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Ridding the World of Bad Scenarios in Online Course Development

Using training 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.

Scenarios can be a powerful tool for creating impactful learning experiences.

So what makes a great scenario? Here are six 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.