Scenario-Based Learning in Higher Ed

While I mostly write about workplace training, scenario-based learning can also be used in colleges and universities. In fact, I’ve created and seen several good examples of storytelling and scenario-based learning in higher ed.

Scenario-Based Learning in Higher Ed

Authentic assessment

My first ID job was with an online university targeting nontraditional students. They focused on “authentic assessment.” Rather than traditional academic essays and exams, we used simulated work products for assessment. After all, if you’re getting a marketing degree, what’s more valuable–writing an essay or creating a PowerPoint presentation? Those assignments used scenarios to provide context for the work. In some courses, I threaded a single scenario through the whole course, tying multiple assignments back to aspects of that overarching story.

Authentic assessment example

For example, in this social psychology course, students were placed in the role of Director of Operations. Through the course, they helped various departments and teams address specific challenges related to a concept of social psychology. Here’s one of the assignments for that course (trimmed down from the original full case). Instead of writing an essay on the effects of stress and environment on productivity, they made recommendations for solving problems.

The request from HR

The company’s Director of Human Resources, Anevay Woods, has asked you for your opinion concerning a department that seems to have had a turn for the worse. 

Six months ago, the Information Technology department was leading the company in terms of customer service and productivity. 

However, in the last two months, things have gone terribly wrong.  Hardware and software problems are not being addressed in a timely manner, and absenteeism is up and still rising.  Productivity and innovation have decreased.  Many personal and interpersonal issues have been brought to the HR department for resolution.

Woods wants to begin letting some people go and hiring new employees with the “right” attitude.  He’s asked for your opinion before taking this action.

And not a moment too soon…

Possible root causes

You remember something that happened to this department in the recent past.  Based on the increasingly important role that the IT Department has played for your company, construction began on a new building nearby. The entire department was moved into temporary buildings located on the grounds of the corporate office.

It’s likely that the temporary building provides less than ideal working conditions. You recall (from your studies in social and organizational psychology) that temperature, noise, crowding, light levels, the frustration-aggression response, and other issues can impact individuals in organizations in negative ways. You believe that the environment is the most likely source of the problem, not the individuals in the department.

Based on this new interpretation of the causes of this problem, you set forth to create a memo for your Director of Human Resources that will explain the difficulties in greater detail.  Specifically, you set forth to create a 2-3 page report that explains the following points:

  • Definition of current problem
  • Potential causes of that problem
  • Ways in which you might address solving the problem

Branching Scenarios

Angry student expression and happy student expression. An example of scenario-based learning in higher ed

I have created some limited branching scenarios for higher ed courses. The example above was from a course on how to teach online. In this activity, students practiced handling student objections. The student reacts differently depending on how the instructor responds to their complaint. The look and feel of these is a little dated now, but the structure of a series of mini-scenarios is still a solid option for many skills.

Scenario-based discussion questions

In online higher ed courses, discussion forums are a key form of interaction. For in person courses, class discussion can be a way to engage students. Either way, short scenarios can make for more valuable discussion questions.

Give students a scenario (or a few to choose from) and ask them how they’d respond. Scenario prompts for discussions often generate deeper conversations than simple questions.

Consider providing a choice of multiple scenarios makes the discussion less repetitive (a plus for grading as well as for students).

Group activities

I’ve used scenarios with group work too. For example, in one of my older courses for teachers, each group had a different scenario problem to solve related to privacy and social media. One scenario involved high school Spanish students who posted videos of their work on YouTube but received a rude comment. Another scenario involved middle school students who received a request from a teacher in another state to use part of a presentation they posted online. Each group worked together to create a plan of how to respond to the scenario. Scenarios like this can work especially well if your audience has different goals or needs. High school teachers can be grouped together for a high school scenario, while elementary teachers are grouped together for a separate scenario. In a business course, you might have different scenarios for managers and non-managers.

Student-created stories

One really interesting idea for scenario-based learning in higher ed is having students write stories themselves.

I’ve seen this implemented in a course on psychological development over a lifetime. Each week of the course focused on a different time of life, starting from before birth and continuing through aging and death. Every week, the students wrote part of a profile of an imaginary person for that development time, explaining how different factors affected their development (e.g., if their person’s mother drank while pregnant, that affected brain development; if the child had poor nutrition, that affected development).

A number of the students initially resisted that assignment because it really pushed them out of their comfort zones. They said they “weren’t creative writers” or didn’t know how to tell stories. However, by the end of the course, the feedback was very positive. The students had crafted some compelling narratives that helped them connect all the concepts from the course.

Tell me your story

Tell me your own story. Have you seen storytelling used in higher education? Do you have a great example of using technology for digital storytelling, or even of a low-tech story in a classroom? Let me know in the comments or by replying to this email.

Originally published 10/25/2016. Updated 9/3/2021

4 thoughts on “Scenario-Based Learning in Higher Ed”

  1. Pingback: 5 Reasons Why FE and HE Institutions Should Adopt Scenario-Based Learning • Bodyswaps®

  2. Performance Improver

    We need more of this for higher ed EMPLOYEES, as well, including in health, safety, clinical… Important topics! Alas, it is difficult to challenge the subject experts. Mostly, the old guard considers any change to their course ‘design’ is threatening their baby. There’s too little appreciation for the expertise of instructional designers and professional training program developers.

    1. Yes, employees in higher ed are in a bit of an odd spot, between the “higher ed” space and “workplace training.” What they often need is workplace training tied to the skills for their jobs, but with a higher ed context.

      I have seen some great scenario-based training for university employees. I worked on some professional development training for advisors that used an overall frame story with a conversation between two characters plus small vignettes about helping individual students with issues. The overarching frame story gave the whole series a sense of continuity, and the smaller vignettes provided a lot of opportunity for troubleshooting different types of problems.

      However, we were able to do that as an association providing CEUs. If that team had been internal to a particular university, I’m not sure if we would have been able to take that scenario-based approach.

  3. Pingback: Skillagents: Active Learning – MpT Designs

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