Using branching scenarios to create powerful learning experiences

Using branching scenarios to create powerful learning experiences

Using branched scenarios within an eLearning course or as a stand-alone solution to help solve a business problem through training can create a relevant and meaningful learning experience. In the last blog of the scenario-based learning series, we looked at Using linear scenarios to create engaging learning experiences. In this blog we’ll explore what branched scenarios are, how they differ to linear scenarios and how to leverage them to add value.

Branched scenarios are a powerful tool in an instructional designer’s toolkit to drive behavioural change. Well-designed branched scenarios that closely mirror real life give learners the opportunity to learn new ways of doing things. This can be especially useful if an organisation has identified a better way for employees to work; they have identified an issue amongst a group of employees; or they are about to embark on a period of strategic change and development. In each of these cases, branched scenarios could provide a great learning solution.

What’s the difference between a linear and branched scenario?

Linear scenarios are a series of multi-choice questions arranged between scene setting content. While branched scenarios are also set between elements of content, they are slightly more complex and contain multiple decisions points. When a learner makes a decision in a branched scenario, their choice determines the ‘direction’ the scenario takes and therefore the next decision they’re presented with.

At each decision point, there is usually one ‘best’ option and then either one or two other options available to the learner. Some scenarios allow learners to go off track a little bit (by selecting one of the other options) before allowing them to make a decision and return to the ‘best’ route through the scenario. Other scenarios allow the learner to get to the end of the scenario before they find out about their overall performance.

A scenario that allows the leaner to go off track for a few decisions is preferable to a scenario that allows the learner to get to the end before they receive full corrective feedback. This is for a few reasons:

  1. The learner is given more timely feedback about their decisions, which means they can identify their errors when they are making them.
  2. They are less frustrating to the learner.It may be frustrating for the learner if they only find out at the end of the scenario that they had selected wrong options early on and achieved a poor outcome.
  3. They are much quicker and cheaper to buildbecause there’s less complexity to the scenario structure and story.

Let’s take a look at an example of a branched scenario being used to improve communication skills.

You have just remembered that your manager promised you feedback on your slide deck for a presentation that you’re giving tomorrow just after lunch. You emailed her three days ago with the slides and you still haven’t heard anything back. What do you do?

  1. Wait until the morning to ask her.
  2. Assume she doesn’t have any feedback.
  3. Contact her immediately.

The next part of the scenario is dependent on your answer. If you select option:

  1. Wait until the morning to ask her. You wait until the morning. It turns out she had forgotten to review your PowerPoint but is tied up in meetings all morning so won’t have the time to review it.(The learner will then be prompted to try a different response, indicating this wasn’t the best approach to take).
  2. Assume she doesn’t have any feedback. The next day, she remembers she was meant to give you feedback. She asks if you still want her thoughts, but you have to say no because your presentation starts in an hour. Try a different response.
  3. Contact her immediately. She replies, apologises that she forgot and has the reviewed file over to you within an hour.

By selecting option C, the learner is then presented with another decision, which further branches the scenario.

The most powerful scenarios don’t usually tell the learner whether they were right or wrong about their choice. Instead, they show the learner the outcome of their decision. In this instance, when the learner selected option a: Wait until the morning, rather than being told it was an ‘incorrect’ choice, they were presented with the outcome, which was that the manager had forgotten to review the PowerPoint and now won’t have time. All of this builds a more plausible and realistic scenario that mirrors real life.

Branching scenarios are suitable when a decision made at one point has an effect on the decisions to be made later. These types of scenarios fit situations where decisions need to be made in situations where there can be grey areas or not necessarily completely correct or incorrect decisions.

So, how do you write a branched scenario?

Writing a branched scenario requires careful planning to ensure it addresses the desired behavioural change. Check out our blog on Using Action Mapping to Design eLearning Activities for more on this.

In comparison to writing linear scenarios, branched scenarios are a little more complex and require more thorough planning. Although there are many ways of planning a branched scenario, a good place to start is by considering what people are doing right and then considering what mistakes people are making.

Consider the example where an organisation needs staff to communicate more effectively (the desired behaviour changed), the answers to the following questions will become the framework for the scenario:

  • How are employees already communicating effectively?
  • What mistakes do employees make? What are the consequences of these mistakes?
  • How should employees be communicating?

Armed with this information, the next step is to consider a context in which to embed the scenario. A well-chosen context will make the experience of the scenario more genuine and as close to real life as possible. When learners think “oh, this happened to me the other day” you know you’ve got it right.

The next step is to flesh out the decisions and consequences for each decision and the general flow of the scenario. This will also involve working out how far to branch each route which goes off track and plan a route for how the learner can get back on track. Include as many decisions as you need for the learner to adequately tackle the problem that you are trying to solve.

Branching scenarios are a valuable tool to creating unique, effective and engaging learning experiences. If you want to see when scenario-based learning might be good for your training, check out our blog on the Three Types of Training That Suit Scenario-Based Learning. Subscribe to our newsletter to be kept up to date.