Tip 11: Ok, here’s the scenario

A lot of effective e-learning relies on a goal-based scenario approach. What are they and how do they work? Let’s not fret about definitions and instead look at what goes in an effective goal-based scenario.

1. Start with a goal

Didn’t see that coming I’m sure – but designing the goal is one of the most important things in this model. It’s the learner’s goals, not the L&D departments’, that matter. Don’t ask ‘what do we want the learner to do’, but better to ask ‘What do they want to do?’ You need to start with the goals that matter to the learner. That’s not ‘I really want to achieve these learning objectives so by the end of this course I can understand these bullet points in full.’ It’s more likely to be ‘I want to sell more services so I earn more’ or ‘I want to get this process right so I can achieve more in my job and advance.’ Getting this goal right and presenting it to the learner is the starting point of a good GBS. The point of the GBS is then to simulate the path towards achieving that goal, which – if it’s any good as a GBS – shouldn’t be easy. A great project management course some of the Kineo people worked on put managers in the middle of a project that was out of control and challenged them to fix it. Realistic? Yes. Relevant to their jobs? Absolutely. So a good place to start.

2. Provide key data

So you’ve set up a situation, in the classic safe environment and given the learner the challenge of achieving the goal. The rational person says ‘well, tell me something about the situation so I have half a chance’. So you need to decide what to provide them to help them succeed. This could be documentation, interaction with characters who have information and backstories to share, access to emails, or internet resources. Whatever you provide should be authentic, the same kinds of materials you get when trying to achieve this goal for real. In the project management example, we gave learners a copy of the timeline, emails to and from the simulated client, a scoping document, and kicked it off with an angry voicemail from the client demanding to know why they were two weeks behind. Cruel, no? But it got their attention.

3. Present options

Once you’ve set up the situation and given information, it’s time for the learner to make their first decision. This is commonly called the decision point, when you ask them what they want to do. These options could be strategic (call a meeting / send an email / ask your boss) or conversational (say ‘we can get back on track if you can reduce the scope’ etc.) It’s an important design choice on which to use – depends on whether you’re trying to teach thinking or talking, or both. And of course you can flip between the two. The pressure on the designer here is to make sure that the options are all equally plausible. Don’t write distracters. Nobody buys them. You’ve invested in setting up a good situation and given background information, make sure the choices are equally weighted and attractive.

4. Show what happens

Each option in each decision point needs a consequence. This could be:
  • demonstration of how the situation could unfold (client gets mad, you’re in trouble, using video, audio, text, all of the above)
  • description of the potential consequences (essentially the lo-fi version of the above)
  • coaching and feedback (you did X, here’s why that’s a mistake, think about a different approach) – we’ve talked about how to structure effective feedback in an earlier tip.
Here’s where it’s worth spending a little, if you can. If there’s a dire consequence that you’re really keen for people to avoid making, then put some serious effort into showing it in your GBS. The whole point is for people to make mistakes in a safe environment so that they don’t make them on the job. Key to avoiding repetition on the job is making the mistake very memorable. That means using shock tactics, getting people emotionally involved, using humour – it all helps to drive the mistake home. Learning should be an emotional experience and at the point of mistake in a GBS, it really has to be.
If learners don’t make a mistake, then it’s on to the next decision point. As Roger Schank, who did most of the groundwork on GBS said, you should only coach learners in two situations, if they ask for it or if they make a mistake. Otherwise just let them get on with it.

5. Link to further learning

Taking that later situation – the learner has made a mistake. At this point they should be wondering why, what went wrong, how do I avoid doing that again. Their natural inclination to learn from their mistake should be triggered. As a designer you need to feed that inclination. You can do this by providing useful and relevant supporting learning at the point of need. This could be a story from an expert, e.g. ‘I remember trying to argue for a cost increase in a similar situation, and I got fired, and here’s why it was a mistake…’ or connecting to a tutorial or supporting information which goes into more detail about the process. Context is key here. Telling abstract stories or tutorial information won’t work nearly as well as presenting it when the learner realises they need it.
Goal-based scenarios can be a very powerful model for learning – if you’re thinking of applying one to your learning, make sure you’ve got the five key elements to make it work.