skills separately, I then combine all of the skills into a single large branching scenario. That can serve as a final practice or as an assessment.

Reducing cognitive load

Scenarios can be fairly taxing on cognitive load. Depending on how you build the scenario, it can provide learners with tons of information to filter through: characters, dialogue, nonverbal cues, instructional feedback, on-screen notifications, etc. You have to remember what you did before, notice what’s happening on the current screen, and consider your next action.

Novices are more likely to be overwhelmed if you give them too much all at once. Providing several shorter scenarios can help reduce the cognitive load. A scenario with one to three decisions can provide important context and opportunity for application without being overwhelming.

However, smaller scenarios aren’t the only way to reduce cognitive load. Try these tactics as well:

  • Use simpler illustrations rather than photos or videos.
  • Provide direct instructional feedback and coaching to help learners identify mistakes.
  • Use plain language; keep descriptions and choices concise.
  • Provide 3 choices for decisions rather than 4 choices.

More on scenarios

I have updated my page that lists all of my posts on scenarios and storytelling. I’m now up to more than 70 posts, including links to past presentations and podcasts related to scenarios and storytelling.

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