Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios

One way to engage learners is to make content immediately relevant. People naturally pay more attention to information they can use right away than information they “might need someday.” So, how do you get learners to use information right away? One approach is to use scenarios that are realistic and relevant to their work and give them a chance to apply the information.

Create a sense of immediacy

Several years ago, I attended a webinar by Julie Dirksen on the Science of Attention and Engagement. One of her tips to promote learner engagement was about making learning immediately relevant.

It’s easiest to pay attention to content that you can use right away. Use strategies like test-then-tell, scenarios or problem-based learning to create an immediate use for the learning content.

-Julie Dirksen
Make Learning Immediately Relevant With Scenarios

What does the research say?

If someone offered you $10 today or $11 one year from now, what would you choose? Most people would choose the $10 today. A reward is worth the most in the present moment; the perceived value of the reward drops if you won’t get it until some date in the future. This is known as hyperbolic discounting.

For example, the reward for exercising is generally long-term. You have to do a lot of work over weeks or maybe months before you start seeing results. That makes it hard to stay motivated.

However, if you can make exercise immediately rewarding, it’s easier to stay motivated. People with diabetes can test their blood sugar before and after exercise to see an immediate change. If a 20-minute walk drops your blood sugar from 150 to 120, it’s easy to see the value in that activity.

Immediately relevant training

Similarly, the rewards for learning are often long in the future. We often train people on principles that we say will be important, but they might not get to apply that new knowledge for weeks or months.

You can create that sense of immediacy in learning by giving people a scenario where they apply it right away. By doing so, you create an immediate reward for learning. That helps learners stay motivated and engaged with your training.

Example comparison

Before (traditional training)

Reasonable Accommodation: What Managers Need to Know

It’s important to remember these 5 factors when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation…

After (scenario-based training)

You’re working with your team to keep everything running smoothly. You have an aggressive schedule for the next month with an upcoming product launch.

Rosa just asked if she can take a two-day training on how to use her new assistive technology more effectively.

What should you do? Do you approve the request for training, or do you tell Rosa she can’t take the training until after her upcoming deadline?

Which is more motivating?

What feels more important to you, the traditional or scenario-based version? Which version would you find more motivating? Using scenarios to create a sense of immediacy shows how learning is relevant and useful.

Originally published 10/30/2018. Updated 12/21/2023.

8 thoughts on “Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios”

  1. Pingback: Analysis of Christy Tucker’s Blog post “Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios” – Instructional Design meets Clinical Education

  2. As institutional designers, we have a responsibility to educate our learners and to design education to promote retention. To promote a learner’s retention of knowledge or skills they are learning, we must make learning relevant. I agree with Christy Tucker that we must make learning immediately relevant by incorporating real-life scenarios into our designs. Dr. Jeanne Ellis Ormrod an educational psychologist and writer, serves as a leading innovator and contributor within the educational instructional field and believes in the importance of making learning meaningful. Throughout her studies, she refers to the “information processing theory” and how important it is to intertwine various instructional methods to enhance the probability of the learner encoding and retaining information (Walden, n.d.) Not only is it important in how we learn, but also what we do with that learning that has the biggest impact on retaining knowledge. With that being said, in the next paragraph, I have provided an example of how important it is to make learning immediately relevant in the healthcare industry.

    Creating learning that is accessible, quick, and accurate is crucial to maintaining safe and reliable care for all of the patients we serve. I work as a clinical education coordinator and we instruct our nurses on how to utilize new products and medical equipment regularly. Recently we received new needles to administer IVs. We transitioned from using a butterfly needle kit made by the manufacturer KDLⓇ to PUYIⓇ. As you can see via the examples below, one kit has tubing already attached to the butterfly needle (KDL), and the other kit (PUYI) has tubing detached that needs to be attached to the needle once inserted into the skin (view the visual aids at the link preceding this sentence). To educate all of our nurses about this medical equipment change so that they can administer IVs safely to patients, we need to start by designing online education. We develop the e-learning as follows:

    First, we introduce the new needle. We include a quick introductory video, images, and a diagram of the new equipment components. Next, we compare and contrast the old and new products so the learner can make concrete connections between the product’s unique characteristics. After that, we transition to questions that provoke the learner’s critical thinking. This pre-test allows the learner to assess their current knowledge of the product. Next, the learner selects a simulated e-learning scenario of administering an IV utilizing the old product on a patient on their unit they are familiar with. Afterward, they select a different patient on the same unit but utilize the new product. Once the learner has completed the two scenarios, they have the choice to continue practicing the new skill they just learned or to continue. They take a post-test to assess their new knowledge of the product. If they do not receive 100%, the module instructs them to go back to the scenarios to practice more. During the practice session, there are tips and tricks analog buttons accessible to the learner to guide them through the practice modules. After that, they can choose to take the post-test again. If they pass, they get instant gratification via a certificate imported into their online transcripts along with being able to move on to a real patient on their unit. Once the learner passes the education, they will go on their unit with their preceptor and watch them administer an IV using the new product. After the learner has witnessed a new IV being administered on a real patient by their preceptor, they get to administer an IV on their own with their preceptor by their side. Once they have administered three IVs on a live patient successfully, then they are promoted to preceptor to continue to assist in the learning process. 

    As you can see, the scenario listed above is a great example from my own experience in the instructional design of how I incorporate real-life examples, repetition, rewards, assessments, and visual aids to aid the learner in the retention of new knowledge. Therefore, I think it is important to create instruction that is immediately relevant to the learner by utilizing different modalities of design and instructional strategies that enhance information processing and critical thinking.

    Walden University, LLC. (Producer). (n.d.) Information Processing and the brain. Walden University Canvas. Video Transcript:

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  4. Case scenarios not only relate new information in a real world application type of way, they also help learners to create a picture of how they themselves might need to use the information in the future. Through research it is thought that when the brain thinks in a futuristic type of way, it is easier to remember more information. Like you stated, information learned can either have applicable use now or later. The thought is, when students or learners think of themselves in the situation later, they can move the information they learned into storage as “useful information I can use later” instead of information that may or may not ever be used. I like the idea of case scenarios as a way of futuristic thinking. I have personally benefited from the use of scenarios in a training environment. When going though and working though the multiple scenarios, generated by past experiences of the company, i felt more empowered to take on the task at hand (summer camp counselor to high school students). Through scenarios I was able to imagine “how would I handle this situation if I was faced with it?” and with that extra thought and extra time spent drawing connections between present learning and future application, I was able to commit more useful training to long term memory.

  5. It makes a lot of sense to make knowledge immediately relevant. Being able to apply knowledge to a case scenario assists learners in application of knowledge, which can support retention. However, before someone is able to apply knowledge, they need to understand the fundamentals of the material. In the example, a manager may first need to know what 5 principles to consider before they apply to the case scenario. It is also important that the case scenario fit with the manager’s experience. Another strategy would be to have to have managers identify scenarios they are or have experienced. Being able to apply knowledge immediately to the work setting, not just to an abstract case scenario, can help the information come alive and to motivate learners to engage with the learning material. This builds on principles of andragogy.

    1. An “abstract case scenario” isn’t an actual thing; that’s a straw man fallacy. Scenarios are concrete, not abstract. Scenarios have characters learners identify with, with names, job roles, and goals. Those characters face challenges similar to the challenges learners face so they can practice making realistic decisions to overcome those challenges. All of those concrete details help make the scenario relevant, triggering memories of similar situations. Those details help learners make the connections between their personal experience and the training, in keeping with andragogy principles. Nothing about that is “abstract.”
      One of the problems with closing your argument with this straw man fallacy is that it undermines everything you said before it–which is a shame, because some of it is solid. For example, I (mostly) agree with your point about learning fundamentals prior to applying knowledge. That’s one reason I often use branching scenarios as a culminating practice exercise at the end of training, after a combination of direct instruction and multiple smaller, scaffolded exercises.
      Scenarios can also be used in other ways, however. That’s why I only “mostly” agree; application of knowledge isn’t the only time scenarios can be used. Scenarios can be used to deliver those foundations of the content in a conversational way. You can use a short scenario to “hook” learners and engage them right at the beginning of a course. A worst case scenario can help learners understand why training is important so they’re more motivated to engage with the training. It’s OK to let learners fail sometimes; that can actually deepen their learning if handled appropriately.
      Claiming that application of knowledge, after learning foundational principles, is the only way to use scenarios for learning ignores a wide range of options for scenarios and storytelling. Maintaining such a narrow view will mean you miss opportunities to support your learners in other ways.

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