3 ways to help people learn from mistakes in branching scenarios

Let’s say I’m in your branching scenario, and I’ve made a not-great choice. You show me the not-great consequence of that choice. Now what?

Can I go back and change my decision, or do I have to continue in the story, looking for ways to recover from my mistake?

It depends on what you want me to practice. Here are some ideas to consider.

First, identify why I make mistakes on the job

Your analysis of “What makes this thing hard to do?” has probably shown you many reasons why people make mistakes during the task.

First, fix what you can, such as by improving processes, tools, or job aids.

Then, if you decide that practice activities will help, create activities that tempt people to make the same mistakes they’re making on the job. In your safe, fictional world, they can finally see the consequences of their mistakes and practice recovering from them.

There are a bajillion ways to tempt people to make mistakes, which may someday become a separate blog post, but for now here are some ideas.

  • Make sure your options include the common mistakes, cleverly disguised as reasonable choices.
  • Add time pressure to the story, if it’s realistic. For example, in the story, the problem has to be resolved ASAP.
  • Add emotional pressure. For example, if managers aren’t addressing possible addictions among staff because they “don’t want to pry,” make the possibly-addicted worker in the story clearly unwilling to talk, to make the “I don’t want to pry” resistance more intense.
  • Have other characters tempt the player to make a common mistake. For example, if “everyone knows you should do X” is a common misconception that’s causing mistakes, have a fictional colleague say “Hey, you should do X” just like they do in the real world.
  • Add debating advisors. Recreate the type of confusing debate that can lead to mistakes by having “helpers” offer conflicting advice. See Connect with Haji Kamal for an example.
  • Have players debate among themselves. If you run the scenario in small groups, require each member of the group to defend a particular choice whether they agree with it or not. For example, Pat always has to defend option A, Kyle has to defend option B, and so on. There are several other ways to use scenarios in live sessions.

Then decide what you want me to do

The answer to “Should they be able to change their decision?” depends on what you want players to do.

1. Learn a brand new thing by doing it

Recommended: “Explore other options”

If you want me to learn to sell widgets to newly-arrived Martians, first tell me that you aren’t tracking anything I do. Then throw me into a sales conversation with some optional help. As I muddle through, show me the consequence of each choice and include the chance to “explore other options.”

“Explore other options” can take me back one step or more, depending on how the conversation is structured, so I can quickly see how a different statement changes the conversation.

I’m learning by trying stuff out, so I should be encouraged to try stuff out. I shouldn’t be penalized for making a not-great choice.

Also, of course, you’re just showing me the consequence of my choice. You’re not interrupting with “Incorrect!” or other preachiness.

My not-exactly-realistic Chainsaw Training scenario is a learn-by-doing activity.

2. Practice recognizing and recovering from mistakes in a thing I already do but don’t do well

Recommended: Make me continue in the story, looking for ways to repair the damage

If I already sell widgets to Martians but don’t do it well, throw me into the sales conversation with optional tips, as above. However, when I see the consequence for a choice, I don’t have the chance to go back and “explore other options.” I’m stuck with that choice and its consequences.

If my choice was not great, I need to do two things, just like in the real world:

  • Recognize that I’ve made a mistake (notice that the buyer is starting to lose interest)
  • Find a way to recover from the mistake

The flowchartI continue the conversation, maybe finding a way to save it, and at the end of the scenario I see the final consequence. Only then do I get a chance to start over.

For this to work, the scenario has to have what participants in my scenario design course have called “redemption paths.” If I’m going down a not-good path and realize it, let me choose an option that will bring me to a better path.

Here’s an example from the Connect with Haji Kamal scenario. The heavier line shows the preferred path. At several points, I can realize I’m going in a poor direction and make a choice that brings me to the better path.

Below, I can realize that I haven’t continued the small talk enough. I can abandon my poor path and get onto the better one by asking about the haji’s family.

Example of mistake recovery in branching scenario

3. Practice doing a scary thing until I feel confident

Recommended: At first, let me explore other options. Later, challenge me to recover from my mistakes.

Let’s say that selling widgets to Martians is fraught with cross-cultural risks. If I say something the wrong way, my Martian prospect could get so offended that interplanetary relations could be damaged.

This is a scary situation, so you’ll want to give me lots of practice in a safe, fictional place. Once I prove that I can make good decisions, you can let me do it on the job with real Martians.

One way to do this is to give me multiple scenarios that increase in difficulty. In the earlier scenarios, let me “explore other options” so I can see the effects of different statements.

Later, maybe when I’ve said I’m ready for a more realistic challenge, give me scenarios in which I can’t go back. I have to recognize and recover from mistakes before they escalate into interplanetary offenses.

“But we need to assess them”

If a stakeholder insists on a formal assessment, you can use the same type of branching scenario. However, this time, tell me you’re tracking what I do, and give me no chance to turn back the clock. Crucially, give me redemption options that let me get onto more successful paths when I realize I’ve made a mistake, just like in the real world.

If you were providing optional help that I should have internalized by now, remove it. Make me fly solo.

A scenario can be used this way to evaluate learning as described in Will Thalheimer’s new evaluation model. See it here.

How can you do this with mini-scenarios?

A mini-scenario is a one-scene story in which I make a choice, I see the consequence, the end. It might seem like you don’t have enough room in the story to let people make and recover from mistakes, but there are some techniques you can use.

We’ll look at those in the next post in this series. Sign up here to be notified when the next post appears.


 

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Comments

  1. Alan Camerer says:

    Hi Cathy,
    Great post as usual! Appreciated your comment: “Make sure your options include the common mistakes, cleverly disguised as reasonable choices.” and the other ways to tempt users to make mistakes.

    Regarding that:
    I took your advice and used Twine to develop three branching scenarios for a Laser Safety Officer course. The part that the client resisted most was making the outcome of incorrect answers real and relevant. We’re so used to multiple choice with no punitive responses that it takes a shift in thinking to come up with something effective. As you’ve pointed out, wrong answers need to be a reflection of the actual or presumed results of a user’s choice, not simply ‘incorrect, try again’, or an obviously dumb answer. That takes more thought and effort, which requires more time, which is as usual in short supply. I had to do some motivating of my own to get the client to go further, but they did, and it helped them more closely evaluate the possible things that could go wrong.

    I’m inclined to think we have to question the validity of the scenario if we or the client can’t come up with wrong answers, since the scenario is supposed to be based on real problems in the field. The wrong answers should be tripping off their tongue, with no room for dumb answers. Would you agree that lack of a ready supply of wrong answers/paths may be a warning sign that the scenario is not getting to the root problem?
    Regards,
    Alan

    • Alan, you make a really important point. If the SME can’t easily come up with several poor decisions that people typically make, then the core problem might not be poor decisions, and the solution might not be a scenario.

      You might revisit the specific task using the “Will training help?” flowchart (http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2013/05/is-training-really-the-answer-ask-the-flowchart/), This might help the SME see what’s really keeping people from performing the task well. Maybe there’s a problem with a tool, or the procedure is poorly designed, or something like that.

      Or maybe the SME can’t think of common mistakes because actually the task is usually done well. Maybe everyone just assumed it needed training because it’s part of a larger process that isn’t working right. If that’s the case, it can help to break down the process and identify the step(s) at which people really are making sub-optimal choices.

      • Alan Camerer says:

        Great points and thanks for the link! I need to remember to go over that chart with the SME next time this comes up. Performance improvement detective work is still not something I naturally gravitate to as an ID. I still tend to assume the SME knows what they need; after all, they’re the ‘expert’. With some spaced repetition, I’ll get it in ingrained in my behavior pattern. Thanks again.

  2. Corinne says:

    Hi Cathy,
    I really appreciate the direction on how to provide information that may prove to be difficult for a stakeholder to hear.
    How would you provide this feedback to a superior? For example, my director and senior director always ask for feedback during out touch base. How might someone present information like this to them?
    Or would you advise only using this method after someone has asked for feedback?

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