Using Scenario-based Training for Workforce Learning & Development


using-scenario-based-training imageIf you read current literature on training, one of the things you'll read about a lot is scenario-based training. This goes by other names, too, including immersive learning and problem-based learning. For this article, we're going to stick with scenario-based training.

No matter what you call it, there's a reason why people talk about it a lot. Because it's an effective way to learn. Within the context of job training, scenario-based training has a couple big advantages. These include:

  • Creating training that more directly matches true performances expected of the employee on the job
  • Making compliance training more active, fun, engaging, and effective
  • Reducing the amount of time it takes for an employee to develop expertise in his or her job (moving employee from basic, foundational job knowledge and skills to advanced skills that create value for the company more quickly and efficiently)
  • Providing a safe learning environment in which employees can practice and learn from mistakes without harming themselves, machines, or business goals

This article will at least touch on all four of those points. But we're going to primarily focus on how scenario-based training can reduce the amount of time it takes for an employee to develop advanced job skills and become an expert in his or her field, something everyone wants.

Along the way, we're going to be focusing our lessons from a book by Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark. And we'll also provide some examples and helpful resources from other influential writers on workforce L&D, including Anna Sabramowicz, Cathy Moore, and Christy Tucker. Hats off to all of them, and please do check out their work and articles (in particular, this interview we had with Anna Sabramowicz about using Storytelling & Scenarios in Job Training).

Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark's "Scenario-Based e-Learning"

Because scenario-based learning has so many advantages, we picked up a copy of the book Scenario-Based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Training by the very well-respected learning theorist Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark.

image of dr. ruth colvin clark's book on scenario-based learning

Although her book is primarily focused on e-learning and online aspects of scenario-based training, that's not her sole focus, and much of what she has to say applies to training that takes place "offline" as well, such as instructor-led training. Clark is one of our favorite authors on workforce learning & development--her books are always well-researched, comprehensive, and evidence-based--and we encourage you to buy a copy of the book yourself if this topic is of interest to you.

In this post, we'll use her book and some other sources as starting points to explain what scenario-based training is and tell you how to create it for yourself, whether you do it in an e-learning context or a face-to-face, "real-world" training content. And we'll give you some reasons to use it at your workplace, although we already touched on that in the introduction. We hope you find that a good start. And, if you do, we hope you also keep your eyes open for future posts digging into scenario-based learning and best practices for using it in more detail.

What Is Scenario-Based Training?

Let's start with a wise and funny quote from the famous physicist Neils Bohr (Clark includes this quote in her own book):

"An expert is someone who has made all of the mistakes that can be made in a limited domain." (1)

This quote is relevant to scenario-based learning for two reasons:

  • First, because scenario-based learning allows workers to make and learn form mistakes in a safe, consequence-free learning environment
  • And second, because learning from those mistakes through scenario-based learning helps workers become experts at their job more reliably and rapidly than they would through normal on-the-job experience

So scenario-based learning is a learning activity that lets your employees learn through their own actions and mistakes, observing the consequences of their actions and reflecting on them. And it helps to accelerate the normal path to the development of job expertise. That's a pretty good definition if you want to keep it short and sweet.

More broadly, Clark's book makes the following points explaining what scenario-based training is:

The employee plays an active, self-guided role.

The employee isn't just taking in information passively, and it's not the kind of training that delivers some information and then asks the employee to interact in a highly structured, limited format. Instead, the employee spends all or most of the training time evaluating options and making choices by him/herself.

The training involves learner actions and/or decisions, consequences and/or feedback provided to the learner, and an opportunity for the learner to reflect on their actions/decisions.

The action, response/feedback, opportunity for reflection cycle is a key to this kind of training.

The training is in a realistic job setting.

That means the training should occur in the real work place, or in a training environment that's like the real work place, even if it's online, simulated, or virtual reality. This is a useful way to distinguish scenario-based learning from game-based learning, which can also be effective but is different.

The training focuses on real job tasks.

It's not enough for the training to occur in a work-like setting. The training's also got to make the learner perform real work tasks--the kinds of things they'll do on the job. This is true if the training occurs in the "real world" or in a simulated, online/digital training activity. And this is one of the ways that scenario-based learning is different than game-based learning.

The training environment is pre-planned.

You can't just throw your workers into any environment and make this work. You've got to put some thought and forward planning into it while developing the training. You'll have learning objectives, and you'll design your training to help your worker satisfy those objectives.

The training will provide some forms of guidance to the employee.

Again, you don't just throw your employees into the deep end with no life preserver. Some form of guidance will be available or directly provided. This may be as simple as putting workers in simple scenarios first and then later putting them in more complex scenarios.

The training will provide instructional resources.

Although scenario-based training puts your workers in a realistic job-scenario and asks them to solve a problem of some sort, it should also include some instructional resources that the worker can refer to when they want to in order to help solve the problem. (2)

So if you want to start creating your own scenario-based learning (in any format), those are the key points to keep in mind.

How to Use Scenario-Based Training to Develop Employee Expertise

Although scenario-based learning can be used to create engaging compliance training, for now let's focus on using it to help a worker with basic job knowledge and skills accelerate the process of developing expertise in his or her job.

One point that Clark makes in her book is that scenario-based learning typically isn't idea for a novice on the job. Instead, it's most useful when the employee has got the basics down. In her words:

"Because learning new knowledge and skills while solving a job-realistic problem can impose quite a bit of mental load, in general scenario-based e-learning is best suited to learners who already have some job experience." (3)

So, the first step of training workers for a job role is to help them learn the basic-level knowledge and skills. Then you can use scenario-based learning and other forms of training to help them develop the advanced job skills of an expert. To simplify that a bit, here's how that might look:

Using Scenario-Based Learning to Facilitate Development of Advanced Job Skills Image

A lot, if not all, of that job knowledge (facts, concepts, and processes) can be taught through written materials and e-learning courses delivered online through an LMS. Maybe you'll add some instructor-led training too.

And those basic job skills and simple procedures can be taught with other types of training, including OJT mentoring, classroom-style instruction, video-based training, and more.

We've got a few examples for you in the sections below, and then we'll return to scenario-based learning for the development of job expertise.

Using e-Learning, Written Materials, and Other Types of Training to Teach Basic Job Knowledge

In this section, we'll look at an example of training materials for teaching basic job knowledge--the bottom level of the pyramid you just saw.

Here's an example of teaching basic job-related facts to workers with a basic e-learning course--in this case, some facts about HVAC systems.

Click here for a more detailed explanation of how to teach your employees essential job knowledge and facts, concepts, and processes. And here are more examples of e-learning courses that introduce important job-related knowledge in manufacturing facilities.

Using OJT, Instructor-Led, and Other Types of Training to Teach Basic Job Skills and Procedures

In addition to that job knowledge, your workers will need to be able to perform some basic job skills and procedures as well. That's the second level of the pyramid above.

You may teach those to your employees in a variety of ways, possibly including written materials, field-based OJT, classroom-style instructor-led training, videos, or more. You may even find it handy to use a mobile learning device like the one shown below to deliver and/or track the training. Pretty handy!

Click here for a more detailed explanation of how to teach your employees basic job skills and procedures (this article on the Training Within Industry Job Instruction program may also prove interesting). And you can also read more about tools to help you with training workers to perform basic job procedures.

Using Scenario-Based Training and Other Types of Training to Teach Advanced Job Skills and Develop Job Expertise

Finally, let's turn our attention back to helping workers develop those advanced job skills at the top of the pyramid that make someone an expert in his or her job.

As we said, one of the best ways to do this is to use the scenario-based learning.

Image of using Scenario-Based Learning to Develop Advanced Job Skills

The great thing about using scenario-based learning to help employees develop those skills is that you can drastically reduce the amount of time it takes an employee to develop those skills.

Without scenario-based training, if you just rely on your employee to "pick this stuff up" on the job, it may take a long time--years, maybe even 10-20 years. Or maybe they'll never learn it. Or maybe they'll learn some but not all of it.

Scenario-based learning improves your odds that your employees will develop this expertise, that they'll develop "full" expertise and not partial expertise, and that they'll develop the expertise more quickly.

An Example of A Scenario-Based Learning Activity

To help make these ideas more real to you, we've provided an example below.

This is a scenario-based e-learning course called Connect With Haji Kamal and developed by Cathy Moore.

The course was created for the U.S. Army as a way to train American soldiers in Afghanistan. You can imagine that soldiers may have learned some basic knowledge and skills before being given this training exercise, you can see how they can use this to develop advanced job skills they'll have to use "at work" in Afghanistan, and you can see how it provides a safe, risk-free training environment they can use to practice advanced job skills, make mistakes, reflect on their actions, and ultimately learn.

After learning basic job knowledge and skills, a young soldier could work through the scenario-based learning course Connect with Haji Kamal over and over again. That would allow the soldier to get feedback from a large number of possible outcomes.

Click the link to investigate the scenario-based e-learning course Connect With Haji Kamal.

You'll notice that the course is presented a bit like a comic book with written text and audio. The learner is then prompted to select answers from a limited selection of options. This is one form of scenario-based learning. Others allow the learner even more freedom than this, but this gives a good idea how scenario-based learning can be used.

More Questions about Scenario-Based Learning

You may have some more questions about scenario-based learning. We're going to try to anticipate and answer a few for you below. And we're planning on writing more about scenario-based learning in the future, so stay tuned for future articles.

Does Scenario-based Learning Have to be Online and/or e-Learning?

No, not at all. It can occur in the "real world" in face-to-face training settings too. Just make sure it's got the elements listed at the top of this article.

Does the Scenario-Based Learning for My Work Have to Be As Good as Connect with Haji Kamal?

Nope. It's true that Connect with Haji Kamal has nice art work and fancy multimedia, but that's not necessary.

You can pull together some training that's quite simple and modest that's still very effective in helping your employees develop advanced job skills. The instructional power comes from putting the learner in a scenario, having the learner make decisions, and letting the learner relect on those outcomes. The nice line drawings and audio narration are just gravy.

How Could I Make My Own Scenario-Based e-Learning Course?

A lot of e-learning authoring tools allow you to make an e-learning course with "branching" capabilities, meaning the learner will make a decision and go to one slide if they made decision X and to a different slide if they made decision Y. If you're not familiar with these programs, know that they're pretty easy to learn to use. Read more about e-learning authoring tools here.

What about Scenario-based Training Activities for Compliance Training?

Yep, we mentioned that scenario-based learning activities can be very effective for compliance training, because they're active and engaging learning experiences, but above we focused on using them to help workers develop advanced job skills and job expertise.

Here's a great example of a scenario-based learning activity for compliance and/or HR training: Broken Coworker by Ryan Martin and Anna Sabramowicz (another excellent example).

You might want to read our interview with Anna Sabramowicz about Broken Coworker, Storytelling, Scenarios, and Training.

Does the Scenario-Based Learning for My Work Have to Be As Good as Broken Coworker?

LOL. Nope. Again, it's true that Broken Coworker has some cool aspects you may or may not be able to duplicate at work--the good acting, the fun music, etc.

But you can make something that's simple and basic and quite effective. Remember, it's the instructional technique of scenario-based learning that's giving the instructional power here, not the slick production.

Plus, with a little work, you may well measure up to the standard set by Connect with Haji Kamal and Broken Coworker.

Any More Resources on Scenario-Based Training and/or Scenario-Based eLearning for me?

Yeah. Here are a few from Cathy Moore and Anna Sabramowicz, the learning developers mentioned earlier.

Cathy Moore:

Anna Sabramowicz:

  1. Anna's "Go-to eLearning Activity"
  2. Scenario-Form of Comic Book Style eLearning
  3. eLearning Scenario Formula
  4. Effective Scenario-based eLearning for Instructional Designers

In addition, we found some really good articles about scenario-based learning/training by Christy Tucker and have linked them for you below.

Christy Tucker:

  1. Getting Started with Scenario-Based Learning
  2. Planning a Branching Scenario
  3. Managing the Complexity of Branching Scenarios
  4. How Long Should We Let Learners Go Down the Wrong Path?
  5. Immediate and Delayed Consequences in Scenarios
  6. What to Write First in Branching Scenarios

One More Good Resource on Scenario-Based Training

Here's one last good resource--from the FAA:

Scenario-Based Training and the xAPI

In the past, and even today, eLearning courses have been primarily published in standard formats such as AICC and SCORM. SCORM's the industry standard, and it works well for what it does.

However, in the world of eLearning standards, there's a new kid on the blog: the Experience API, also known as xAPI, and until recently often known as Tin Can (that's going away, thankfully). A full explanation of xAPI is beyond the scope of this article, but it's good to know that xAPI will have two major benefits for learning and development experts.

The first major benefit is that it will allow us to track learning events other than eLearning courses. This might include things like viewing a web page or watching a video.

And the second major benefit of xAPI, and the one that's directly related to scenario-based learning, is that we can use xAPI to track more decisions that our learners make at different points within an eLearning course (and within a scenario-based elearning course in particular). So, SCORM could tell us things like (1) if a learner completed a course, (2) how much time it took the learner to complete the course, and (3) what the learner scored on the test at the end of the course. By contrast, xAPI allows us to get much more data, including what exactly the learner did at the decision points within a scenario-based elearning course like the one we're describing here. Pretty neat, huh? So keep your eyes out for xAPI.

Conclusion: Scenario-Based Training for Workforce L&D

That's where we're going to leave it for now, but we do expect to write more on this in the future.

For now, you've learned what scenario-based training is, why it's useful, some ways to develop it, and how to use it in a training program that helps manufacturing employees develop basic job knowledge, basic job skills and procedures, and the advanced job skills that really create value for companies (remember, scenario-based training is helpful for developing those advanced job skills).

Because scenario-based training is often used for assessment purposes (in addition to practice), we figured you might also find the following articles related to assessment of workplace learning valuable as well:

Please use the comments section below to share your own thoughts and experiences. Talk to you soon!


  1. Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, by Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark, p. 9.
  2. This is based on/adapted from a similar list in Colvin Clark, pp. 5-6.
  3. Colvin Clark, p. 10.

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