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Scenario-Based Learning 101: Beginner’s Guide

11 minutes

Table of Contents

It starts with a simple message, “Hello? Can anyone read me?” and then you find yourself dragged into a dramatic sci-fi branching scenario adventure in which you try to help an astronaut’s apprentice survive after a crash on the alien moon of Tau Ceti.

Scenario-based learning (SBL) is an immersive training environment where learners meet realistic work challenges and get realistic feedback as they progress, since everything that happens reflects the learner’s choices.

Unlike many e-courses, where learners passively absorb information by reading a text and taking a test afterward, in scenario-based training, they actively participate in the process from the very beginning to the end of the lesson. 

The example we used to start the article with isn’t actually from some sort of training; it’s Lifeline, a mobile game that was built as a text choose-your-own-adventure novel. At the same time, it’s an inspiring example of how you can create an immersive experience just with dialogue and apply it to learning.

Screenshots of branching moments in Lifelines

In Lifelines, you’ll have to google some facts, such as if it’s safe to warm yourself by a nuclear reactor in the 150 rads it’s giving off.

What Can Be Taught with Scenario-Based Learning

There are four scenarios in which you’ll benefit from scenario-based learning. It’s especially useful when:

  • a decision made at a certain point affects how things go later;
  • a task requires analysis and problem-solving skills;
  • there’s no single correct solution to the problem; 
  • it’s difficult to provide real-world practice.

For example, asking the wrong questions in sales negotiations means that you’ll have less information to help you when trying to close the deal. Or a social worker using different approaches and communication styles with a troubled teenager can lead to various results.

Below, we’ll dive into the most common cases when scenario-based training is the best option. 

Mandatory compliance training

In any company, there are some types of mandatory compliance training for employees that are required by law. This can include training on fire safety, ethical issues, inclusion, and other important but — let’s be honest — not particularly exciting topics. At the same time, serious consequences loom for organizations whose staff doesn’t do it right.

As opposed to straightforward lectures that allow you to simply mark employees as “compliant”, immersive scenario-based training puts people into a realistic context where they can see the consequences of misconduct and really change their behavior.

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Lecture Capture

Communication skills training

Scenario-based learning naturally fits into interpersonal communication skills training. Branching scenarios can efficiently imitate sales and customer service dialogue, communication between managers and their teams, doctors and patients, and many other combinations.

An online course with a branching scenario is a lot like a digital role-play that enables learners to apply knowledge in a realistic context and get meaningful feedback as a reaction from a virtual person. 

A screenshot from an SBL course on phone negotiations

A simulation of a bank hotline conversation created with iSpring Suite.

Critical thinking skills training

There are two types of challenges at work: the routine tasks that require the same sequence of actions every time (e.g. filling out a customer profile in a CRM system) and the ones that require deeper analyses and understanding which allow learners to adapt guidelines to diverse situations. 

Situations such as equipment troubleshooting or finding out the reasons behind a KPI slump cannot be studied only through theoretic reading and assessment by several multiple-choice questions. Being taught this way, they will have a limited impact on real-life work decisions. Branching scenarios help you create unique industry-specific training that is focused not only on reaching the desired outcome but also on evaluating the situation and correct process of decision-making.

A screenshot from an SBL course on undertaking safe home visits for community nurses

An award-winning game in which you play the role of a community health nurse assigned to complete a home visit. Created by Ryerson University

High-risk tasks training

Military and police, pilots, surgeons — the cost of a mistake in these professions can be very high. Some tasks are simply too dangerous to practice in the field, at least for the first time. Who would willingly fly with a pilot who’s going to practice a loop after only having learned it from a manual so far? 

No scenario-based eLearning course can replace the real experience, but learners will be at least able to make some mistakes and learn from them in a simulated environment without the risk of physical harm or other serious consequences.

A screenshot from an SBL course on overcoming cultural differences for the US army

 “Connect with Haji Kamal,” a decision-making scenario developed by Kinection and Cathy Moore for the US Army.

When you might not need to develop scenario-based training

Scenario-based learning is a fantastic thing, though it can be overkill in some cases. 

Procedural tasks

If your goal is to master a single correct sequence of actions or teach staff how to do routine step-by-step tasks, the traditional instructive approach, as well as job aids, will do. 

Take training on how to make a burger in a fast-food cafe as an example. The process of cooking can be easily broken down into steps: bun, sauce, vegetables, cheese, patty, and another bun. Each step can be covered with a lesson that should be learned in a linear sequence: how to make a perfect bun, how much sauce to put on it, etc. After studying all of them, learners can get the chance to practice their newly-gained skills. The key thing is that there are not many options in the final result: the burgers either meet the standard or they’re rejected. In this case, there’s no need for a branching scenario.  

Novice learners

If your learners don’t have any prior knowledge or experience, their decision-making process will look more like a guessing game. It can be fun, but for effective learning, there should be a clear structure. Being a great flexible tool for practice, scenario-based training lacks that structure and usually cannot serve as basic-level training.

There’s no sense in running a driving simulation if a learner isn’t familiar with the basic parts of a car, road signs, and driving regulations.

What Benefits Does Scenario-Based Learning Provide?

It’s engaging

Scenario-based training is fun and interesting because it gives learners a sense of reality by immersing themselves in real work situations. At the same time, it provides a safe environment where mistakes are a part of the training process so learners don’t get discouraged by them.

It provides better retention

In scenario-based training, learners aren’t just passively absorbing information, they are encouraged to use all of their senses, and think and make decisions. All of these increase engagement, which is especially important for “dry” scenarios such as types of mandatory compliance training.  

It shows cause-effect relation

Not all workplace decision effects can be immediately seen in the “cut the red wire to deactivate the bomb” style. Scenario-based training allows you to compress time and align actions with their consequences even when, in reality, they will show up in the far future. Learners who take a car diagnostics course don’t have to wait till engine parts are delivered and replaced to find out if their verdict was right.

How Can I Start Creating Scenario-Based Learning?

Having come here, you’ll have to deal with two major tasks: creating an actual scenario for a course and designing it into an e-course that you can distribute and that learners can access.


Creating a good script is the hardest part of the entire process, since no compelling visual effects, nor Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack alone, can pull off a weak scenario. Here are five tips that will help you make great SBL training. 

1. Become a subject matter expert’s best friend

Learners can immediately spot the courses created by an instructor who doesn’t know the specifics they have to deal with every day or an outsource company that produces content mechanically like a factory. The challenge here is to make a scenario relevant and make virtual characters sound like real people whether they are colleagues, customers, or patients.

This is where subject matter experts play a pivotal role. They will fill you in on the context, share the most common mistakes, and make sure that your very wording is correct and your content doesn’t sound like a clueless course used for punishment.

Clueless vs expert text

Text written by a clueless instructor vs the text proofread by a subject-matter expert.

2. Give characters names

Thinking about scenario characters as real people can make the whole training more effective. By treating your characters as “a customer” or “a manager” instead of giving them realistic names, you send a signal that they’re just cardboard figures, dissociated from the living, breathing people who the learners deal with at work.


no name characters vs personalized

Why would you expect the learners to care about the abstract characters who don’t even have human names?

3. Describe with actions, not adjectives

The most obvious way to reveal a situation is by describing what it looks like. Very often, it sounds unnatural, too wordy, and clumsy. Instead, you can make your stem more cinematic by revealing the situation through direct speech.

Adjectives vs actions

Which situation can you picture?

This advice also applies to feedback. Even if your question is great, mechanic feedback “That’s right!” or “Incorrect, try again” will ruin the participation effect. It’s much better to show the payoff. So, if you preferred to say something comforting to Emy from the example above, which actually would be nice of you, the feedback could sound like this: “Thank you. I don’t know what came over me. A cup of coffee is just what I need.”

4. Leave cues

Since the whole idea of scenario-based learning is around learners who need to use the best of their abilities to analyze situations and make decisions, create enough cues (both helpful and distracting) so they actually have what they need to analyze. 

When your scenario is focused on what learners have to do, you deliberately narrow the range of options you could create otherwise. Instead, try to concentrate on the reasons why the learners aren’t doing what they’re expected to do. This will give you a feel of the context and provide both questions and options with interesting details. 

Here, we’ll illustrate with an excellent example from Cathy Moore’s blog:

General question and options

When you don’t really know the context, questions sound too general and boring. Paying closer attention to the environment usually helps to generate interesting options.

Specific question and options

You can also give backstory to provide emotional context and allow you to create better and more realistic options.

5. Let your learners fail

Making mistakes and being able to safely experience different perspectives is what makes scenario-based training so exciting. To some extent, it’s your goal as an instructional designer to create believable distractors and to make learners choose wrong answers to see what will happen. That’s why it always worth seeking and adding a “common mistake” option to ensure that the learners won’t do it in reality.


If you aren’t new to the eLearning authoring tools market, you’ll probably know the key players here: Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, Lectora, and iSpring Suite. All these solutions have plenty of features and creating branching scenarios is among them. Also, there’s Twine, a free open-source tool designed exclusively for creating choose-your-own-adventure style scenarios. 

Is one better than another? Well, that depends on what your goal is, which additional features you need, and if you’re a tech-savvy person or not. 

If you are looking for the most easy-to-use and quick-to-start solution, iSpring Suite will suit you perfectly. It’s a powerful PowerPoint add-in that allows you to easily set up custom navigation between slides. Its toolkit also includes TalkMaster, which is a specialized tool for creating communication simulations. 

As you can see, the hardest part of developing scenario-based learning is creating the actual scenario. For that, you may need as much as your brain, imagination, the help of SMEs, and a Word document. When it’s done, you’ll need just a few minutes to design it with iSpring Suite. You heard that right, minutes. It took Mike Cerantola 3 minutes and 41 seconds to create an interactive branching scenario after all the homework was done.


  • Scenario-based learning (SBL) is a realistic digital training environment.
  • With SBL, learners can practice communication and critical-thinking skills and safely rehearse a performance of high-risk tasks.
  • The development of the action and the final outcome in an SBL course depends purely on the learners’ choices and decisions. 
  • SBL might not be the best choice for novice training and mastering procedural routine tasks that don’t require any analysis.
  • The relevancy of SBL strongly depends on the efficiency of collaboration between an instructional designer and SMEs.
  • Making mistakes is a part of SBL. Create really good distractors.
  • iSpring Suite is, by the way, a great tool for developing your first SBL. 
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