When Should You Avoid Branching Scenarios?

Branching scenarios are great! They’re engaging, and they give learners opportunities to practice realistic decision-making. However, no solution is the right approach 100% of the time. Sometimes, another strategy makes more sense. You need some criteria to determine the appropriate strategy. So, when should you avoid branching scenarios?

When Should You Avoid Branching Scenarios?

Not a series of decisions

Branching scenarios are perfect when you want to show a series of decisions, where the consequences of each decision determine what choices are available next.

Conversations are perfect examples. In a dialogue, there’s a lot of back and forth. What you say changes how the other person responds, and what they say changes how you answer. Each choice made in the dialogue leads to the next part of the conversation.

Do you always need to show a whole conversation from start to finish though? Sometimes you’re really focused on the initial reply, not the entire discussion. For example, your initial reply to a customer complaint or objection sets the tone and frames the whole conversation. Therefore, you might want to focus on just that initial reply, not everything after that. That means a branching scenario is overkill. A one-question mini-scenario is probably better for this situation.

A series of related, but independent, situations

In fact, you might want to show a series of customer complaints. Multiple one-question scenarios could be more effective than a single, long branching scenario. That also lets you show multiple related situations that might differ slightly.

For example, in a retail setting, an employee might have to respond to three customer complaints in a row. How they handle the first customer’s concerns doesn’t affect the interactions with the second and third customers. Each complaint is independent. That means true branching isn’t a good fit.

You might thread together a series of one-question scenarios. Use the same protagonist and setting, but put that protagonist in multiple situations. As each one is resolved (good or bad), return to the main path for the next situation. This structure isn’t truly a full branching scenario, but it works for these kinds of situations.

Constrained Branching or Linear Scenario structure (all consequences lead back to the main path for the next situation)

The terminology for scenarios is inconsistent; different sources label this structure differently.

  • Constrained branching (Karl Kapp)
  • Linear scenarios (Clark Quinn)
  • Gauntlet (Sam Kabo Ashwell)
  • Mastery loop (Kimberly Goh variation is slightly more complex, but it’s still fundamentally this structure)
  • Control freak scenarios (Cathy Moore calls it this because you control it as the ID, rather than the learner controlling it)

Procedural skills

Can the skill be outlined with a checklist of steps that are repeated the same way every time? Is the skill routine or repetitive? If the skill is procedural, rather than strategic, realistic practice of that procedure is probably a better approach than a branching scenario.

Most software training falls into this category. Successful performance looks pretty much the same every time: click this, select that, and enter data here. Screen capture videos, tutorials, and simulation practice are better options than branching scenarios for this kind of software training. You may need to provide a realistic scenario to provide context for demos or practice activities, but that doesn’t require a branching scenario.

If the software training involves more strategic decision-making skills, such as determining between two different approaches for setting up complex software, then a branching scenario might make sense. But most of the time, other types of scenarios besides branching scenarios are a better fit with software training.

Looking for more?

For the flip side of this post with criteria for when branching scenarios are a good fit, read When To Use Branching Scenarios. You can also listen to the recording of my free webinar, To Branch or Not to Branch: When and How to Use Branching Scenarios and Alternative Approaches.

Interested in reading more about branching scenarios and other options for scenario-based learning? Check out all of my posts on Storytelling and Scenarios.

Originally published 3/19/2019. Updated 10/26/2023.

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