Guide to Scenario-Based Learning

Scenario-Based Learning (SBL) is a way of asking students to apply their knowledge – experiential or instructed – within the context of a simulated real-life situation. You may hear it referred to as Problem-Based or Case-Based Learning, and it is one way to create an authentic assessment.

In this guide, we’ll cover the case for Scenario-Based Learning and ways to incorporate SBL into a higher ed classroom.

The case for Scenario-Based Learning

Research shows that students who are engaged in active learning techniques have better mastery over learning outcomes in the short, medium, and long term. In that long term, students are most likely to remember stories they’ve connected with or problems they’ve had to work through.

Scenario-Based Learning combines the power of storytelling and problem-solving, activating student’s prior knowledge and challenging them to engage in higher order thinking skills (the top of the pyramid in Bloom’s Taxonomy). They can take some time to write well, but can significantly impact student performance. It’s a powerful tool to have in the kit.

Where does SBL fit in higher education?

It’s easier to imagine how learners might engage in scenarios that are aligned with a daily task – say, a simulated customer service call or sexual harassment training – than a course not cleanly aligned with a profession or career. But it’s often in general education courses that we hear students asking “how will I ever use this?” or “just tell me what I need to know to pass.” It is in these courses that scenario-based learning can have the most powerful effect, as students see by doing how the concepts covered may relate to their lived or anticipated life experiences.

Types of scenarios

Because there are many names for scenario-based learning, a search online for “problem-based learning” or “simulations” or “branching” can be a good way to find examples. Here are a few that may be helpful to consider, including a few that you are likely already using:

  • Discussions: Pose a question or problem for students and ask that they provide a possible solution, as well as the pros/cons. Then, ask a follow up question: are there individuals or groups for whom that solution may not work well?
  • Group Activities: Form students into groups (can be done in face-to-face and online formats). Give each group a persona or audience. Then, pose a question or problem and have each group provide an answer or solution with their persona or audience in mind. Have each group present.
  • Branching Scenarios: Use a storyboarding tool to follow a character through a situation, with multiple options on how to react. Branching scenarios are typically crafted as an individual assignment for asynchronous learning, allowing the student to explore the paths and consequences without peer or instructor pressure. They are especially ideal for “good, better, best” situations where all answers are correct, but some have better results than others.
  • Cases: The classic business school approach. Typically, all students receive background information on a company’s or individual’s dilemma. Then, students are given roles and asked how they would proceed. Lastly, students receive the results of what the company or individual decided and the results. Cases are typically based on actual historical events.
  • Storytelling: Have students tell a story (from lived or imaginary experience). After it is complete, have students analyze the character’s decisions through the lens of the theories in the course.
Goals for a well-crafted scenario

There are varied approaches to scenario-based learning, so I will share my personal preferences. My goals:

  1. The problem presented is genuine. It feels like something a student might experience in the future.
  2. While there may be a best answer or path, there is no obvious correct answer. Students must weigh the choices to make a decision.
  3. The wording is clear. While the consequences of individual decisions may not have been foreseen, there is no feeling of being “tricked” and no disparaging feedback.
  4. The assignment is formative, and generally scored for participation only (low stakes). If a branching scenario is used, students have the ability to go back and try new paths.
  5. The scenario is part of a module with scaffolded assignments, including an introduction to key terms or concepts and a reflection on how the scenario connects to course themes or learning outcomes.
How do we write genuine scenarios?

The article, “Beginner’s Guide to Scenario-Based Learning” was originally intended for the corporate setting, but has good tips for drafting. Another outline here:

1. Write the problem
Reflect on areas of the course where students struggle most with connecting theory to practice or developing critical skills. How would you anticipate students drawing on those skills or that knowledge in the future?

2. Choose a format
Would you like students to work on this problem in groups? individually? face-to-face? asynchronously? A mix of group work (discussions, cases, group assignments) and individual assignments (branching scenarios, storytelling) is an ideal way to allow students to feel engaged but also have room to explore individually. Decide which format works best for your course, audience, and students.

3. Align with outcomes
This should be a natural progression from step 1 above, but in this step you’ll want to decide how (or whether) you want to grade the activity, and the rubric you’ll use and share with students. (It’s okay if you come back to this later and revise – don’t feel stuck if you don’t know quite yet how you will integrate this into the course. Just make sure it’s clear to students at some point how you expect this to be used and what “success” would mean to you.)

4. Storyboard
Create a draft of the problem and potential solutions. Do this even if it is an open-ended problem on a discussion board – you can use a few of the solutions you envision as example responses for students.

(Looking for a tool to storyboard? Some use paper and pen, but Twine is a nice free resource to consider, especially for branching, group, or case scenarios.

5. Draft
Write out the problem and choices here. Provide essential information students need to make a decision, with some nuance included. If the problem does not have a fixed answer, try to read for bias that may be reflected in the text.

6. Design
Once your text is drafted, go back and add any design elements you feel are needed (images, headings, etc.). Choose elements that engage rather than distract. Keep it simple. Abide by principles of universal design.

7. Test
If you can, test your draft with a current cohort of students, TAs, or colleagues and gather feedback. Then, revise as needed.

Tools to build them

See this quick list of tools to build interactive scenarios for asynchronous or self-paced learning. Scenario-based learning can also be done face-to-face, in pairs or groups, and in instructor-led formats.


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