Among the many changes today in the way we think about learning and training is the shift from knowledge transfer to skill development. Scenario-based learning (SBL) and the inclusion of practice with feedback are often overlooked but in many cases more effective approaches to the development of skill and competence.

What's a scenario?

A scenario is a type of story; it presents learners with a situation in a way that engages them and places them in the situation. Scenarios are a methodology for quickly creating and delivering content to an audience based on needs and feedback. Scenarios are closely related to microlearning, and in fact some microlearning employs short scenarios as the main method of delivery. Learners are able to make decisions, solve problems, apply knowledge, and practice skills. The scenario presents challenges like the ones the learners will face in real-life situations.

Many scenarios can be done with simple text and graphics. Scenarios do not require animations, video, or sophisticated simulations. At the same time, with improving technology and the adoption of virtual classrooms, video and animations are very effective in scenarios. What is required is content related to the learning objectives and to performance requirements on the job.

Using SBL for learning and development

The most common applications involve:

  • Decision-making when judgment must be applied, not literal rote procedure (for example, applying disciplinary measures)
  • Soft skills (communication, leadership, etc.)
  • Situations that involve consequences that are too dangerous for “live” training
  • Technology when its use relates to real life and consequences
  • Coaching, sales, customer service
  • Situations where there is likely to be emotional involvement/triggers

The development sequence for SBL

According to learning experience design consultant Christy Tucker, scenarios are effective for learning because they provide realistic context and emotional engagement. They can increase motivation and accelerate expertise.

Scenario-based learning requires planning and time to develop. It also requires attention to something frequently overlooked in old-school instructional design: The story is important! In his book Scenario-based Learning: Using Stories to Engage Learners, Ray Jimenez says, “The design of scenario-based training requires the craftsmanship of a storyteller, an instructional designer, and a subject matter expert.” Jimenez filled half the pages in that book with sketches and storyboards, and it bears careful study. Can’t draw? It does not matter: you can use stick figures, or you can find someone with the talent to do the sketches.

Hans Kovi and Kasper Spiro provide additional ideas for SBL about storytelling and “flow” in their article, “How to Engage Learners With Scenario-Based Learning,” and I recommend studying their in-depth treatment. Scenario-based learning should flow quickly.

SBL requires feedback of the “show, don’t tell” variety (not “right” or “wrong”). The aim is to help learners understand application of the underlying theory and principles across a spectrum of situations. The instructional designer should be able to make use of storyboards, wireframes, and pencil sketches of scenes (think Hitchcock).


Scenarios have a simple approach to design. It is similar to the three-act structure that screenwriters and television writers use: setup, confrontation, resolution.

  • Setup: the scenario models the real world where the learner works
  • Confrontation: the learner encounters a problem
  • Resolution: the learner solves the problem

An instructional designer does not need to be a playwright to create an effective scenario. Keep the setup simple, obviously fictitious, and relevant to the type of work environment. You may want to be able to use the setup as the basis for more than one scenario within that environment, but don’t overload the initial setup with a lot of detail. A scenario is not a case study.

The confrontation also needs to be simple, and should only involve one teaching point as the basis for the resolution.

In most scenarios, the learner will be offered a small number of possible resolutions to choose from. If your scenario will be used in an online setting that supports discussion between learners, you may also be able to offer an opportunity for a short answer from the participant.

The general plan is to present a series of situations (scenarios), leading to an outcome; after each situation, the learner is asked, “What do you do next?” The next situation presented is based on the learner’s response. Feedback may also be provided to guide the learner.

If you were designing a traditional eLearning experience on the topic of an organization’s disciplinary policy, the most likely result would be a cut-and-dried presentation of the steps in the policy and the documentation required, ending with a test to see if the learner could recall the details of the policy and procedure. However, this would result in knowledge transfer alone, not in development of the critical skill: actually conducting a disciplinary conversation that elicits and supports the employee’s agreement to make specific changes in behavior.

Scenario-based learning development is different from the traditional approach. The first steps in developing SBL are to get clear about the objectives—the outcome of the sequence. If the skill being developed, for example, is how to conduct a disciplinary conversation with an employee, the outcome would be the employee’s agreement to change their behavior, including the specifics of the change and when the change will happen. There can be a lot of “gray” in the conversation required around application of this skill, even though the intention and the outcome are very specific.

The next step is to outline the progression of the scenarios. In the case of a disciplinary conversation, this would be based on the local policy and procedure, beginning with the way to start the conversation.

In the progression of the scenarios, you would sequence the decision points in the conversation. Doing this will also require identifying common mistakes and consequences; these will be important as you plan feedback to be provided when these mistakes happen in the learner’s responses.

With the outcome and decision points identified, you can then make a rough flowchart of the scenarios required in the sequence and the branches. The flowchart can be developed using mind mapping tools or simply by drawing it on paper. You can validate the flowchart in conversations with the subject matter expert (SME). If you are working with a SME to develop the scenarios, it is expected that a SME who is used to working on traditional eLearning might be uncomfortable with the complexity of a branching structure; involving the SME in creating the flowchart should help the SME’s understanding. When the flowchart is validated, you will be able to begin developing the actual application, using the appropriate authoring tool or other software.

Strategies for scenario use

Here are some of the many options that are available for scenario use (there are many more).

Branching scenarios are useful for many situations where a skill is difficult to master on the job. Examples include technical skills, such as trouble-shooting, and soft skills that require face-to-face interaction and emotional awareness. Examples of these kinds of soft skills include dealing with difficult customers, delivering bad news, and correcting employee performance. Branching scenarios are useful in challenging situations, such as helping military veterans enter the workforce. Branching scenarios that feature realistic characters and situations can help employees build these skills.

Interactive video can support branching scenarios by stopping at key points to ask the viewer how to respond, and offering buttons or hotspots that link to the section of the video that covers their answer.

Short sims, which can be built with Branch Track or Storyline, are another way to build branching scenarios that do not require video or animations. In Learning Solutions we have published several articles on short sims and strategies for using them.

Several mini-scenarios based on a single situation can provide depth and context, and offer a quick, easy, and effective alternative to multiple-choice questions.

There are different models for the final SBL application. One very common model, as mentioned earlier, is microlearning, using video clips for delivery. Another is the short sims approach. The decision about the application model may drive the choice of development tool, such as:

  • Twine
  • BranchTrack
  • Easygenerator
  • Storyline
  • Elucidat

Interactive learning using SBL

Christy Tucker will present “Build Branching Scenarios With Twine” at the Pushing the eLearning Envelope Online Conference on June 9-10, 2021. The complete event includes two days of incisive sessions from top experts.

Christy will explain how you can easily create branching prototypes or even fully functioning learning experiences using Twine: a free, open-source tool designed specifically for creating interactive stories.

You can use Twine for planning and writing a scenario, creating functional rapid prototypes that can be developed into presentations with full screen graphics, very simple animations, video, background music, and even more polished final products. Christy will start with a live demo of building a simple branching scenario from scratch so you can see how quickly you can publish a functional learning experience. Next, you’ll see how story formats can add functionality and change the appearance of a story. You’ll see ways Twine can be used for different types of scenarios, such as chat simulations and games.

In this session, you will learn:

  • Why Twine is an effective tool for creating branching scenarios quickly
  • How to create and publish a story in Twine
  • How story formats can be used for different purposes
  • How Twine can be used for different types of interactive stories

You can register for this online event or get a Learning Guild Online Conference Subscription to access Christy’s session plus the others in the event, and all online conferences for the next year, plus much more.