Building Better Scenarios


Scenario-based learning has been a staple of e-learning for years, due to its benefits in terms of learner engagement and the pedagogical advantages it provides.

Scenarios work because they are stories, and humans are storytelling creatures. We make sense of the world through narrative, and providing a narrative to the learner taps into that powerful mechanism.

It is simply much easier to relate to the information seeing it in context, providing an immediate sense of why it is relevant.

Scenarios also offer the promise of learning through experience, and more importantly, allowing a safe way to fail, one of the most powerful ways to learn. Having to wrestle through choices and consequences is a powerful way to really learn something.

Sadly, despite all the hype, very rarely are “scenario based” e-learning programs tapping into the full power of a branching scenario.

Usually, when something is described as “scenario-based” it falls under one of three broad categories:

1) A Little Stage Dressing

This is really just a case of using story to set the mood and make things more interesting. Rather than a dry recitation of the material, the e-learning may present some characters and use a story to give some structure to the course. There might be an introduction establishing the setting, and questions may be presented as real-world problems rather than straight up theory.

However, there are no choices here for the learner; they still just passively follow along a story with no opportunities to make decisions. In cases where the quiz questions posed during the course are presented as story elements, they just lay out the background and context for an otherwise straightforward knowledge check. Think of these questions as a classic word problem in math, where the stories of trains arriving on time or someone needing to divide a basket of fruit are just pretexts dressing up solving an algebraic equation.



  • This approach does still tend to result in something more engaging than a textbook-like recitation of facts.
  • The big advantage of this approach is that it is relatively quick and cheap. It requires a touch for dialogue and character, but otherwise isn’t asking anything more from you or your authoring tool than a typical didactic program.


  • None of the pedagogical advantages of scenarios are present, since there are no choices to make, or a real journey to experience.

2) The Forced-Path Scenario

Here the learner is immersed in a story, making decisions throughout, navigating a complex scenario which simulates a real-world issue. At first glance, this looks like a real improvement over the stage dressing situation, but a lot of it is smoke and mirrors because there are no actual branches. Thus while a learner is presented with a challenge, then a choice to make, and then sees the consequences of that choice, the only way to advance is to choose correctly. This gives an illusion of choice, but that choice isn’t really being provided. It becomes easy to identify these sorts of programs, since their branches just stop and ask you to do it again if you fail.



  • This provides a more engaging experience than just the Stage Dressing, since you do have more of a journey to go on and engage with.
  • You don’t need to keep track of many branches with different dependent outcomes, since it never actually branches.


  • Lacks replay value because it doesn’t actually branch.
  • Choices without consequences can become a hunt for the correct answer, rather than a chance to explore the consequences of different decisions.

3) True Scenario

And finally we have the real thing. An appropriate scenario, where when faced with a challenge, the learner’s choices have consequences that shape the challenges and choices available later in the scenario. This provides maximum engagement, as everything the learner does will matter to the result. All the pedagogical advantages of learning by experience, having a safe place to fail, and getting to see the consequences of choices play out in different ways are realized.



  • Most engaging option
  • Replay value as people explore different paths through the program
  • Full realization of pedagogical power of scenario


  • Most difficult to create
  • Actually is many times more content than seat time as branches go unused
  • Authoring software does not tend to support complex branching well
  • Difficult to write and track choices easily


All scenarios are not built the same. Everyone envisions option 3 above, but a true branching scenario is much more difficult to build than most think, especially with most authoring software. But what if you are willing to go beyond the typical authoring software? We will look at that next time.

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