Scenarios: the good, the bad, and the preachy

Decision-making scenarios work best when they require realistic decisions and avoid preaching. This post turns a typical fact-regurgitation into a more realistic scenario that helps learners practice making decisions in nuanced situations. Read more

Scenarios: the good, the bad, and the preachy

By Cathy Moore

Decision-making scenarios work best when they require realistic decisions and avoid preaching. Let’s look at some examples.

Not a real on-the-job decision

Carla, a sales person, is meeting with Amit, a new customer. She shows him a megawidget.

“You’ll love this megawidget,” Carla says.

“I don’t want a megawidget,” Amit says. “I came in here for a microwidget.”

What is this an example of?
a. Product Boundary Issues
b. Customer Misvetting
c. Courageous Upselling

What’s wrong with this scenario?

We’re not asking the learner to make a challenging decision like the ones they make on the job. We’re checking the learner’s short-term memory: Can they still recognize “Customer Misvetting,” which we defined three screens ago?

We’ve disguised a quiz question as a scenario. It’s better than a generic quiz question, but it doesn’t require the kind of thinking that learners need to do on the job.

Also, the question tests only whether the learner can apply the right label to a problem. It doesn’t test whether the learner can correct the problem.

A better question would ask what Carla should do, with the correct choice being the type of action that will correct a case of “Customer Misvetting.” Then we’d be testing the learner’s ability to recognize the problem and their ability to solve it.

A real decision

How is the following scenario different?

Carla, a sales person, is meeting with Amit, a new customer.

“I might be interested in your J-12 microwidget,” Amit says. “At 79 wigabits, it has enough power for paramatizing. But I’ve read that it runs hot.”

What should Carla say?
a. “Are you referring to the Widget World review?”
b. “Actually, the J-12 has only 60 wigabits. I think you’d need the K-77.”
c. “Our studies have never shown any heat issues with the J-12. Would you like to see the test results?”

Why is this question better?

It more closely mirrors what salespeople actually have to do, which is listen and respond to customers’ needs and concerns. We’re not asking learners to regurgitate facts but to make choices in nuanced situations.


Let’s say the learner chooses option C above—they think Carla should tell Amit, “Our studies have never shown any heat issues with the J-12. Would you like to see the test results?”

What’s the difference between the following types of feedback for that choice?

“Telling” feedback

While this response won’t derail the sales conversation, it could make Carla seem defensive and possibly increase Amit’s skepticism. It would be better for Carla to show that she’s familiar with what the industry is saying about our widgets. Try again.

“Showing” feedback

“I’m not surprised that your studies don’t show any problems,” Amit says, sounding a little annoyed. “But Widget World does rigorous, independent testing, and they found heat issues. What can you say about their results?”

“Telling” feedback destroys the sense of being in a story and, worse, it relieves the learner of any need to think. “Showing” feedback emulates real life: something happens and the learner draws a conclusion from it, using a lot more brain. It’s also more concrete and therefore more likely to be remembered.

If you’re worried that your learners won’t be able to extrapolate from “showing” feedback, you might be tempted to provide additional “telling” feedback, like “Carla needs to show that she’s familiar with what the industry is saying about our widgets.” But fight this temptation, because:

  • Your learners are adults and have been learning from experience for decades. Trust them to extrapolate. If you’re truly concerned about their ability to draw conclusions, test your material on some typical learners.
  • If these mini-scenarios form a longer scenario, adding “telling” feedback would interrupt the story. You’d become like an annoying parent who interrupts a movie to tell the children to never do what the protagonist just did.


I wrote the sample scenarios as text because that was easiest given my limited time. Obviously, interactions like these could be developed in any number of ways, from photos with dialog bubbles to video.

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8 comments on “Scenarios: the good, the bad, and the preachy

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  1. I wouldn’t completely rule out the use of corrective feedback in addition to intrinsic feedback. But I would consider rewriting it using more of a coaching style, e g
    “Carla’s resposne is to the point, but wouldn’t you agree her response is a bit too defensive? What would you do to find out more about what’s behind the customer’s objection?”
    I would also consider presenting the corrective feedback as delayed feedback, that is, after the scenario has been completed.


  2. Anders, that’s a good point about presenting corrective “telling” feedback after the scenario is completed. It can be a good idea to follow any scenario with a debrief of some kind.

    Even in the debrief, I’d like for learners to come up with the explanations on their own, rather than being told what went wrong in the story. This might be easiest to do with face-to-face discussions, like the in-class debriefs that occurred after this branching scenario on cross-cultural communication for the US Army. The scenario on its own inspired thought, but the discussion (and disagreements) afterward made it much more of a learning experience and increased the likelihood that it would change behavior.

  3. Thanks for this post. Your post in addition to Ray Jimenez’s insights in 3-Minute Learning has confirmed, in my mind the importance of creating “authentic” scenarios. Such a long way to go.

    Andy B.

  4. Cathy,

    Thank you for your posting. I am an improviser, teacher and designer of eLearning. Nancy Munro and I teach a class called from ADDIE To Improv – where we use improvisation to help build more engaging training courses. There is a section about 1/4 into the class where we talk about showing vs telling. As an improviser, I take any opportunity that I can to show a story vs use a lot of words to tell a story. It is engaging and brings the audience along with you (hopefully). And it is just like that with eLearning and scenarios. I am a huge evangelist for your course that you developed for the Army on communicating in the Middle East. I loved it for many reasons, but the ability to put the trainee into the situation – with real branching consequences – it really made me exited to find a project to try out my new insights.

    I recently had a project where we presented this type of immersive scenarios for ethical decisions, as the previous versions of the course had been very “telling” and text driven. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful in changing the “telling” method and I have to say I feel bad every time I look at the course, knowing it could have been so much better. So much more engaging. So much more memorable. Ultimately the change was too great for them and legal wanted to keep things pretty much as they had been in past revisions.

    Reading your blog today reminded me that it is possible and that others are successful in helping their clients do training in a more meaningful way.

    I would be curious to know what arguments have found (or your readers) worked well when trying to persuade for a more creative, “showing” type of course?

    Thanks again!

  5. I also had a recent stakeholder back off from a scenario-based course and revert to a less interactive, telling approach. It’s possible in my case that a functioning prototype would have been helpful. Some people have trouble imagining how a scenario would work and need to see it. So in future situations it might be helpful to mock up a sample scenario, or point to online examples of scenarios and say, “Let’s do something like that!”

    And, of course, legal staff are often stuck on the idea that we must require everyone to read every word on every screen and track whether they’ve done it. That way, if something bad happens Legal can say, “We told the employee not to do that! Here’s proof.”

    Legal people are probably worried that a scenario that requires decision-making and interpretation isn’t good enough “proof.” So one solution might be to combine the telling that Legal needs with scenarios that will actually help learners apply the information. If you can move the policy or other “telling” to a trackable reference, rather than text-heavy screens, even better.

    What has worked for other people? Does anyone else have suggestions?

  6. Hi Cathy,
    I really like the scenerio that you posted. Most importantly, I agree that when dealing with adult learners, it is necessary to provide an opportunity for them to ‘show what they know’. It is through this process, they are able to synthesize new information and link it to previously learned material. I also think that using scenarios as a training method, allows people to troubleshoot and analyze real world situations that may come their way. If we are going to present an elearning experience that engages the learner, it is important that we use a variety of methods to strenghten connectivism.

    Thanks for the example!

  7. Cathy,
    Thanks for this informative post. I recently read a very interesting article entitled Applying the Science of Learning, by Halpern and Hakel, that focused on a similar phenomenon in the university environment. Despite evidence that learning is optimized by non-linear strategies that “challenge” the brain, instructors stil tend to teach and test in the traditional way. It may be possible to overcome client/student resistance to newer methods, mentioned by Allison, by hybridizing showing and telling feedback.

  8. Brenda, thanks for the link to that article. I was especially interested to see this: “The fact that most people don’t know much about the quality of their comprehension is important, because there is a popular belief that all learning and assessment should be ‘authentic’ — that is, nearly identical in content and context to the situation in which the information to be learned will be used. But what is missing from most authentic situations — and from most real-life situations as well — is systematic and corrective feedback about the consequences of various actions.”

    I would interpret that to mean that in addition to tailoring stories to address common misconceptions, we need to make sure that the consequences are clear and use a debrief or other directive approach to underscore the “rules” that govern the type of situation shown in the scenario.

    I’d recommend that everyone read the article, which highlights several useful principles.