Consider 4 Cs in Scenario-Based Learning

When I create scenario-based learning, I keep these four elements in mind: characters, context, challenge, and consequences.

4 Cs of Scenarios


The main character of your scenario who drives the action should generally be someone similar to your learners. Even if the main character isn’t named and the scenario is in second person (What do you do next?), the role of that character should be familiar to your learners. Give your main character a goal that aligns to the learning objectives and that your learners share.

The other people your main character interacts with should be typical and mostly realistic, with perhaps a little exaggeration. If you’re doing customer service training, think about the different types of customers employees interact with. If you’re creating manager training, the other characters might be employees and coworkers.


The context is the background for the situation. This is often implied by the training, especially if the scenario is part of a larger course.

The context isn’t just shared with words. When you add a photo background for a scenario-based learning, you show learners the context rather than telling them.

Your learners’ work environment should match this context. It’s easier to transfer learning to a similar situation than one that’s radically different.

A hospital room on the left; comfy chairs in a corporate lobby on the right. These provide different contexts for scenario-based learning.
These two backgrounds provide very different contexts for scenarios.


Your characters face challenges in the scenario. Those are the points where learners have to make a decision or take an action. The challenges are where the learning happens. Think about the frequent obstacles: faulty technology, impatient customers, or a limited budget.

Common mistakes are good challenges to include. If sales associates often forget to provide a recommendation at a specific point in the sales process, include that point in the scenario. Give learners a choice to make a recommendation or not.

You might also include challenges that happen less often but are critical to address correctly. Sales associates won’t often have to deal with a customer so angry that they threaten violence, but it’s important to know how to handle that volatile situation.


Especially in branching scenarios, the feedback should be part of the scenario rather than something you just tell them. A customer gets angry, a patient refuses to follow your recommendations, the technology continues to malfunction, or you run out of budget two months before your project is finished.

Show learners the consequences of their mistakes rather than just telling them. You might also provide coaching or instructional feedback, especially for novice learners, but don’t neglect the consequences of their actions.

Your thoughts?

While this isn’t a complete list of everything you need for scenario-based learning, these are elements I see people omit or downplay. Which of these four elements do you find most challenging to incorporate into your scenarios?

More Reading

Interested in reading more? Check out all my posts on storytelling and scenarios.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants who have shared their ideas before us. My list of the 4Cs overlaps with concepts in Michael Allen’s CCAF (Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback) model. I do prefer Consequences to Feedback, as designers too often assume feedback is only verbal (although Allen explains otherwise in his great books). While I didn’t have Tom Kuhlmann’s 2009 post in mind when I wrote this, I came across it again recently. I’m sure I did read this many years ago when it was first written, and I suspect his “Challenge-Choice-Consequence” model was somewhere in my subconscious as well.

This was my 1000th post when it was originally published on 9/29/2016. Last updated 3/4/2020.

6 thoughts on “Consider 4 Cs in Scenario-Based Learning”

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  5. Hi Christy, I love the practical tips you provide for developing scenarios. Creating a scenario can be as simple as: An actor (employee) performed a given action, and something happened, and then asking “what would you do next?” However, as you point out, there is much more value instructional designers can do to add to make the activity worth the time spent. Many designers may overlook the importance of context. It’s important that new learners, such as new hires understand the environment in which they’ll be performing, and how it differs from training. That could mean that they’ll be asked to perform in a noisy call center with angry customers. Therefore, instructional designers should not just pitch them softballs during training.

    It is also important for learners to see how to handle complex tasks in a variety of situations. Instructional designers should provide a variety of challenges to learners during training where they can practice, fail, and receive feedback while they are in a safe environment. Yes, that means we have to write a lot of scenarios. The more scenarios we can provide that are relevant and challenging to learners, the better.

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