What makes a good scenario?

What makes a good scenario?

Scenarios are one of the most important tools in a learning designers’ toolkit. Scenarios enable us to move beyond the “information firehose” into applied learning. That’s the point at which students start to think about your learning points in actual practice. In Bloom’s terminology, we are moving beyond the “remembering” and “understanding” levels of learning, through to the more useful levels such as analyzing and evaluating which are most relevant to people within organisations.

But what makes a good scenario? If you already know what a scenario is, skip ahead to point 2 for a few simple guidelines:

  1. What are scenarios?

Scenarios use situations or stories to illustrate learning points. In scenario-based learning, students are put into a hypothetical situation, then asked to make a choice of how to act. For example, in an Anti-Bribery course, the scenario could be as follows:

stock-photo-white-wine-bottle-close-up-in-wooden-crate-673272.pngIt is approaching Christmas. One of your suppliers leaves a crate of wine in reception as a gift for you. What do you do?

  1. Call the supplier to say thanks then share the wine with all of your colleagues.
  2. Call the supplier to tell them how much you appreciate the thought but you can’t accept the gift.
  3. Call the Finance Regulation department and ask for advice.
  4. Call the supplier to accept the gift and offer your thanks.

Following the student’s response, as an author, you can either choose to offer immediate feedback to explain which option is the best choice, or you can move students to further scenarios where they learn the consequences of their choice from subsequent outcomes.

Scenarios make a great form of learning because they provide an opportunity for learners to make incorrect choices and judgements without the real-life consequences of the potential mistakes they might make.

  1. Keep it real.

One of the most important points for a scenario is that your learners have to believe it could happen. To achieve this, the scenario must be “real”, that is to say credible: the best scenarios are rooted in real-life examples where incorrect choices and mistake have been made.

For example, in a course on construction safety, would the following scenario be credible?


You need to excavate a two metre deep trench on site and are running behind schedule. Your site supervisor insists that, to save time, you should not use any shoring or support on the trench. What do you do?

This scenario could be viewed as relatively ineffective because it is highly unlikely that a supervisor would make a request to use no support on a trench this size. Far better to use an example based on the choice of the type of support to illustrate the potential issues and learning point of time versus risk.

  1. Keep it relevant

For a scenario to be truly effective, the situation must be relevant to what the learner does in their work.  For example, to them in a data protection course, if your learner works on a busy counter in a retail environment, would the following scenario be relevant?


A customer calls you on the phone and says they have received an incorrect bill through the post. You check their record on your billing system and find the person speaking on the phone is not the listed contact on the account. What do you do?

While a student from a face-to-face retail environment will be able to make a sensible guess, they will get less value than a scenario that speaks to what they do – dealing with customers face-to-face and the likely issues they will face.

  1. Make it ambivalent

The best scenarios are ones where the choices are not clear-cut. Options which are not obvious cause the learner to pause, to consider the different options and to assess the implications. This is the point at which your learning point starts to be applied and become less abstract. If you include obviously wrong or “giveaway” choices, the overall impact will decrease.

As an example, consider a course on effective annual appraisals where the first formal stage of the appraisal is a self-assessment of performance by the staff member. Would the following scenario be effective?


You are in meeting with a member of your team, Heinrich, for his annual appraisal. After initial pleasantries, you ask whether he has completed his self-assessment. Heinrich explains he hasn’t. What do you do?

  1. Terminate the meeting immediately explaining that his behaviour is unacceptable.
  2. Continue the meeting, moving to your own assessment of his performance
  3. Ask him why he has been unable to complete his self-assessment

In this example, answer (c) is clearly the appropriate choice. There is insufficient ambivalence in the options and little to cause the learner to stop and consider. The best scenarios have an element of dilemma or conflicting forces in their choices, echoing real life.

Take a look at this eLearning course for some great ideas on scenario-based learning in the area of first aid. Not only does it use some really effective scenarios but it also shows how you can include interactive video in your course:


Even if your budget doesn’t run to video, you can still deliver effective scenarios with a just a few lines of text to create a realistic, real situation combined with some well-crafted options to make your learners pause and really reflect on your learning points.

In future blogs, I’ll be looking at devices that you can use to make your scenarios even more effective – including gamification and other kickers. If you have any great techniques you use that you would like to share, let me know!

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