Building Engaging eLearning Scenarios

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The average person spends “at least 6% of the waking day engrossed in fictional stories on [their] various screens.” For modern learners, pressed for time and surrounded by distractions, that’s a lot of time. Yet there’s evidence that humans find storytelling so compelling that we not only dedicate time to it but adjust our behaviour in response to its message. Storytelling is an unparalleled, and time-honoured, vehicle for learning.

Building Engaging eLearning Scenarios

In eLearning, storytelling usually takes the form of a scenario. Scenarios can be used in several ways:


A mini-scenario is a short, single-issue setup. “[L]earners make a decision and are presented with a realistic consequence, which helps them decided if they made a good choice.” They’re usually used to explore higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, where knowledge and skills must be applied, not just remembered.

Branching Scenarios

Branching scenarios involve multiple decisions and events. The learner’s early choices inform later developments. Branching scenarios are used when:

  • Knowledge or skills involving problem-solving and critical thinking are being developed
  • It’s difficult, impractical, risky or too expensive to practice the skill in a real-world context

Scenario-Based Learning (SBL)

In SBL, the branching scenario is the sole learning strategy for the learning event. It is an effective form of learning for master learners who have existing skills, knowledge and experience on the topic.

Assessment Scenarios

Scenarios can be used for assessment as well as learning. A brief description of a situation is used to set up multiple-choice or short answer questions.

A longer branching scenario can also be used as a complete assessment. This strategy isn’t often chosen, as an early mistake may make it impossible to complete the scenario and assess learner competency in topics that arise later.

Tips for Designing Engaging Scenarios

1. Start at the Beginning, Define the Endings, Then Fill in the Middle

Longer scenarios, especially branching scenarios, can be complicated and time-consuming to develop. You can cut the confusion by taking a structured approach. Start your scenario by establishing a goal for your protagonist that reflects your learning objective. It might be resolving an employee conflict, making a sale, or establishing a policy, but there must be something to achieve.

Next, decide on two or three possible outcomes. While it is possible to build a good scenario with more potential endings, complications and confusion increase with each addition. Three is a good general limit for most eLearning applications.

The outcomes should refer to the original goal, usually following a pattern:

  • The goal is fully achieved: The disputing employees return to work with the disagreement resolved
  • The goal is not achieved: An employee quits and sues the business for creating a hostile work environment
  • The goal is partially achieved: The employees continue to work together, but some ongoing hostility compromises the business unit’s effectiveness

Finally, plot the pathways from goal to outcome. Keep your learning objectives in mind at all times while you develop events and questions that enable learners to explore the skills they’re developing.

2. Develop Realistic, Believable Events, Options and Consequences

Learner buy-in and engagement depend on realism. Find out what mistakes learners often make on the job, and offer them the opportunity to make those mistakes, and deal with the consequences, in the scenario.

Credible consequences for each action are key to learning. Let learners see what goes wrong when they make a poor decision, allowing them to learn from experience. This is easy to remember when designing a branching scenario, but easy to forget in a mini-scenario. A learning scenario loses much of its effectiveness when learners are simply told whether they made the right decision.

A good branching scenario, much like life, offers multiple routes to success (and to failure). Learners quickly become frustrated if a single mistake ends the scenario, so offer opportunities for recovery whenever possible. If an employee upsets a customer in a sales-orientated game, give them the opportunity to appease the customer and save the sale.

3. Create a Familiar, Relatable Environment

Learners engage best with a scenario when you “include characters with whom they can relate and stories that they can empathize with.” Emotional engagement in the story improves retention and increases the likelihood of affecting learners’ behavior.

Further, the value of a scenario is increased by familiar elements. New information is easier to recall if it is made more relevant by linking it to knowledge or experiences already stored in the memory, a process called elaborative encoding. One way to take advantage of this effect is by including video, images or description of an actual workplace.

4. Set an Appropriate Level of Difficulty

Full, independent, scenario-based learning, as a form of discovery learning, is not suitable for novice learners. Learners lacking pre-existing skills and knowledge will struggle to complete the scenario. Scenarios are effective for novice learners only as part of a larger learning program. “Learners should be given some direct instruction first…and then later be allowed to apply what they have learned.

Learners engage best with a scenario that has an appropriate degree of challenge. An easy scenario is boring and uninteresting; an excessively difficult one is frustrating and off-putting. “A good scenario-based eLearning activity or task will challenge learners to the degree in which they can expand their knowledge base without overwhelming them.

5. Engage in Regular SME Reviews

Scenarios are like all other learning material in the need for regular and thorough subject matter expert (SME) review. SMEs are crucial for verifying realism and relatability. Ask them if:

  • Your response options are reasonable. Would someone be likely to react in a way you hadn’t thought of?
  • Your characters are believable and relatable.
  • Any event jars them out of the scenario.
  • The level of difficulty is appropriate.


Scenarios are an effective means of exploring and practicing high-level cognitive skills. This article has reviewed the types of scenarios that can be used in eLearning and offered five tips for building engaging scenarios. Which of your projects would benefit from a good scenario?

Looking for more tips on how to develop a winning learning strategy? Download our FREE eBook now!

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.

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