“Experience is the best teacher,” they say.
This certainly holds true in the corporate world. When learning a new role or a new process, there’s no better teacher than experience. Well, that’s great. How are we supposed to get experience if we don’t know the role or process in the first place? And now our training has moved to eLearning! How can learners truly experience a situation when sitting at their desks? Enter the magic of scenario-based learning.
What Is Scenario-Based Learning?
Scenario-based learning is just another term for role-play, that classic training technique in which learners simulate a situation by playing different roles to practice for on-the-job situations. Many customer service-oriented trainings use role-play. One student pretends to be an angry customer threatening to cancel service, and a colleague handles the fictitious problem, to simulate what may happen on a future call.
Adapted for eLearning courses, scenario-based learning allows for independent role-playing. A learner practices how to handle real-life situations at their own pace, without the need for someone else to play along. If they work at a satellite location or want to practice at home during the evening, scenario-based eLearning allows them to learn the on-the-job skills needed on their own time.
What Are Branching Scenarios?
Branching scenarios are a feature of scenario-based eLearning in which decisions made in early scenes of a story affect later scenes. Anyone who grew up devouring “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels will be familiar with this concept. Choose to try to fight off the pirate, and you might fall off the ship and get eaten by an alligator! Ten-year-olds everywhere quaked in their boots reading these books.
Think of branching like telling a story. Just as lessons emerge from Aesop's Fables or Grimm's Fairy Tales, as the learner makes choices, the story unfolds, as well as the lessons you've built in.
Not all initiatives require or would even benefit from multiple branches, however. Cathy Moore does an excellent job explaining when to use a branching scenario. As Cathy points out, most of the time a one or two scene scenario does the trick. But, when learners need training on very complex subject matter that involves critical thinking and problem solving, branching scenarios can be very effective.
In complex situations, there often are not right or wrong answers, and there are many different ways consequences can play out. Branching helps learners practice such skills as recognizing and challenging their own assumptions; recovering from mistakes in a long or complicated process; navigating extended, ambiguous situations; and deciding when to stop gathering information and act.
Why Use Branching?
Regardless of industry, life-like situations similar to those that the learner may encounter on the job provide a learning experience like no other. Branching brings depth and personalization to the learning process that goes beyond simple interaction by urging the learner to think deeper and explore an array of options available to them. Branching is extremely useful for a few reasons.
Do you recall the adage about memorizing for a test and not for life? Passively observing and taking in information might help a learner pass a test but doesn’t necessarily equate to a real understanding of the material or encourage a behavioral change. Branching, by default, forces the learner to consider consequences to their decisions and engage in the lesson, effectively encouraging the learner to change from a passive observer into an active participant.
Creating branching scenarios takes a lot of planning. There is no getting around that. But once that initial preparation is complete, modifications to your scenarios are relatively easy and overall maintence doesn't require much effort. If you find one branch isn’t performing as you’d like, experiment with simple changes until you've achieved the desired result.
Safety in Failure:
It may seem obvious to point out, but compared to a real life situation, the stakes are lower in a branching simulation. Learners don't feel the pressure of making a wrong decision while on the job, which allows them to focus and explore the options available to them. This translates to better retention of information. Think about it. When would you rather have a surgeon mess up? While she is elbows deep in your surgery, or during a simulator? What’s more, the learner is given the chance to learn from the failure. Failure doesn’t halt the learning process, but instead enhances it.
How Can Branching Be Used Effectively?
Understanding how to effectively integrate branching principles into your course can result in the difference between a performance-enhancer and a time-waster. eLearning Industry explains five tips for branching scenarios that you can use to provide learners with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to be successful.
Behaviors, Not Ideas:
Again, our goal is to create behavioral change, not impart general knowledge. For example, if you need to teach your nursing staff how to avoid spreading disease, you may want to build branching scenarios exploring the consequences of decisions made while treating patients. In fact, we did just that in an eLearning course for a major hospital. Here's a peek.
Of course, before the design process can begin, you'll want to write a storyboard featuring the challenges, decisions, and outcomes that you would like to integrate. Plan each path for the branching scenario, deciding on an ideal solution in addition to other paths available to the learner and their consequences. Here's our example:
It’s a simple and important concept, but one that often gets overlooked. Think about it: why do you get invested in a movie or television show? Because the characters draw you in. If you want your learners' engagement (hint: important for the learning to be effective), they must be able to relate to both the characters you are featuring and the challenges and scenarios they are navigating. Use language and imagery that your learner is likely to use and experience on a daily basis.
Less Can Be More:
The more decision points you create, the more interactive and immersive the experience, right? Not necessarily. In fact, when creating your branching scenarios, keep to less than 10 choices throughout to avoid “cognitive overload.” Cognitive Load Theory describes how short term memory can only retain a certain amount of information simultaneously. The more information delivered at once, the less likely learners will be able to call upon that information for later use.
The Domino Effect:
Just like tapping a domino causes all the others to fall, every decision made impacts later choices. This replicates life; when learners choose to go down one path, there's certain outcome with little (or no) chance to circle back to a different path and outcome. Structuring branching scenarios in this way enables learners to understand that mistakes are learning opportunities and to navigate through situations with unknown outcomes with a sense of confidence.
Ultimately, branching creates a high level of engagement for the learner, but, as always, should be used for a definite purpose with behavior change in mind. When used effectively, branching scenarios create immersive and powerful eLearning experiences to effectively prepare learners for the real-world.