Why you want to use scenarios in your elearning

Imagine that you’re in a competition to overhaul an information-heavy course so it creates real change. What would you do? Read more

Why you want to use scenarios in your elearning

By Cathy Moore

Imagine that you’re in a competition to overhaul an information-heavy course so it creates a real change in the world. What changes would you make? Check out this story-based presentation to see what one fictional company did.

If some type is too small, click the “full” icon in the player and you’ll get the big-screen version.

One of the challenges with using the approach described in the presentation is that it usually requires more design time. Since many clients don’t actually measure the effectiveness of their materials and just want information put online quickly, it can be hard to argue for immersive scenarios.

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33 comments on “Why you want to use scenarios in your elearning

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  1. I am so glad you are championing this change. It happens in live presentations and in elearning all the time: in the first few minutes, when the audience is most captive and receptive, they get background information instead of the main take-away. Oy.

    In case anyone is interested, I wrote a guest post at on the same topic, which is an extreme makover elearning edition!

  2. The whole slideshow is mesmerizing, and totally gets me excited about developing online material. Thanks so much for putting this together! 🙂

  3. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I recommend you read the post that Eric linked to, where he makes (among many good points) this very important point: plunging learners directly into a decision-making scenario shows that we respect their intelligence.

  4. I’m waiting for the day when Cathy will gather her thoughts into a book or better still (if she can find the time) a video series. That would be a feast for the senses and the mind!

  5. Cathy-
    As I’ve told you before, you ROCK! Your presentation will help us explain the difference between most elearning courses and the performance-learning approach that we strive for. Keep on fighting the good fight – we are with you!

  6. Cathy,

    What is the copyright situation if I want to download some of your blogs as part of an elearning course I am developing. I work for Bendigo TAFE and I am preparing an elearning course on copyright so I don’t want to make any mistakes! I assume that providing a link to your blogs is OK, but what if I wanted to print them out as handouts for students?

    Please advise.

    Thanks, Kerin

  7. Kerin, you can find out about the US definition of “fair use” here. As I understand it, giving photocopies of my blog posts to your students for their education would be fair use, since it wouldn’t hurt the commercial value of my work. I’d personally prefer for them to see the blog itself rather than paper versions of posts, so they could use the Flash interactions, read and leave comments, and follow links to related content. But if your students don’t have easy internet access, I could see that photocopies could be useful.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I’d like to add my own, to clarify “show, don’t tell” on slide 51. It seems that some people assume I mean “use a picture, not text.” What I mean to say is, “Don’t blatantly tell people that what they just did is correct or incorrect. Instead, show the result and let them draw the conclusion themselves.” When we do that, we show learners that we respect their intelligence, and we keep their mind actively involved.

  9. Hi Cathy

    Great presentation! I see that creating effective scenario based elearning requires lot of SME assistance. Otherwise the learning will not be effective.

    The ID must not be asked to come up with scenarios on his/her own. I am not sure if it works. In low budget courses, when you have no SME and you have to use scenarios, it gets really challenging.

  10. Thank you for this presentation. Youre right when you said that our goal is first of all to help people to solve problems, not to learn !

  11. Hi Cathy –

    Thanks for the post! I agree completely. How do you encourage SMEs to use this approach for technical or application-based training?

  12. Great info on the slideshow.
    Thanks for that head washing! I’m staring a new project (elearning course) and I was going to do the info overload. Thanks to your slide, now I have better ideias e approach for the project.
    You earned a new blog fan!
    keep up the great work!

  13. Thank you so much for this for two reasons:

    First, it was entertaining and incredibly informative. I am a classroom teacher and always appreciate new takes on teaching/learning. Second, thank you for modeling the behavior that you’re preaching. So many presenters and conference leaders have a “Do what I say and not what I do” approach.

    I’m a current student at Walden Univ., and I’m learning about Instructional Design. I’ve always considered myself a constructivist type, and I really appreciate how you have given the audience the information and allowed us to see and compare the approaches and come to the conclusion that scenarios work better than lists of facts with quizzes. I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed and cannot wait to read and watch more of this blog!

    1. @Daura, if you happen to see this, can you contact me offline to let me know how your Walden University studies went? I’m about to enroll for February admission and wonder if the coursework emphasizes instruction design in the Cathy Moore style! Email me at “elearndesigner” at gmail . com. Thanks!

  14. Daura and Hugo, thanks for your kind words. I hope the blog will be useful.

    Sorry I missed Re ServeD’s question about getting SMEs to use this approach for technical training. One approach could be to ask them how they learned to do what they do. Most likely, they learned by doing. They didn’t sit and read the entire manual, never touching the computer.

    Another approach is to remind them that their expertise goes beyond just the content–they also know (ideally!) what mistakes people make on the job. A great way to teach people to avoid mistakes is to let them make those mistakes in a safe place (the course), *see the results,* and then do it again the right way. SMEs can probably tell you about memorable mistakes they made and will never make again, and a scenario is really just a safe place to make mistakes or at least be tempted by them.

    An easy approach to scenarios for application training is to have the SME identify the 3-5 most common tasks that the software is used for and replicate those as scenarios, such as “Josh needs to adjust the quantity for an order that’s already in the queue for shipping.” + the learner has to click on a simulated screen (or a sandbox version of the app) to help Josh out.

  15. Nice prez, Cathy! I agree that in workplace learning, scenarios will almost uniformly get learners closer to the real goal than the information dump approach. And then the learner doesn’t have to make so many mental transformation from the info to the real-world. You’ve already supplied the realism.

    Sometimes my clients will resist, telling me that the audiences’ roles and responsibilities are too varied. Even in those cases, I think using scenarios from a few of the groups is still helpful.

  16. Hello Cathy,
    I thoroughly enjoyed the slides you shared from your presentation, and appreciate the suggestions you provided. Approaching instructional design from an “its our job to help people solve problems in the real world” way is a unique perspective that I think is probably the best point of view.

    I understand that scenario-based problem-solving in eLearning, and other methods of teaching, is an important approach, but I am faced with the question of “why does it work so well”. Its seems to all tie directly back to fundamental memory and information-processing theories. Considering your coffee pot example, just having students read the words on the screen about where to best place a heavy pot on a serving tray is not enough. Simply seeing and reading the words is one of the lowest and least meaningful ways of encoding information (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009), and all students are likely to do is route rehearse the data so they can recite the facts back in a text-only quiz. Instead, your approach of reading text, showing pictures, and having meaningful animation the learner can manipulate is key to successful understanding of the information. The simple act of reading text is augmented by the more advanced memory technique of showing visual cues, which is further built upon by having learners directly interact with the content. Not only are you prompting encoding through imagery, which Ormrod (Laureate Education, 2009) says is one of the most effective ways to learn, but you are also appealing to various learning preferences (audio, visual, and kinesthetic) to further make encoding more personally meaningful to the students (Bostrom & Lassen, 2006). The tell, show, do model is key to success in scenarios here.

    I was further impressed that the instruction did not stop there, but took a step further in the quiz section to question the learner as to why they choose a certain answer, regardless of whether it was correct. This was truly a learning point for me because it presented an excellent teaching strategy to promote metacognition in students (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009). Having learners think about their thinking and question their decision-making and problem-solving techniques based on content they have learning is an extremely meaningful way to have them encode information.

    Overall, I also have to comment about your “it’s the design, not the technology” approach. Learning modules should not be judged on their use of new-fangled graphics and computer animation, but instead on how well they help the student learn and how much knowledge and skill is transferred to the job to make true difference in the learner’s behavior at work.


    Boström, L. & Lassen, L.M. (2006). Unraveling learning, learning styles, learning strategies and meta-cognition. Education and Training, Vol. 48(2-3). pp.178 – 189.

    Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2009). Information processing and the brain. [Narr. by Dr. Jeanne Ormrod]. United States.

    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

  17. Hi,
    Great Blog !! We are a start-up Kenyan e-Learning Company with a lot to learn on e-Learning too , i appreciate your course and mostly the presentation of ideas in an e_learning scenario, mostly anything more than one idea per page is confusing to a learner.
    Thanks a lot for giving us these information.

  18. Spot on, this presentation really made a great impact on me. I learnt how an e-learning course can be designed by solving peoples problems in the real world. Thank you for the great work and the knowledge you have shared on this post.

  19. Cathy, you are a rock-star amongst rock -stars. I see so many blogs about how to get your information out of your SME. I am the SME and became so frustrated by learning designers unable to unpack my thinking that I began to study instructional design myself. My 6 month Elearning Blueprint subscription has already made me a rising star, hoping to be a rock-star soon. If only all learning designers had this approach, they would unpack the SMEs brain a lot quicker. Thanks for your contribution to society.

  20. Hi Cathy. I like your presentation on Scenarios. Too often declarative knowledge (facts and figures) are presented to learners and the information lacks personal relevance or meaning, and consequently retention is non-existent. It is so important to make content engaging especially for people employed in low paying jobs which are probably temporary.

  21. Rather late response to this article, but thought I’d recommend chapter 2 of in Khine’s book Learning to Play, by Halverson, Blakesley and Figueiredo-Brown of the Uni of Wisconsin. They describe the process of getting their learners, graduates studying educational leadership, to create branching narrative games designed to teach principles they were learning as part of their studies, such as giving teachers feedback.

    “Design-based research” is the testing of a teaching hypothesis by evaluating how learners interact with features that embody that hypothesis. In Cathy’s case study here for example, she tests the narrative design, and the learners’ sensitivity, by comparing the decisions learners and experts make.

    The education leadership students designed narratives and decision points, and gave each decision a point score, (for similarly ill-structured and ambiguous problems as Cathy’s here). In doing this design, and piloting it on each other to ensure authenticity and fair scores, the students gained an intimate appreciation of all the factors affecting the evaluation of each decision, (for example every stakeholder/NPC’s reaction), and the chains of causality stretching back along their narrative branches, digging into their decision making process, including for feasible decisions they wouldn’t make.

    Key was play-testing regularly throughout the design process for frequent, realistic and direct feedback. Many students said that the play-testing with each other and people outside the course was the most rewarding and illuminating part of the experience, as it challenged their initial beliefs and perceptions about professional practice as people took many unexpected views, roles or decisions. Students seem to have engaged and discussed the scenarios in depth and exhaustively.

    1. Chris, thanks for your comment and for pointing out Learning to Play. I think that it can be extremely powerful to have learners design branching scenarios to “teach” other learners, and it’s great to have confirmation of that.

      1. I’ve devoured just about every book, article, blog or opinion I can find in the subject area, and Learning to Play is absolutely brilliant. I tend to skim through resources, picking out chapters and paragraphs for later reference, but there isn’t a paragraph in that book that I could skip.

        (Disclaimers: I’m nothing to do with the book! And I’m posting extensively here with gratitude, because your blog is another exemplary source of very concise, very practical gems.)