Ridding the World of Bad Scenarios in Online Course Development

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Using scenarios to help learners apply new knowledge has been a long-standing training best practice. And in more recent years, to the relief of online learners, scenarios have started to take the place of some of those dreaded knowledge checks we’ve inflicted so frequently on our audiences. As welcome as this change has been, it’s discouraging to see how often scenarios are poorly designed. When scenarios are not well-conceived, they hinder learning and create frustration. Many seem to think that adding a scenario automatically increases the level of interest and engagement in a custom training course. This is simply not the case. In fact, adding a poorly designed scenario can significantly decrease the impact and value of a training course.

So what makes a great scenario? Here are 6 suggestions that have proven effective in our work here at Allen Communication.

1.       Relevance is crucial. When determining where to include a scenario, identify the points that are most challenging for the learner and are most critical to perform the job successfully. Forcing a learner through a lengthy scenario when the content is straightforward and easily applied, or is not critical to their work will bore and annoy your learner.

2.       Keep it simple. Provide enough detail to create interest but remember that the purpose of the scenario isn’t to entertain. Your goal is not to write the great American novel. Learners want interesting but efficient learning experiences. Don’t be afraid to let your learners infer some of the details. We often describe things in more detail than is really necessary. In fact, a common storytelling device is to intentionally leave out key details compelling the audience to look for connections or additional information.

3.       Create meaningful decision points. This is where scenarios most often fail. Write answer options that challenge the learner, encouraging reflection and requiring the learner to think deeply about what they’ve learned. Distractors are often the most difficult part of writing a good scenario. During the analysis phase, identify the most common misconceptions and mistakes learners make and capture these in your distractors.

4.       Provide the right amount of feedback at the right time. Feedback is where the real learning takes place. Unfortunately, it is often the last thing we write so it often becomes somewhat of an afterthought. Make sure you include enough detail and guidance to help the learner know why a decision was correct or incorrect. When possible, design scenarios so that the learner can experience feedback through consequences within the situation.

5.       Show rather than tell. Use character dialogue to let the story unfold.  But make sure your dialogue reflects how people actually talk. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice grammatical correctness to increase authenticity. A great way to test your dialogue is to read it out loud, or better yet, have a colleague read it out loud to see if it sounds realistic.

6.       Engage their interest. There are a number of ways you can engage interest. Give your characters some personality. Consider adding some humor. One of the most important ways you can engage your learner is by creating relevant and realistic situations that they can identify with and that challenge their thinking.

Scenarios can be a powerful tool for creating impactful learning experiences. However, as designers we need to make sure that we identify appropriate places to use scenarios and design them effectively.

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  1. Mark Stewart

    Great points.
    A few things I have learned from experience:

    1. Scenarios should be easily understandable and their descriptions should be brief. There are exceptions, but only in special situations in which the complexity of the scenario directly communicates significant instructional points to the learner. (Example: A scenario for small unit leaders in the military based on the great article, The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three-Block War, by former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak.) However, if a scenario is unnecessarily complex or requires a long time to describe, then it is getting in the way of the subject matter.

    2. A great use for small (1 paragraph) scenarios in “check-on-learning” activities is to check for learner understanding of the subject matter presented. This is more than just asking the learner to regurgitate information just presented. Done correctly, it is posed as a question that requires the learner to apply the information they have recently received. This has a number of benefits:
    a. It facilitates easier recognition/recall later by associating the information with the context presented in the scenario. (Schema-forming? Not sure,but seems like it.)
    b. It exposes misunderstandings. Often, I have found that some kinds of information can be easily misunderstood by the learner. They have a grasp on the information you’ve presented as an isolated element, but they have unwittingly made some assumptions about how this information will be applied. By then requiring the learner to apply the information in a scenario-based question, you allow them to spot the misunderstanding on their own (the most common outcome) or to learn about their misunderstanding through explicit feedback (if they fail to spot the problem themselves). I have found this to be very important in training dealing with some technical subjects. The earlier you catch these misunderstandings, the easier the ride for the learner.

    3. Scenarios are especially useful in practical exercises. In my experience, practical exercises have been used primarily as lesson-level capstone activities that are designed to have the learner bring the separate instructional topics presented as learning steps together into a coherent, integrated concept and apply it in a plausible situation. For these scenarios, more time is available to present the scenario, but brevity remains critical.

    4. Make use of subject matter experts and accurate, current references for the design of plausible scenarios and practical exercises. I have normally begun scenario design by establishing the kinds of decisions that the learner should face, based on the task and audience analysis. Once I know what points I want to hit and the kinds of challenges I want present in those decisions, I consult with a subject matter expert to develop an initial concept. After fleshing out the concept on a storyboard, I double-check with a SME for plausibility and accuracy, discuss recommended changes, and work out a revised copy that hits my instructional points and maintains believability for the learner.

    5. A certain amount of abstraction is often needed in scenario and practical exercise design. This is more or less proportional to the breadth of the learner audience. The more varied their backgrounds and roles, the more difficult it is to present fine granularity without throwing somebody’s understanding off and losing instructional effectiveness. The decisions are the real substance of the product, not the setting. What is the “essence” of the challenge faced by the learner in applying the knowledge presented in the lesson? That needs to be designed into the scenario and the question or activity associated with it.

    6. (Okay, so it’s getting a bit past “a few points”….) Feedback is where you make your money in interactive instructional activities. I have often heard moans and groans at the mere mention of using custom feedback for a branching scenario or complex activity. However, the instructional gains are often well worth the work, and the work is really just writing additional elements of feedback. The logic of matching up custom feedback with learner decisions paths in programming is not really as much of a challenge as it may sometimes be made out to be.

    On a final note, the difficulty of creating distractors that are both wrong and plausible is without a doubt the hardest part of writing any type of question or interactive instructional feature. From knowledge checks/checks-on-learning to tests, it requires an understanding of the underlying subject matter. A writer who has only a superficial understanding of the material can all to easily write questions that have multiple correct answers when this was not intended. Again, I stress the value of using subject matter experts where available, and taking the time to grasp the underlying subject matter of the product.

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