September 24th, 2015

Scenario-Based Learning in the Online Classroom


student with laptop

Scenario-based learning can be an effective way for students to apply what they have learned to realistic situations. There are many different ways to design scenarios for online delivery, from text-based case studies to interactive, immersive simulations. Regardless of the resources that you have available, there are effective ways to put students in scenarios that contribute to their learning.

In an interview with Online Classroom, Claudia Howery, elearning instructional coordinator at Delta College, explained the basic principles of scenario-based learning and offered advice on how to implement it an online course.

Benefits of scenario-based learning
Scenario-based learning is appropriate when you want students to apply their knowledge and critical thinking skills to make decisions, solve problems, and/or explore issues. This technique can be used throughout an online course as long as it supports the learning objectives, Howery says.

Asking students to apply concepts to realistic situations reinforces what they have learned in a course and increases the likelihood that they will remember the concepts. “It can be an effective way for students to see how they are going to use the theory and concepts that you are providing,” Howery says.

Participating in scenario-based learning can motivate students to seek knowledge as they try to solve a problem or make a decision. “We often try to push information to students instead of creating a need for students to pull that information. When you’re using a scenario, you’re creating that need for the student to pull information,” Howery says.

A basic scenario can simply use text to create a situation that students consider and apply course concepts to. Students can then use a discussion board to share their interpretations and decisions.

Using images can be an effective way to enhance a scenario. For example, in an information security course, Howery has students identify the security weaknesses portrayed in an image of an office setting and explain what security principles should be applied to remedy those security issues.

A more sophisticated scenario would have some built-in interaction such as drag-and-drop and multiple choice. In a course that teaches faculty how to teach online, Howery uses a drag-and- drop interaction to have students identify best practices. In this scenario, students move best practices to a virtual file cabinet and those practices that are not appropriate to a virtual trash can.

“From the student perspective it’s more motivating to see something that’s visual as opposed to a text-based case. By participating in those scenarios, they not only read, but they have to interact with the content, which can trigger a thought or solution,” Howery says.

More advanced scenarios use branching, often in quizzes. When students select a wrong answer, they get a message that explains why the answer is wrong and directs them to review certain materials in the course.

Howery uses PowerPoint and Articulate Storyline to create more sophisticated scenarios. Students make decisions by clicking on buttons within the scenario, and based on those decisions, they are presented with appropriate feedback.

Before creating a scenario, identify what concepts or facts your students need to know in order for the scenario to be meaningful, engaging, and supportive of the learning, Howery says.

The key to an effective scenario is to focus on the learning rather than the technology. There are many ways to create scenarios, but given the costs and the learning curve associated with using certain technologies, it’s important to know how the scenario is going to play out before selecting the delivery methods. “Don’t let the tool drive your teaching,” Howery says. “We fall for that very frequently when we are teaching online. Think about what you want to teach, and then find the resources you can use for that.”

Howery continues, “It’s OK if you don’t have those tools, as long as you can create a meaningful scenario. If you’re going to go for scenario-based learning, you need to have a team of experts to craft the scenario and make it engaging. What’s important is how you challenge students’ minds—that’s where the engagement starts. What matters is the scenario and the kinds of questions you’re going to pose to the students to solve that problem.”

Scenario-based learning resources
The following are resources that Howery recommends for developing scenario-based learning:

Problem-based learning resources, from the UK Centre for Legal Education:

Cognitive Informatics scenario-based simulations, from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory:

Tom Kuhlmann’s blog, which describes how to build branched scenarios:

To craft or design a scenario, you need some mind-mapping tools: or If you do not have these, then paper-crayon drawings work, or you could even use Post-it notes on the white board to map the branches of your scenario.

SBL Interactive (a free tool to create scenarios—there are several on this site):

Exemplar scenarios from Massey University:

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 14.3 (2014): 6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.