The Why and How of Scenario-Based Learning

In this presentation, I explain the why and how of scenario-based learning, including ideas on how to use and write scenarios effectively.

Several years ago, I gave a presentation on the why and how of scenario-based learning. I have given this presentation to several other groups since then, including two ATD chapters. I tweak it a little every time. As a general overview of scenario-based learning, it has become one of my more popular presentations.


Are you looking for ways to make your training more relevant and engaging? Have you ever thought that adding scenarios might improve your courses, but you weren’t sure where to start? Do you want to use scenarios, but you’re not sure how with limited time and resources? This presentation introduces the why and how of scenario-based learning to help you get started.

Topics Covered: Why and How of Scenario-Based Learning

  • Why scenario-based learning works
  • A range of options for using scenarios in elearning and classroom training
  • When scenario-based learning is a good choice
  • Tips for writing scenarios with the 4 Cs
  • Examples of mini-scenarios and a two-narrator course

If you’re reading this in an RSS reader or email and the video doesn’t appear above, watch it on YouTube instead.

Why scenarios?

What are the benefits of scenarios?

  • Real-life decision making: Scenarios can give learners an opportunity to practice real-life decisions in a relevant context.
  • Safe space to fail: As they practice scenarios, it gives them a safe space to fail. Any time failure is costly or dangerous, scenario-based learning gives you an advantage. Instead of failing in a way that makes a customer angry, or worse, injures an employee, they can fail during practice. That means the scenario should be hard enough to allow people to make common mistakes so they can learn from them.
  • Trigger memories: We remember failures. If it’s so easy that everyone gets a perfect score on the first try, the practice isn’t as valuable. Our brains are wired for stories. Even when we sleep, our brains keep telling us stories all night in our dreams. We remember stories better than abstract content. One study compared information on a brochure presented in bullet points or a narrative format. People remembered more of the narrative than the bullet points. (Learning Guild research report: Using Stories for Learning).
  • Engage emotions: Scenarios can give us emotional impact—the angry customer, the reluctant patient, the frustrated employee. That makes training more interesting and more memorable.
  • Accelerate expertise: Research has shown that using scenarios helps people become experts faster. Instead of needing many hours on the job to get experience with all the necessary skills or types of problems, scenario-based learning can help people get focused practice. They can learn new skills and develop expertise more efficiently.
Why and How of Scenario-Based Learning

Why scenarios?

Real-Life Decision-Making
Safe Space to Fail
Trigger Memories, Better Retention
Engage Emotions
Accelerate Expertise

Interested in more? Check out all of my posts on storytelling and scenario-based learning.

Originally published 10/11/2016. Updated 8/19/2021.

9 thoughts on “The Why and How of Scenario-Based Learning

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I had to miss it live and I’m glad I got to see the recording. Excellent information. It really helps to know how others in the field deal with common challenges.

  2. Christy, Loved this! I laughed at the part where you encourage people to try the wrong answers, and totally agree that it feels good sometimes to choose the wrong answers, especially when it relates to customer service scenarios, where you are somewhat playing out how you wish you could respond. When I record the voice-over for scenarios, wrong answers are fun to record, too! 🙂

    1. There’s something cathartic to seeing just how poorly things turn out when you make bad choices. It really can be fun to complete courses that way. It’s fun to write responses that are just a little over the top, and I imagine it’s enjoyable to record the voice over in the role of the angry customer as well. If I can get people to voluntarily complete a branching exercise multiple times, that’s a sign that I’ve really done my job as an ID well.

      1. Indeed, cathartic and fun to record angry customers, ignorant bosses, etc. And yes, it must be gratifying to know that someone is going through your course multiple times because you’ve made it interesting with all the branching possibilities to learn from.

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