When should you use a branching scenario rather than other learning strategies? There are no “silver bullets” in learning; we don’t have “one way to rule them all” that works in every single situation. While I’m a big proponent of branching scenarios, they aren’t always the best method.
Criteria for Considering Branching Scenarios
Use these criteria as a starting point for considering when to use branching scenarios.
- Shades of Gray: The skill isn’t just black and white; there are nuances and shades of gray.
- Strategic: The skill is strategic rather than procedural; it requires more than a checklist.
- Multiple Decisions: The skill requires multiple coordinated decisions.
- Risky Situations: The skill is too risky to practice on the job.
Shades of Gray, Not Just Black and White
I find that branching scenarios work best for skills that are complex and include gray areas. If the steps are procedural, where there’s a clear list of actions to take in a specific order, a branching scenario is overkill.
Branching scenarios are most effective when they can show decisions that are partially correct or might be correct in certain circumstances. This is reflected in the structure of the branching scenario, where you often have three choices: Best, OK, and Poor.
Strategic, Not Procedural
In her book Scenario-Based e-Learning, Ruth Clark argues that scenario-based elearning, including branching scenarios and simulations, should be used for strategic tasks rather than procedural tasks. She explains:
Scenario-based e-learning is generally better suited to strategic tasks that require judgment and tailoring to each new workplace situation. Unlike procedures, strategic tasks cannot be decomposed into a series of invariant steps. Instead, strategic tasks require a deeper understanding of the concepts and rationale underlying performance in order to adapt task guidelines to diverse situations.
Multiple Steps, Not Isolated Decisions
Branching scenarios work best when the task requires multiple steps and decision points. You want situations where learners need to make several consecutive decisions or take several actions. Each decision affects the outcome and the choices available at the next step.
If you want learners to practice a single decision in isolation, where their choices don’t affect the subsequent actions, a single-question mini-scenario might be a better approach.
Risky Situations, Not Safe To Learn on the Job
Some situations are dangerous to practice or learn on the job. Branching scenarios can give people opportunities to practice in a safe environment without risking injury. We don’t want people learning how to diagnose a problem with heavy construction equipment while they’re on the job and in a potentially hazardous situation. We want those mistakes made in a simulated environment.
Health care is another area where scenario-based learning can be effective because it gives people opportunities to practice diagnosing problems without affecting actual patients.
The consequences for other situations might also be so significant that they lend themselves to branching scenarios even without the risk of physical harm. What about sales people making a pitch to a CTO for a six-figure technology purchase? What about deciding how to ethically report data for a multi-million dollar research project? If the consequences are significant, more realistic practice through branching scenarios may help reduce major mistakes.
This is a starting point for thinking about when to use branching scenarios. What would you add to this list? Share your suggestions in the comments.