Helping Learners Figure it out for Themselves

Image via www.gourmetmomonthego.comI’ve been working a lot lately on creating e-learning lessons based on branching scenarios. Where branching scenarios differ from traditional lessons is that they are less linear and they put learners in specific situations where they have to make decisions and then see the results of those decisions play out. In cases where we’re trying to change attitudes, approaches or develop learners’ skills (as opposed to just knowledge), branching scenarios help us move towards an interactive model where learners make the same types of decisions they’d make in a real-world environment.


As an instructional designer what you’re trying to do is move away from a one-way model of learning where you just supply information without any real learner interaction or engagement. I think most people have taken some sort of course where the biggest challenge was to stay awake long enough to click the “Next” button over and over and over again! Branched interactions come in useful when you’re trying to help people think about problems and make appropriate decisions. We’re not so concerned about specific, step-by-step procedures as we are on the principles that guide those decisions.


This approach really appeals to me and it’s something I’ve used in class-based teaching many times before but when it came to taking it online I thought I’d do a bit of research to find some examples. I found some good examples and some not so good examples. One of the best examples I found is this one developed by Cathy Moore for the US military. Some other examples can be found here.


Anyway, after some trial and error I built a number of prototypes on different topics. The process itself is quite enjoyable particularly if you like to flex your creative muscles. That said, there are a few areas where you can run into problems. Many of the problems I encountered cropped up during the storyboarding process where my instructions to media developers made sense to me, but not to anyone else. I also managed to tie myself in knots with plot conflicts as I tried to figure out the different decisions  and consequences at the same time as developing the basic storyline. I’ve taken my experiences and put them into this basic procedure.


Designing Branching Scenarios

1. Define the Situation

Start with a simple situation based on a task or a procedure, for example, making a sandwich. Don’t make it too complicated or require too much information. If you can’t say what the scenario is in one sentence, it’s too big and needs to be more focussed. Decide on the “angle” for the scenario. What is the motivation for going through this process and how is it going to be measured or evaluated? For example, the sandwich scenario could be based on:

  1. Making a school lunch
  2. Working in a deli

Imagine making a sandwich to go in a child’s lunchbox. If you make a horrible sandwich, the kid won’t eat it and will either be hungry all day and come home with a letter from the teacher because he tried to steal food from another kid, or he will swap the sandwich with another kid, eat something he is allergic to and end up in hospital.

Alternatively, you might be making sandwiches in a deli and need to interpret a customer’s order, e.g. a “club sandwich”, “Ploughman’s” or a “Montecristo” and make the sandwich quickly, otherwise the customer will complain or walk out.
As part of the angle, decide what are the overall consequences of getting this process right and wrong. Do learners “fail” or do they get to try again until they get it right? Or are the outcomes more nuanced with feedback specific to the choices made? If this is the case, how do you ensure that other learning content is addressed? If the learner makes all of the right choices first time around, how do you ensure that they know why their choices were correct?

2. Map the Normal Process

It makes sense to start with the “correct” or ideal process for dealing with the scenario so detail the correct steps required to complete the task or follow the process under normal circumstances. Using these steps, create a “process flow” using either a flowchart diagram in Word or Visio or even using an application such as Twine. Make sure you number each step in the process. This will form the top level numbering for all choices and branches in the lesson.

 3. Identify and Define the Choices

When you have created the process flow, identify the “choice nodes”, points where different courses of action are possible. Use outline numbering to label each node, e.g. 2.0, 3.0 and so on.

For each choice node provide:

  • a name for the choice or decision facing the learner: This helps you visualise the branch and makes it easier to discuss and navigate through the scenario when storyboarding or choosing media.
  • a description of what the choice is and what are the different options facing the learner. What learning objective or knowledge does this choice relate to and what, if any, are the prerequisites?
  • details of the consequences and effects of the different choices
  • details of what happens next: Does a particular response bring the learner to another screen or branch or is the learner presented with feedback and prevented from proceeding?

4. Write the Story

Now start building a narrative around the process. Put simply, tell the story of what is happening. Start with the process flow before moving on to the choice nodes. Writing a story for the choice nodes is easier when you have a main story to base it on. Work on both simultaneously and you might get lost in the story or introduce continuity errors. Some people recommend taking a creative writing class to help you develop your storytelling skills. For examples of courses, see the Irish Writers’ Centre.


When writing the narrative decide on the voice for the scenario: do you want a documentary, third person description or do you want a more personalised “dialogue” style where the learner is addressed directly?

5. Start Storyboarding

Once you have written the narrative, you can start creating a storyboard to describe how all of this should be built and structured into a final lesson. It’s really important to be clear and explicit here especially if you’re working with media developers. Good media developers can produce all sorts of amazing things, but they’re rarely psychic so don’t leave them guessing. During the storyboarding process you should also:

  1. Weed out excessive text, dialogue or detail in the story. Try to keep the scenario as lean and streamlined as possible.
  2. Use graphics to convey information where possible. A scenario with lots of audio can have learners sitting there twiddling their thumbs while they wait for the narrator to finish speaking.

It goes without saying, though, that while this process works for me at the moment it may not work for everyone. It’s also iterative and it will often take several passes before you get a satisfactory lesson. Patience is the key and so is keeping an eye on the bigger picture, namely creating an engaging and effective learning experience.