The demand for scenario based-learning (SBL) is growing rapidly. SBL is now the most requested type of eLearning among our customers. This is part of the trend to use eLearning more and more for skill training and not just for knowledge transfer.

In this article, we dive into the theory that explains why SBL can be effective, and we give some guidance on how to develop effective SBL.

What is SBL? An overview

SBL is a great way to present more interactive and compelling skill-based training. In our designs, we use video and an attractive storyline. Learners gather information throughout an SBL and create solutions based upon their preexisting knowledge and the information they find. Until recently it was not possible to create this type of SBL without expensive custom development, but this changed with the latest generation of authoring tools that make it very easy to create and edit even the most intricate SBL designs.

In our opinion, the learning goal for an organization is to increase both the employees’ and the company’s productivity—an investment that has to pay off. In order to go from learning to a higher productivity the learner has to learn and apply his new knowledge and skills. So how do we get that to happen?

Learning begins with motivation

For starters, the learner has to be motivated to even begin studying the course at hand. How do people get motivated? What is motivation?

Motivation, in short, is what makes a human being act to achieve a goal. There are two types of motivation: intrinsic, in which motivation emerges from the desire to learn, to master a task, or to prove oneself, and extrinsic, in which motivation emerges from the rewards gained when completing a task in the right way. At first, most learners will be extrinsically motivated. They take the training because it is mandatory, especially when the course is of the “compliance training” type. We find however, that SBL makes it possible to address the intrinsic motivation of a learner. How?

In his flow theory, Csikszentmihalyi (see References) states that intrinsic motivation occurs when there is a balance between a learner’s present skills and the challenges he or she faces. A learner possessing low problem solving skills will only be able to solve problems with a low challenge. Solving problems will increase the learner’s skills. To keep the learner motivated, the challenge has to increase as the learner’s skills increase. If the learner’s skills are higher than needed for the challenge, the learner will get bored quickly, or get frustrated if the challenge is larger than the current skills can meet. The area of perfect balance between skills and challenge is called the “flow channel” (Figure 1), which Csikszentmihalyi defines as the state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. He calls the state of flow a state of maximal intrinsic motivation. When you present a person with a problem that resides within the flow channel, he or she will be intrinsically motivated to solve that problem.

So you must design scenario-based learning with this theory in mind. You must balance the scenario’s challenges with the skills you can expect of your target audience in such a way that, in most cases, the problems that need solving reside within the flow channel, sometimes even on the edge of it.

Figure 1: The flow channel

Make it real with emotion

We find it important that the learners be able to identify with the scenario and the challenges immediately, at the start of the scenario. To do this, make the scenarios as real as possible by using short videos with actors performing real life situations. Video makes it possible to use specific emotions as a response to decisions made by a learner.

For instance, in an SBL program that we designed about breast feeding, the learner (in this case, a nurse) can suggest that the mother should stop breast feeding and start feeding her baby using a bottle. The mother in the SBL strongly opposes that, because she feels that breast feeding is the absolute best way to feed her newborn baby. She gives a few reasons in the video. Our goal was to show how strongly a mother can react when a learner makes a decision that is emotionally unacceptable.

We found that the mother’s strong emotion was much more recognizable, even familiar, when using video rather than text or images. The learner is able to connect to this real person and the realistic emotions they display (in this case the mother was not an actor, but a real client).

This connection has a positive effect on the learning process. From brain researchers, we have learned that it is easier to remember things when strong emotions accompany them. So if you tell a story using a video in which a character shows strong emotions, it will make the story more realistic and familiar and the learner will remember its content better.

Getting to application

That is motivation, and it’s how you can improve retention of what is learned. We have the learner right in the flow channel. But how can we get learners to apply what they learned? We do this by allowing the learner to “create” within the SBL. Anderson and Krathwohl suggest six levels of learning objectives, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (Figure 2). The lowest level objective is to remember what is learned and the highest-level objective is to create with what is learned.

Fig 2: Krathwohl’s learning levels

With scenario-based learning, facilitation helps the learner use preexisting knowledge, understand it in the context of the training, apply the knowledge, analyze new situations, evaluate, and create new outcomes. In one of our SBL programs, we let sales people play the role of a physician. They all meet a patient (on video) and can ask questions and perform medical tests. With their available medical knowledge, and the knowledge they collect through analysis (questioning the patients, doing medical tests), they must be able to create a plan to help their patients by prescribing the correct treatment and medication.

SBL design uses all previously mentioned approaches. The balance between the skill level and the challenge motivates learners. Learners hear a storyline with support from videos, in which actors use emotion and the learners have an opportunity to use their knowledge to analyze and evaluate, and finally to create a solution. These methods seem sufficient to let a learner not only learn but also remember the content and the way to use it to create solutions.

Prove it!

How do we know that someone learned something? Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so if learners can apply it, they have learned it. It is learning by doing.

Before entering a scenario-based learning event, however, a learner needs basic knowledge of the topics in the scenario-based learning. With our preferred authoring tool, we can easily create adaptive courses that pre-test learners to find out how much they already know. Based on the outcome of that test, only those parts of the adaptive course that the learner is not sufficiently familiar with are mandatory. After completing this adaptive course, the learner may enter the SBL.

There are numerous ways to design an SBL, and how you design it depends on a number of factors. The educational level, the learning topic, and of course the available budget are important variables. But no matter how you design scenario-based learning, you can use it for situations that include medical training, sales training, and compliance training.


Anderson, L. W. and Krathwohl, D. R., et al (Eds.) (2001.) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly & Nakamura, Jeanne (2002). “The Concept of Flow.” The Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.