Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is it spoon-feeding or discovery scenario learning?

Scenario- based learning should take learners through a journey of discovery ; involving them in the events that take place at various points in your scenarios. It propels learners to think about the choices presented and not merely determining the right or wrong answers. Join me on a train ride to gain a better understanding of how to create a more engaging scenario for your next SBL challenge.


I conducted an informal survey of 20 workshop participants asking them this question:
How do you know if your scenario-based elearning program works? The responses were:
•Learners pick the right answer or options.
•Learners do trial and error until they find the right answers.
•Learners reflect on the choices provided.
•Learners were engaged.

It was intriguing to me that no one mentioned about learners discovering the learning points from scenarios.

On the surface, the responses seemed descriptive of a scenario- based eLearning program. However, on further scrutiny, they were symptomatic of a surface- level or shallow understanding of how scenario-based eLearning works.

The Heart of Scenarios

Although the answers described some characteristics of scenarios, they did not mention the core idea of why scenario-based eLearning works, which is:
It is about recognizing patterns from a series of choices leading to the discovery of the ideas.

The emphasis is on PATTERNS and DISCOVERY.
•Identify the end idea to be discovered.
•Set up different choices leading to the discovery of ideas at the ending.

Signs of Spoon Feeding

After more prodding, I confirmed my suspicion. Oftentimes, scenarios are unknowingly used as extensions of instructivist (telling) methods, rather than the implementation of the constructivist (discovery) methods.

It is spoon feeding when “scenarios” pose multiple choice-like questions.
•When it is a memory recall question.
•When choices lead to a right or wrong answer.
•When feedback is like a lecture ...this is right or this is wrong.

This situation stems from a lack of clarity that scenario-based eLearning is a constuctivist(discovering ) method and not an instuctivist (telling ) method. Due to strong previous backgrounds, many developers or instructional designers write scenarios as if they are writing instructional lessons rather than presenting a series of choices for learners to discover ideas.

Hollywood Vs. Training

In the moviemaking industry, script writers are into discovery writing to allow its audience to experience the unveiling of events and revealing more of the story as the film progresses. They cannot simply shift to just “spilling the beans” and telling everything outright about each scene. That would certainly bore the moviegoers.

In the elearning industry, trainers and instructional designers who have gotten used to the traditional instructional styles would find it particularly difficult to shift from simply instructing or using the telling method to integrating scenarios that will allow the learners to pinpoint patterns and discover ideas, thereby, creating materials that engage their learners. However, in this case, the shift is totally beneficial for a more positive learning experience.

Seeds of Discovery are Like Train Travel

Scenarios are like train tracks. They have metal rails, wooden ties and the ballast.


The ballast is the content which is the foundation of the scenario. The metal rails and the wooden ties represent the story which helps roll the train coaches. The train stops are the events of the story while the final destination is the outcome. The learners are the passengers.

Content is not to be apparent or immediately divulged . Rather, it should assume a story form that draws in the learners.

The story should glide, lubricate and move the train. It ought to allow the participants to get involved in the unfolding of events and solicit insights instead of just telling them to listen in a communication scenario. Use characters to represent the content and let learners discover the idea/s through the actions and behaviors of the characters. This initiates discovery.

We shall look into the story about a character named John, a sales person rejected by prospects. He appears not to be able to understand what the customer wants.

But to illustrate my point just a bit further, do you notice that when traveling a certain distance by train, we begin to enjoy the trip when conversations revolve around the people, the places and highlights of these places along our journey? These conversations are the train stops. Each stop triggers certain questions in our minds. What is this place? What landmarks can be found? The questions vary depending on how the ride goes. Nonetheless, train stops arouse curiosity and interest. In scenarios, the train stops are the events.

The train stops - as events- are natural places to pose questions to the learner. This is where learners choose options. The choices are presented in story form and must be continuous. Using John as our primary character, the events might play out like this...
- Event 1- he sent a proposal to the client
- Event 2- client rejected the proposal
- Event 3- John has to review and redo the proposal
- Event 4- John meets with his manager. He gets warned that he needs to get this sale..
So on and so forth....
Each event asks questions of the learner to help them discover what John should do.
This becomes an opportunity for deeper learning.

Opportunity to link event discoveries and develop into a pattern

Scenarios are not one-time discoveries of answers. That would be too boring. The gradual discovery of John’s actions and attitudes ,triggers something within us. It sort of acclimatizes us to get more involved in the story and the various situations of its character/s.

Arriving at the destination is a sure thing. But you gradually build a conclusion based on your travel.

Scenario-based eLearnings are like travels

Let’s say we travel from an urban setting to the rural area. We begin to notice new patterns at every stop. The sky gets bluer, more trees dot the landscape, people appear to live in a different way and buildings are less imposing. We now begin to grasp clues of certain patterns. Ultimately we gain better perspectives.


One way you can test how SBLs work is to imagine yourself in this scenario.

Let’s say you and other learners are hauled in enclosed carts ...no stops...no windows...destined for somewhere ... seemingly regarded like cows for delivery. No alternative options.

Sounds stifling , right? No chance to discover ideas along the way. I’m not sure what experience that is but I don’t think I would like to take that route or even attempt to go there.

Click to play these example that may help inspire you in your scenario building efforts:

Related Blogs

How to add the human touch in your eLearning design

Inspire others - be a Master Storyteller -Study the Profile and Survey

How to Embed Learning Goals in Stories

Join Ray's work on Scenario-based Learning and recieve a $150 discount.
Use the code: tctrj

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"


  1. This article was great, … I’m surprised that nobody has left any comment yet. So I could not resist …!!! I liked your approach of seeing a scenario-based instructional design for eLearning as an opportunity for discovery learning.

    Recently I came across another interesting article with some useful tips of how mistake-driven learning can facilitate the learning process. I provide the link for your reference: http://elearningindustry.com/5-tips-use-mistake-driven-learning-elearning-courses. From my experience as an instructional designer for eLearning, creating mistake-driven branching scenarios can be very effective as long as the instructor provides feedback that can reinforce a behavior or bring students back to the right path by giving hints on how to proceed.

    The end idea to be discovered you mention, can be identified with the corresponding learning objective, correct? I also liked the idea of letting participants follow characters’ reactions to events and particularly your point that this should be a gradual discovery!

    Very useful information Ray. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hello Marisa, thank you for your comment! I am glad that you were able to find it useful. Please keep reading the blog - we have a lot more tips and tricks to help you!

  3. And yes, you are correct - the end idea to be discovered can indeed be identified with the learning objective that corresponds to it.


Welcome! Sharing your comments is very valuable learning experience for me and others. Thanks!