Accelerating Expertise with Scenario-Based e-Learning

Ruth Clark
Ruth Clark,
Clark Training & Consulting

Excerpted from Scenario-Based
e-Learning by Ruth Clark.

Imagine a new automotive technician, combat officer, or veterinary technician.  All are trained for their work roles, but all lack a critical ingredient of effective performance: experience.

The complexity of 21st century work is rooted in expertise.  And, as the word implies, expertise grows out of experience.  In fact, psychologists studying experts in sports, music, and chess have found that people require about 10 years of sustained and focused practice to reach the highest levels of competency in any domain.  However, today’s organizations don’t have 10 years to grow expertise.  And some skills, such as reacting to emergencies, demand practice before the situation arises.  Are there some ways to accelerate expertise outside of normal job experience? One solution is scenario-based e-Learning.

What is Scenario-Based e-Learning?

Whether you call these learning environments problem-based learning, whole task learning, or goal-based learning, the important features are:

A. The learner assumes the role of an actor responding to a job realistic situation.  By actor, I mean that the learner is placed in a realistic work role and takes on-screen actions to complete a work assignment or respond to a work challenge.  Because the environment is highly learner-centered, a key feature of scenario-based e-Learning is high engagement.

B. The learning environment is preplanned.  Like any well-designed training, there are defined learning objectives and desired knowledge and skill outcomes, which are the focus of the lesson design. For example, in an automotive technician training, the objective requires the learner to follow an efficient and accurate process to perform and interpret diagnostic tests in order to identify the correct failure and corresponding repair action in a virtual automotive shop.

C. Learning is inductive rather than instructive.  In inductive environments, the emphasis is on learning from a series of progressively complex experiences by taking actions, reviewing responses to those actions, and reflecting on the consequences. For example, the automotive technician student has the opportunity to try a diverse sequence of tests (some more relevant than others) in the virtual shop and to learn from the results of her choices.

D. The instruction is guided.  One of the most important success factors in scenario-based e-Learning is sufficient guidance to minimize the flounder factor.  A recent review of research summarized more than 500 experiments comparing a discovery approach with a more directive design. The research team found better learning among the more guided versions.

E. Scenario lessons incorporate instructional resources.  Unlike many games that rely solely on inductive learning, scenario-based e-Learning environments embed a number of resources for explicit learning, such as virtual coaches, model answers, and even traditional tutorials.  Online references or performance support applications can also be embedded into the scenario interface.  For example, in the virtual automotive shop, the learner can access the same online reference system available in the physical shop.

F. The goal is to accelerate workplace expertise.  By working through a series of job scenarios that could take months or years to complete in the work environment, experience is compressed.  In essence, scenario-based e-Learning is job experience in a box – designed to be unpackaged and stored in the learner’s memory.  Unlike real-world experience, scenario-based e-Learning scenarios not only compress time but also offer a sequence and structure of events designed to guide learning in a controlled manner.

Benefits of Scenario-Based e-Learning

As you consider incorporating scenario-based e-Learning into your instructional mix, consider whether the acceleration of expertise will give you a return on investment.  For example, interviews with subject matter experts indicated that automotive technicians must complete about 100 work orders to reach a reasonable competency level in any given troubleshooting domain.  Comparing delivery alternatives, OJT would require around 200+ hours, instructor-led training would require around 100 hours, and scenario-based e-Learning simulations require approximately 33–66 hours.  Factoring in other costs –such as travel, on-the-job coaching resources, etc. – yielded a solid business case for the simulation solution as a follow-up to traditional instructor-led training that included basic knowledge and skills.

In other situations, on-the-job training is risk adverse or impractical.  For example, controlling levels of surgical anesthetic or identifying behaviors out of compliance are skills better acquired in a safe environment rather than in the workplace.

Finally, many learners find scenario-based e-Learning more motivating than traditional instructional formats.  Solving a work-related problem makes the instruction immediately relevant.

To Learn More:

For over 30 years Ruth Clark has helped workforce learning practitioners apply evidence-based guidelines to design and development of classroom and e-learning instruction. Ruth has written 7 books that translate important research programs into practical training guidance including e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, and Evidence-based Training Methods. Her most recent book, Scenario-based e-Learning serves as the basis for this article.

A science undergraduate, Ruth completed her doctorate in Instructional Psychology/ Educational Technology in 1988 at the University of Southern California. Ruth is a Past President of the International Society of Performance Improvement and was honored with the 2006 Thomas F. Gilbert Distinguished Professional Achievement Award.

Making Learners Part of the Story

-Quinn Haslinger

People connect with storytelling at an emotional level. Storytelling works well as a tool for training because we learn best from experience and having meaningful context around an idea or situation. When actual experience isn’t an option (as in the case of a new employee), learning through scenario-based examples and stories relevant to their particular roles or responsibilities – whether it’s informally or through more traditional training avenues, such as  eLearning, instructor-led, mobile and blended models – helps prepare learners to make decisions with confidence.

Scenario-based learning is, first and foremost, engaging. It puts the user at the center of the story – they assume the role of an actor responding to a realistic situation. Putting the learner in a position to make decisions and face consequences mimics the real world without the fear of actual repercussions. It supports discovery learning through problem solving and lets the learner travel different paths and correct mistakes they may make along the way, just as in real life. By actively participating in the story, learners are better able to translate the skills they use into the work they do for the organization.

Across every industry, users consistently report that scenario-based learning is more engaging than traditional methods. Here are a few examples as to why:

Example 1: A virtual grocery store makes the learning environment preplanned and safe – inductive not instructive.  A learning experience for a Florida grocery chain allowed learners to practice assisting different customers throughout the virtual store, with different scenarios getting progressively harder. The user could track performance by seeing how the customer reacted (e.g., body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice), as well as by metrics that targeted how well learners communicated. These indicators supported the learner without simply telling them the answers. Rather than instructing participants on what to do, the virtual grocery store let them be in control of their own story through interactive and inductive activities that successfully achieved the training goal.

Example 2: A biotech firm incorporates instructional resources into scenario-based learning to accelerate expertise.  At one biotechnology firm, learners were given a backstory for each of their virtual clients, along with a field guide, and were asked to facilitate conversations based on their client’s history and need. These scenarios allowed learners to practice using field guides and converse with their target audience, which ultimately helped them solve problems using the right tools at the right time. Most importantly, the exercise built confidence, which made the learners want to go out and use their new skills and knowledge for the better of the company.

Example 3: A large retailer uses scenario-based learning to compress training times and motivate the workforce. A scenario-based learning initiative for a large retail chain enabled newly hired workers to interact with customers and practice selling techniques in different conditions before actually hitting the sales floor. This 45-minute virtual experience replaced a nine-hour classroom training. Aside from saving a tremendous amount of time and resources, the best part is that many learners found the scenario-based eLearning more motivating than traditional instructional formats they were used to or expected.  Solving work-related issues and interacting with the learning experience versus simply “taking it in” via a class, manual, or other channel, made the instruction immediately relevant and meaningful.

Whether you call these environments and actions problem-based learning, whole task learning, or goal-based learning, making the learner part of the story you want to tell can translate into success for your organization, regardless of your size or industry.

Want to read more? Download our white paper, “Making eLearning Engaging.”