Immersive Learning University

Article - The Power of Scenario-Based Questions

By Will Thalheimer, PhD
SEPTEMBER 18, 2013

Dr. Will Thalheimer

Hello, my name is Will Thalheimer. I’m a learning consultant who also does translational research—that is, I review scientific articles from preeminent refereed research journals and translate the findings into practical advice for trainers, instructional designers, e-learning developers, and learning executives. Over the years, I’ve used scenario-based questions in many different ways: in multimedia simulations, in training, in e-learning, in mobile learning, in workshops, and in keynote addresses. Indeed, in my keynote address at NexLearn’s first Immersive Learning University Conference I used scenario-based questions to introduce research topics. In this article—the first in a series of three articles—I’m going to share with you some of what I’ve learned about the power of scenario-based questions.

What are Scenario-Based Questions?

To put it simply, scenario-based questions present learners with one or more short paragraphs that describe a situation—plus a question that asks learners to make a decision. There are many varieties to this basic geometry. We can use multiple scenes and multiple questions to form a scenario. We can add visual or auditory details to augment or even supplant the text-based scenario. We can also use different types of questions, including multiple-choice, open-ended, yes-no, etc.

How can Scenario-Based Questions be Used?

Scenario-based questions can be used in many ways. Here’s a short list:

  • To quiz or test learners to confirm comprehension.
  • To diagnose competence and direct learners to further learning content.
  • To provide learners with feedback as they learn difficult concepts.
  • To engage learners with interesting decisions.
  • To introduce a topic in a way that demonstrates relevance.
  • To repeat concepts or issues to reinforce previous learning.
  • To get a discussion going—either in the classroom or online.
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of a learning intervention.
  • To demonstrate boundary conditions, contingencies, etc.
  • To present a complete storyline within a simulation environment.
  • To provide spaced repetitions within a subscription-learning thread.

Instructional Design 101

One of the secrets I learned by scouring the scientific research over the years is that we, as instructional designers, shouldn’t just aim to create learning—that, instead, we need to create three things during our learning interventions. First, we need to create understanding. Our learners must comprehend the concepts taught and how to use them. Second—and this is the one that many of us miss—we need to support our learners in remembering, in being able to retrieve from memory what they’ve learned. Third, we need to ensure that learners have motivation to apply what they’ve learned after the learning event ends. To read more about the research behind the following three sections, follow this link:

Scenario-Based Questions Support Understanding

Scenario-based questions can help our learners develop a clear understanding of the concepts taught. They help in several ways. They present situations that require a decision. By so doing, they help guide learners’ attention to critical issues. They also help learners test their own understanding of what they’ve learned. Making scenario-based decisions gives learners an idea of whether they know the material or not. Finally, by providing learners with feedback, scenario-based questions help learners overcome their misconceptions.

Scenario-Based Questions Support Remembering

Scenario-based questions can also help learners remember what they’ve learned. There are three major learning factors that support remembering. Scenario-based questions can utilize all three. They can provide retrieval practice—giving learners practice in retrieving from memory what they’ve learned. When retrieval practice is paired with context alignment, it ensures that workplace cues will prompt retrieval when the learners actually need to remember. Finally, scenario-based questions—when they are used as spaced repetitions—will also support remembering.

Scenario-Based Questions Support Motivation

Scenario-based questions can also be utilized to help support learners in being motivated to apply what they’ve learned on the job. Motivation has two aspects in learning. First, learners need to be motivated to engage deeply in learning. Second, learners need to be motivated to take the learning and apply it in their work. Scenario-based questions are ideal for both. Because they present realistic scenarios, they are naturally motivating in getting learners to pay attention during learning. More critically, because they are so obviously job-relevant, scenario-based questions can give learners a sense of self-efficacy to keep them motivated to apply what they’ve learned when they get back to the workplace.

To Learn More

Later Articles in the Series

The second article in this series provides hints about how to write scenario-based questions. You can access that article by clicking here. The third article in this series describes how to use scenario-based questions to assess learning results. You can access that article by clicking here.

Comprehensive Workshop at the Immersive Learning University Conference

I will be teaching a one-day workshop as part of the Immersive Learning University Conference this January. Click here to sign up for this fantastic learning experience. This hands-on workshop is the best way to get started in writing great scenarios.

Previously Published Research-to-Practice Report

You can also check out a previously published article I wrote regarding how and why you can ensure that your scenarios are culturally appropriate. Click here to download the article.

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