According to Eric Berne, the lead theorist of Transactional Analysis, we all live by the scripts we construct in the first five years of our lives. Depending on what we see around us, how others behave towards us and how we interpret all the information coming our way these scripts can be winning or losing ones. They can be corrected with years of therapy (those that are not really beneficial) but it’s obviously a lot better to have a positive idea about ourselves and our lives from the very beginning.

Scenarios are very important in human development as they are the recognizable patterns by which the brain works. This is why it makes perfect sense to make as much of learning as possible scenario-based.

Come to think of it, stories are all carefully woven scripts that teach us something – whether it’s about deep things like honor, love and loyalty or simple ones such as the fact that taking candy (or apples) from strangers can be very dangerous.


Read more: Why storytelling works for businesses


SBL (scenario-based learning) is a new trend relying on something very old and valuable – our natural partiality to storytelling. It’s also natural to harness that appetence for educational purposes.

The theories behind SBL

SBL relies on the theory of situated learning. This basically argues that learning is most effective in the context in which it is going to be used. With it goes the concept of situated cognition, the idea that knowledge is best remembered and thoroughly understood when situated within its context.

Used by more and more universities, SBL is described by the professors of Massey University in New Zealand as the process that “uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based or case-based learning. It normally involves students working their way through a storyline, usually based around an ill-structured or complex problem, which they are required to solve. In the process students must apply their subject knowledge, and critical thinking and problem solving skills in a safe, real-world context. SBL is often non-linear, and can provide numerous feedback opportunities to students, based on the decisions they make at each stage in the process.”

SBL can serve as a learning intervention all by itself or may constitute the first step in a more elaborate process, one that can also include written assignments, group discussions or self-assessments.

Scenarios should be realistic

The designed scenario can be either a real-life stance, a detailed description of circumstances, a critical situation or even a wildly fictional narrative. Scenarios normally contain human actors, a storyline or plot (many times incomplete in order to give the learner the chance to feel involved), a challenge to solve a problem, demonstrate the extent of an acquired skill, explore the ramifications of a complex issue and think of alternative outcomes and their consequences.

SBL shows great potential in getting learners a lot closer to the realities of their professions through the construction and deconstruction of authentic learning experiences.

In order to be most effective, SBL should incorporate the explorations of realistic tasks, encounters with real life (or work) challenges all designed and narrated in the appropriate communication style. If the module is, for example, one of learning first aid, a lot of the authenticity would be lost if the voice over was a calm and collected one speaking in the Queen’s most correctly pronounced English. The key of a successful learning scenario is that it is first and foremost believable and therefore engaging.


Read more: Scenario-based learning: How it works


A high degree of interactivity is required

Another important aspect to be considered when designing SBL is interactivity. Recent technological developments have opened the way for VR to become an integrated part of learning. This means that the courses can sometimes feel more realistic than reality itself (since many things can be augmented in order for them to be noticed and taken into consideration) but it is important for the learner to feel like part of that reality and able to influence it.


Read more: 4 Benefits of using VR in training


SBL is basically ‘learning by doing’ without the fear of failure.

All scenarios have to be learner centered, focused on allowing them to explore, test, adjust and ultimately change not only the (virtual) environment but also themselves. It’s advisable to include characters that learners can relate to, ask them to choose the path that the persona takes by asking them questions and moving everything forward in accordance to their answers.

Dialogue should also be engaging and real, in tune with the real-life visual design. The ability to completely draw the learner into the situation, triggering that emotional response that is decision-making is key to the success of SBL.

Closing thoughts

Whether it’s about operating heavy machinery, operating on a beating heart or simply about how complaining customers should be treated when they show up fuming at one’s desk, SBL is an excellent training tool. It is immersive, interactive and engaging, three of the most sought after qualities of any learning intervention.

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