Scenario-Based Learning in Higher Ed

Scenario-based learning and storytelling can be used a number of ways in higher education.

A reader asked a great question about the role of scenario-based learning in higher education. I’ve seen a number of good examples of storytelling and scenarios in university courses.

Authentic Assessment

My first ID job was with an online university targeting nontraditional students. They focused on “authentic assessment”; Rather than traditional academic essays and exams, we used simulated work products for assessment. After all, if you’re getting a marketing degree, what’s more valuable–knowing how to write an essay or how to create a PowerPoint presentation? Those assignments used a scenario to provide context for the work students were doing. In some courses, all the written assignments had a single related scenario threaded through the whole course.
For example, in this social psychology course, students were placed in the role of Director of Operations. Through the course, they helped various departments and teams address specific challenges related to a concept of social psychology. Here’s one of the assignments for that course. Instead of writing an essay on cognitive dissonance, students wrote an article for an internal newsletter. While it’s not completely realistic, it does help connect

You’ve been asked by the Marketing Department to give them feedback from your customer service area about customer complaints and issues concerning their new product – an “All-In-One” coffee maker, toaster oven, and microwave.
Although your department has collected specific information concerning likes and dislikes of customers (as called in on your customer service toll-free number), you recognize that many of these calls could be reduced in time – or eliminated – if you helped the marketing department understand the concept called “Cognitive Dissonance.”
You’ve been asked to provide this feedback as an article for their departmental Weekly Update, and you busily begin this project. In your article for the Marketing Department, be sure to include the following information:

  • In one paragraph, provide an overview of what you’ve been asked to do.
  • Next, define the term “Cognitive Dissonance” and explain how it relates to customer purchases. (In business, cognitive dissonance is often referred to as “Buyer’s Remorse.”)
  • Provide two or three customer examples of how Cognitive Dissonance affects customers and the types of reactions they have to your product.
  • Finally, suggest some changes that can be made to the marketing materials to help reduce this effect on your customers and create and maintain long-term customer loyalty.

Branching Scenarios

I have done some limited branching scenarios for higher ed courses, similar to what I do for corporate learning. One example was a course on how to teach online where students practiced handling student objections. The student reacts differently depending on how the instructor responds to their complaint.
Angry student expression and happy student expression

Scenario-Based Discussion Questions

Short scenarios can make for more valuable discussion questions. Give students a scenario (or a few to choose from) and ask them how they’d respond. Scenario prompts for discussions often generate deeper conversations than simple questions. Providing a choice of multiple scenarios makes the discussion less repetitive (a plus for grading as well as for students).

Group Activities

I’ve used scenarios with group work too. For example, in one of my older courses for teachers, each group had a different scenario problem to solve related to privacy and social media. One scenario involved high school Spanish students who posted videos of their work on YouTube but received a rude comment. Another scenario involved middle school students who received a request from a teacher in another state to use part of a presentation they posted online. Each group worked together to create a plan of how to respond to the scenario. Scenarios like this can work especially well if your audience has different goals or needs. High school teachers can be grouped together for a high school scenario, while elementary teachers are grouped together for a separate scenario. In a business course, you might have different scenarios for managers and non-managers.

Student-Created Stories

One really interesting idea was having students write stories themselves. This was used in a course on psychological development over a lifetime. Each week of the course focused on a different time of life, starting from before birth and continuing through aging and death. Every week, the students wrote part of a profile of an imaginary person for that development time, explaining how different factors affected their development (e.g., if their person’s mother drank while pregnant, that affected brain development; if the child had poor nutrition, that affected development). A number of the students resisted that assignment, which really pushed them out of their comfort zones. They said they “weren’t creative writers” or didn’t know how to tell stories. By the end of the course, the feedback was very positive though.

Tell me your story

Tell me your own story. Have you seen storytelling used in higher education? Do you have a great example of using technology for digital storytelling, or even of a low-tech story in a classroom? Let me know in the comments.

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