Monday, May 23, 2011

Making Scenarios Realistic in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

Several posts on this blog promote the idea of using scenarios to make training as realistic and hands-on as possible.

Most of us don’t need a blog to remind us of that. But do we all know how to write scenarios realistically?

Show rather than tell.

This certainly isn’t new advice. But let’s explore what this might mean for writing scenarios for training.

Write dialog.

Many of us tend to write scenarios that describe situations rather than create them. For instance: Mr. Brock calls to cancel his flight. What should you do next?

A simple approach to making this scenario more realistic is to write dialog. What does a customer typically say when calling to cancel? Are there certain statements that could influence what the learner’s reaction should be? Writing dialog, instead of basic description, prompts the learner to not only identify the next step, but also to first recognize a trigger for that step.

For the Mr. Brock scenario, a simple alternative might be: Mr. Brock says, “Hi. I’ve had something come up and I need to cancel my flight for this weekend. What are my options?” What should you do next?

Or: Mr. Brock says, “Hi. My father-in-law recently passed away, so I need to cancel my flight for this weekend. Can you refund that to my card?” What should you do next?

Describe consequences.

When writing feedback for eLearning activities, we can do more than tell learners whether their response was correct or incorrect. We can also describe the consequences of their response. What happens if they select an incorrect option on a form? Or attempt to sell a product the customer doesn’t qualify for? How does that inconvenience the customer? Does it create rework for the learner or other colleagues?

Describing consequences helps learners understand the bigger picture and can help their decisions in training feel more real (and perhaps more memorable).

Provide images.

eLearning lessons teaching computer systems often include knowledge check questions that ask learners to identify which button they must click to start a particular workflow.

Sometimes these knowledge checks are in the form of a multiple choice question, where the stem sentence provides the name of the system screen and the options are the names of buttons. But is this realistic? Do learners have to recognize screen and button names to perform correctly?

A more realistic approach is to provide a screen image with a hotspot interaction. Or, even better, an interactive simulation of the entire workflow. Reinforce visual recognition and the actual behavior.

How can we confirm realism?

Hopefully subject matter experts (SMEs) can help. Ask open-ended questions about what customers usually say in a situation or what the consequences are for a particular action. A conversation can often solicit what you need more effectively than hoping a SME will make those suggestions during a review of your drafted materials.

Observing experienced employees in action can provide a goldmine of ideas. Jot down quotes and behaviors. Ask questions. Try to observe a mix of top and middle-of-the-road performers. If you can’t be on location to observe, explore virtual options such as web conferencing, recordings, or transcripts. Of course, if you’re designing training for something brand new, observation might not be an option.

What do you suggest?

What touches do you add to scenarios to make them more realistic? And how do you verify their realism?


  1. Great post!! Very interested in scenario-based learning onilne (especially for management training).... Bill T.

  2. Very good post. The best way to teach is through your own experience. Training on a customer service interaction? Call in sometime and act like the customer. See if you can spend a day, or an hour, fielding customer calls. The more you understand the context, the more appropriate and on-target you can make your content. Hello, cross-training!

  3. Utilizing scenarios is hands down the best way to make any type of training a) realistic b) informative and c) interesting to the learner. We have all been in the seat of the learner and know that this can be an extremely boring position to be in. The best seminars/workshops that I have attended have been those that are most hands-on. Any one can listen to a lecture…and it usually goes in one ear and out the other. Utilizing this technique is the best way to retain information and not make the training a big waste of time. I have become increasingly interested with elearning; I just feel that it is a viable way of continuing education when you are working full time. I just stumbled upon this website, They are having a three day conference in September that sounds really interesting. Some topics include team collaboration and leadership. Has anyone heard of this?

  4. The elearning conference you mention sounds great. It really how this area has come such a long way in a relatively short period of time. When it is done well, remote/electronic learning can really help you to reach your career goals, as well as to develop your employees and those who work for/with you. I'll definitely look more into the event that is holding in September. I have heard it is designed around teaching the best practices for remote/electronic learning. It sounds really worthwhile.


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