How to Write a Scenario that Actually Engages Your Learners

Picture this: you’re sitting down to write a storyboard for an eLearning module—one that’s important to your organization, but one that you know will bore the socks off of your learners. You stare at the blank screen. What do you do?

  • Write the content in a lecture-presentation format
  • Make a trivia game out of it
  • Write a realistic scenario question you know learners will relate to

In this case—and many others—we’d opt for scenario-based learning. Scenarios are a highly effective learning strategy for engaging learners and helping them practice skills and build confidence in realistic environments. Plus, everyone loves a good story: writing scenarios for training leverages the power of storytelling to simplify complex topics and encourage learners to reflect on what they’ve learned. More often than not, scenarios are the most interesting, relevant, and engaging choice you can make for your learning experience.

But not all scenarios are created equal. It takes practice to learn how to write a scenario that keeps learners engaged and helps achieve your learning goals. We’ve been putting in the work to learn what makes a scenario successful—here’s a quick overview of scenario-based learning and a few simple steps for how to write a scenario that engages your learners.

What is scenario-based learning?

Scenario-based learning is an interactive instructional strategy that uses real-life situations and narratives to actively engage learners. While we’ve learned a lot about how to write a scenario ourselves over the years, we have to give credit to Cathy Moore, a thought leader in the learning space who wrote Map It, one of our favorite books.

There are two types of scenarios that we tend to use: standalone scenarios and branching scenarios.

Standalone scenarios

Standalone scenarios are more basic, with the learner engaging in just one question per scene. Rather than walking your learners through a step-by-step tutorial, a standalone scenario prompts the learner to think through the impact of their decision.

Standalone scenarios can also be used consecutively to create what we call a “building scenario” with multiple narratives and questions back-to-back that build throughout the content and refer back to the previous scenario. Building scenarios offer an intermediate option between a standalone scenario and a true branching scenario.

Branching scenarios

This form of scenario-based learning allows for branching possibilities based on the choices learners make in a given situation. Branching scenarios typically cover more complex topics with multiple decision points, where the outcome changes depending on the decisions the learner makes. It’s also a great option when you want learners to understand the best possible choice they can make among several good options—seeing it play out is often the best way to grasp the nuance of the scenario.

In both cases, the best scenarios replicate actual decision points learners will experience in real life.

So, why use scenario training in your learning? Writing scenarios allows learners to picture themselves in a potential future situation and test out their decision-making skills (without consequence!) in a relevant, relatable environment. Scenarios are a stickier learning experience with high engagement and a great track record for triggering behavior change. Who can argue with that?

It all sounds great on paper, but it’s worth noting that a poorly-executed scenario can seriously damage your learning outcomes. If your scenario doesn’t read as realistic to your learners, you run the risk of losing your credibility with them, which can lead to disengaged, checked out learners. Here are a few common pitfalls that can throw your course off track:

  • Scenarios or characters that aren’t relevant (“That’s not me”)
  • Unrealistic decisions to choose from (“I would never act that way”)
  • Poor feedback or consequences (“That would never happen”)

Now that you have an idea of what can go wrong in a scenario, let’s get to what makes one successful. Here are four steps (and a bunch of pro tips from our ID team!) for how to write a scenario that really resonates with your learners.

How to write an engaging scenario

A lot goes into how to write a scenario, but it comes down to four basic guidelines: make it relevant and challenging, keep it realistic, mind the details, and bring your scenario to life. Here’s how to apply each step in your own scenario-based learning.

1. Make it relevant and challenging

Don’t waste learners’ time

Relevancy is key to any effective learning experience. What will learners gain from this scenario? A good guideline is to take a step back and consider your learning objectives. What are the most important behaviors learners need to walk away with? What scenarios can you create that have learners practicing those behaviors?

Make them stop and think

Learners appreciate a good challenge, so try not to make your scenario too easy or obvious. There’s no reason to actively try to confuse them, but there’s nothing wrong with making learners stop and think—if your scenario is too easy, they may tune out.

Show (don’t tell) the consequences

A great scenario shows learners the consequences of their choices by continuing the story. This form of feedback gets the learner to infer whether they made the right choice, rather than simply telling them if their choice was correct or incorrect. After showing the consequence, that’s when you can include instructional text or direct them to a job aid to provide additional feedback.

2. Keep it realistic

Strive for accuracy

There’s nothing worse than creating a scenario that your learners will roll their eyes at. In many cases, your learners have been working in this role or doing similar tasks for years. When thinking about how to write a scenario, relatability is top priority. Use the language they use, capture the nuances of their day-to-day lives, and depict difficult situations that they’ll actually run into on the job. What might tempt them to make the wrong choice? Learners will notice these details and appreciate them.

Understand the context

Strive not only for accuracy in what you’re trying to teach, but also in context. Time and place add realism to your scenarios, but only if that context truly feels authentic to learners. If you aren’t familiar with the context of the decision point, do your research: find firsthand accounts online or, better yet, schedule time to interview actual learners themselves.

3. Mind the details

Don’t add distractions

While it’s critical to include details that will help learners visualize and relate to the scenario, too many unnecessary details can be distracting. And don’t use details to try and trick learners or throw them off the trail—every detail should add to the logic of the scenario and move the narrative forward. If you find yourself getting bogged down in the details, focus on the decision point: set the scene and create a logically complete scenario with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Choose the right POV

It may seem like a matter of preference, but point of view (POV) can influence how learners relate to the story you’re telling. Part of deciding how to write a scenario is choosing between the second-person (you are in the scenario) and third-person (you are an observer of the scenario) point of view.

Consider to what degree the learner will see themselves in the scenario. Second-person POV is a good choice when you want learners to place themselves in a scenario, but only if you’re fairly confident that they’ll actually identify with the scenario. If not, this could cause a sense of dissonance (“I would never do that!”) that distracts learners. Third-person POV is a safer bet for situations where learners may not relate to the content, or your learner audience covers multiple roles.

4. Bring the scenario to life

Choose your medium

It’s showtime, and you’re looking for the right modality to bring your scenario to life. You can create great scenarios through writing, audio, video, still image—or any combination of the above. Be sure to follow the guidelines outlined above for how to write a scenario, and keep learner context in mind to maximize engagement.

Consider branching scenarios

If you have the ability to create it, consider incorporating branching or multi-part scenarios into your learning. It’s the most immersive approach to scenarios: learners not only see the consequences of their actions, but also make new decisions based on the previous choices they’ve made. That said, not all scenarios call for this. Branching scenarios require a lot of time and effort for both the instructional designer and the learner, and standalone scenarios are often enough to get the job done.

Engaging scenarios lead to better learning outcomes

There’s nothing worse than enduring a boring, irrelevant learning experience. With scenarios, learners get to take an active role in their learning and put their skills to the test in a relatable, low-risk environment. When done right, scenarios are a powerful tool for challenging learners and inspiring real-world change that they can put to use right away.

Learning is so much more than conveying subject matter—it’s also understanding people and how they learn.

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