The Three Components of Effective Learning Scenarios

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A scenario is a "story" often used in training courses to provide real-world context and decision-making opportunities. Usually, the point is to highlight the potential ambiguities in a situation, and reveal multiple choices along with their potential consequences.

Scenarios can provide a rich palette from which to paint a myriad of situations that can bring almost any type of content alive. They're heavily leveraged in compliance, ethics, legal and other historically dry business courses. However, scenarios can be used in almost any training capacity, and when done right can be a highly motivating experience. The key is to either be hyper-realistic and correctly capture the true essence of the situation at hand, or be completely outlandish and over-the-top by creating a non-realistic setting that temporarily suspends belief as you immerse the learner into the situation. The risk is to land somewhere in the middle, where the situation is not at all believeable and is perceived as irrelevant.

I've been caught in all three situations over the course of my career, and I still leverage scenarios quite often in the courses I design. To be truly effective, a scenario must be relevant, meaningful and offer decision-making opportunities combined with detailed feedback. Let's look at each component:

  • Relevant. This is often the hardest component. It's human behavior to instantly apply your own situation to something you're involved with or viewing. If you want to grab the viewer and pull them in, you must conceive of a situation they can identify with. They don't necessarily need to understand it at first blush, but it must be conceivable in their mind. If you're speaking to an audience of plumbers, they're not going to easily identify with a situation that involves flowers… unless you let them know they need to set up an irrigation system for a floral designer. Is it something they do in the real-world? On the other hand, if you have a difficult time making a real-world sitaution exiciting, you can require the plumbers to fix the plumbing system on a space rover on Mars. Suspending belief with environment works, and sometimes is more interesting than just another water heater replacement.
  • Meaningful. The scenario needs to be consistent and credible in the details. This is where it gets tough if you're not a domain expert. Leverage the subject matter experts here. Because if you get the details wrong, you lose credibility, and then you completely lose the audience. If your scenario asks a SysAdmin to go through the steps installing Java, then you must be able to use the correct terminology and the right settings. Inconsistency can cause frustration, which is the last thing you want.
  • Includes Decision-Making Opportunities. The heart of the scenario is to place the learner in a setting where they are required to make decisions and experience the outcomes of those decisions. You need to be prepared to provide rich feedback based on the decisions made and then let the learner see what the impact of those decisions are. If they fail or make wrong decisions, only let them get so far without having to experience that impact.

Scenarios can help the learner think in a disciplined way and quickly "fail fast" and recover in the safety of their own learning environment. They're excellent at helping learners understand in-context how their decisions will play out in the real world. They can help learners acquire confidence, which is key to performing at a high-level in the workplace.

So, in short, make sure your scenarios are structured with these three components and that they stand up to a domain expert's examination.

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