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Design Techniques to Create Engaging Scenarios in Digital Learning

Learning scenarios are an effective tool that uses storytelling and context to help learners practice and develop their skills. Stories have deep roots in human learning and have been used for centuries to pass on knowledge, wisdom, and learning. As learning has evolved, the use of scenarios has evolved with it to become a critical component of digital learning and development. Most importantly, scenarios can be used to create situations in which learners can develop and rehearse critical skills and knowledge through effective practice. In this blog we look at several key techniques learning designers use to create effective scenario-based learning.

What Is Scenario-Based Learning?

Scenario-based learning commonly uses examples of real-life situations to support decision-based learning. Learners are immersed in a story that allows them to see and interact with challenges and make decisions in a virtual and safe “practice” mode. This provides learners with realistic and challenging behavioral situations that may often be difficult to replicate in other learning modes.

Scenario-based learning often uses and adds aspects of gamification, such as scoring, levelling, and time pressure to present decision-making challenges that lead to specific outcomes, in a realistic way. A scenario-based game can reflect decisions and interactions that learners will encounter in their day-to-day jobs. This makes it possible to link scenarios to your learners’ real-time learning needs.

Many scenario-based eLearning modules incorporate branching structures to help develop critical thinking skills. These branched scenarios are an interactive form of learning that connects the learner’s decisions to a range of alternative consequences. This makes them a great environment to work through the “gray areas” of decision making since learners can experiment and fail safely, while gaining deep insights into the impact of their decisions.

Understanding Your Learning Goals Before Building Scenarios

When developing scenario-based learning, there are several repeatable steps that are useful in constructing reliable, engaging, realistic, efficient, and effective learning experiences. The first step, as with all learning, is to be clear about the purpose of the scenario and the learning goals. These will not necessarily be the same for all learners, so it is also critical to define the personas that the learning is targeting.

Begin by asking questions that help identify your audience and create scenarios that align with the reality of their learning needs. Find out as much as you can about your intended audience by asking key questions like:

  • What is their role and experience level?
  • Where, and how, do they work?  
  • What do they already know about this subject, problem, or challenge?
  • What opinions are they likely to hold regarding this kind of issue?

Determine the Best Authoring Tool or Language for Your eLearning Scenarios

Once you have analyzed your audience and matched their needs to your goals, it is time to select an authoring tool or language that will suit the type of scenario you plan to construct. For example, if you want to create a scenario with branching paths, you need a tool that will manage a series of variables well. Integrating video or creating an immersive environment will require a tool that allows you to accommodate video, create storylines, and provide you with adequate control of the interface. Depending on your audience, you may also need a tool that can provide translations as well.

How to Write a Successful Learning Scenario

Focus on Authenticity, Pace, and Emotion

Once you have defined your project’s scope and delivery technology, it is time to start designing the scenarios themselves. When scripting a scenario, the acronym APE can help you build an impactful learning model. APE stands for authenticity, pace, and emotion, all of which are essential to helping your scenario connect with learners.

Successful scenarios use authentic dilemmas and situations to reinforce learning. If your scenario is unrealistic or too simple, it will fail to challenge your learners. Pace is important to hold your audience’s attention and create a sense of dynamism that helps them engage with the story you are telling. Try to create scenarios that can elicit an emotional response, as this will help learners remember what you have taught them. Effective scenarios also need things like error and success models, story-based coaching, and visible and clear consequences.

Incorporate Multi-Sensory Learning Combinations into Your Scenarios

Engaging learners through multiple senses is another effective method of connecting with your learning audience. Combinations and sequences of media produce better absorption and recall. Some effective combinations include spoken audio and supporting documents, animated illustrations and audio, and dramatic video and compelling graphics. Stimulating multiple senses will not only make it easier to replicate real-life situations, helping learners engage with the story you are telling, but it can also help them to better learn and retain valuable lessons.

Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Learning Scenarios

AI offers a wealth of new possibilities for scenario-based learning. At its simplest, AI makes a useful brainstorming tool. Using a simple prompt like, “Create some realistic scenarios about a difficult conversation,” can provide you with ideas for creating dilemmas, responses, and potential branching pathways. Following this up with another prompt like, “What should I include in a conversation with an employee who is displaying a negative attitude? I want to address their behavior and help them adopt a more positive outlook,” could generate a suggested conversation structure and best practice areas to explore. On a more advanced level, AI can also help assist you in coding and testing your scenarios.

As with all AI, it is important not to share sensitive or confidential information with a large language model (LLM). Be transparent about your use of AI by acknowledging sources and respecting the intellectual property rights of contributors. You should also remember that while AI is a valuable tool, it cannot yet replicate human creativity or curiosity.

Measure Learner Response

Measuring learner responses plays a vital role in improving and shaping an eLearning program. In the same way that you analyze your audience before creating your scenarios, it is equally important to assess how your learners are responding to scenarios after they have been completed. Use measurement techniques such as question response level analytics to measure your learners’ responses and uncover areas where learners made frequent errors or poor choices. This data can be used to help you clarify and refine scenarios to better fit the learner’s needs in the future.

What Scenario-Based Learning Can Do for Your Learners

Scenario-based learning generates immersive, impactful, and memorable experiences for learners. These virtual everyday situations enable learners to fail safely as they navigate the gray areas of their roles. Learn more about the award-winning learning scenarios our team has created to address many different complex behavioral situations for a wide variety of organizational needs.

About the Authors

Geoff Bloom
Geoff is a Principal Consultant for the Learning Experience team and has worked in learning technologies and learning design and delivery since 1980. Geoff has worked with a comprehensive range of clients across industries to deliver learning content and define and evaluate a variety of learning strategies. Geoff holds an MBA. He enjoys watching rugby, swimming, and going to see live music.

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