The Rapid Elearning Blog

In a previous post, we looked at how you can make your elearning courses more effective and engaging by getting your learners to pull the course content rather than you just pushing it out to them.  A great way to create a pull-type course is build it around problem-solving scenarios.

A scenario can put the course content into a context that is relevant to the learners because they can use the information in a real world setting.  Even if you don’t create a pull-type course, scenarios are still effective in helping your learners.

As always the challenge for many instructional designers is that as you have to work with time and resource constraints.  Many times it’s just a lot easier to build an information-based course than it is to build a scenario.  Scenarios can take more time to develop and not everyone is a Hollywood scriptwriter (not that it means anything considering most of the movies that are released nowadays).

The good news is that pulling together scenarios is not as hard as it might seem.  In today’s post I’ll offer some ideas to help you get started.

1. Focus on the desired result.  What do you expect from the learners after they’re done with the course?  How do you know that they’ve met those expectations?  Many courses aren’t clear in the performance requirements after the course.  Without those expectations it’s hard to build scenarios that are relevant.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Focus on the desired result for your elearning course

However, if you can establish the level of understanding that you expect from the learners, you’re able to build scenarios around those expectations.  Most likely you’re not just expecting that they can repeat some facts or that they have a certificate they can tape to their office walls. 

2. Tap into the learner’s motivation.  Most elearning courses are about the information in the course and not how the information is relevant to the learner.  We take a cookie cutter approach to elearning as if all information is equally important to the learners or all learners are equally ignorant of the information.  What you want to do is figure out how to connect the information to the learner.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Tap into the learner’s motivation.

That’s where scenarios come in handy.  Good scenarios tap into the motivations of the learner.  What’s in it for the learner?  Why do they need this information?  What do they gain with this information?  Or flip it.  What do they lose if they don’t have this information?  You can still build a course that reaches hundreds of people and at the same time allow each learner to get something a little different out of it.

3. Have the learners do something with the information that you give them.  Many courses are heavy on information and light on measuring understanding.  And when they do attempt to assess the learner, it’s usually a series of simple multiple choice and true/false questions.

By building scenarios where they have to actively make decisions you’re better able to help them transfer the information and make it more meaningful.  You’re also in a better position to assess their real understanding and provide feedback to fill the gaps.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Have the learners do something with the information that you give them.

One way to integrate the scenarios with the course is to first present some information and then build scenario-based activities that let the learners practice using it. 


Today, you’re going to learn how to prevent fires.  In section 1, we’ll look at common fire hazards.  In section 2, we’ll look at ways to avoid those hazards and prevent fires.  Then we’ll practice using this information through some interactive activities.

In the example above, we are going to give them the information first and then build some interactions around it.

4. Have the learners uncover information by challenging their understanding.  Don’t give the learners any upfront information.  Just throw them into the pool so to speak and let them learn to swim.  This is a great way to test their assumptions and possible misunderstanding.


The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Have the learners uncover information by challenging their understanding.  

To make this approach practical you want to build the right type of infrastructure and guidance for the learner to find the information they need to solve the scenario.


The ACME building just burned to the ground.  You’re a fire inspector and your job is to investigate the fire and prepare a report for the ACME management team. 

In this scenario, you’re not giving them the information upfront.  So what you want to do is have them discover it.  As you design this type of scenario, you need to create a mechanism for them to research and find what they need and a way to give them the feedback they need to progress through the scenario.

5. Keep it simple.  Scenarios don’t need to be overly complicated.  Avoid something like this:

“It was a dark and unusually quiet night when a woman’s distant screams could be heard piercing the quiet that normally sat on the small town like a night time mist.  And just as soon as it started the screams subsided and were replaced with a newborn’s cries.  And so started the life of Mary, the finance manager of Primento…”

Instead, just jump into the scenario.  “Mary the finance manager has to….”

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Keep it simple.

Another way of simplifying is to pull much of the content out of the course and create job aids or cheat sheets that they can use after the course.  You can use those as the resources that people can explore to solve the scena
rio.  An additional benefit is that you’re able to teach them how to use those aids as part of the course objectives so that they have access to it after the course is complete.

6. Ask learners how the course content is relevant.  Somewhere in the instructional design process you will connect with your learners.  Ask them HOW they’d use the content or WHEN they’d use it?  They’ll give you all sorts of ideas that you can use as fodder for your scenarios.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Ask learners how the course content is relevant.

You might not want to tell them that you’re building scenarios.  Instead, just ask if they can give you some background on how or when they use the information.  If you tell them you’re building scenarios, they might end up giving you way too much information or get caught up in every possible use case rather than the most obvious.  Also, find out how a new person would use the information versus someone who is more experienced.  In fact, some of your best resources for building your courses are new employees or recent learners.

7. Confirm that the scenarios are accurate and realistic.  Make sure that your customer, subject matter experts, and learners all agree that the content and scenarios are accurate and realistic.  Some other considerations are how they work with the rest of the course and with the various learners.  This is especially true if your courses are available to different ethnic groups or cultures.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Confirm that the scenarios are accurate and realistic.

Sometimes all you need is an information-based course that’s more resource than real learning.  However, if you’re really trying to change behaviors and performance with your elearning courses, then building scenarios and problem-solving activities is a good way to go.

What are some tips and tricks that you’d recommend when building scenarios for your elearning courses?  Feel free to share them by clicking on the comments link.

If you liked this post, here are some others that might interest you:


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49 responses to “7 Tips for Better E-Learning Scenarios”

Tom – good stuff. You could make any of those 7 into a full blog post! I vote for:

4. Have the learners uncover information by challenging their understanding.

Your link to “How I Built that E-learning Scenario” is very helpful. Good stuff…elearning via blog. 😉

I enjoy your blog. My question to you is simple, where can I find the images you use to create your characters in the blog? The images are fun, simple and these characters convey the right message that compliments your article. Can you share or point me in the right direction?

The images that I use are usually from the MS Office clipart that’s available online. I’ll doctor them a little by ungrouping and adding my own stuff.

Here’s a post that might help you learn more about this.

Fabulous post, Tom. And did you actually see Waterworld? That’s all I want to know…

Thank you for these GREAT tips, these are super helpful, and serve as a refreshing reminder as I try to build course content… It is a continuous challenge to keep the learner experience front and center.

May 26th, 2009

I have had great success with scenarios and interactive case studies. In fact, when I haven’t used them in trainings, I have had SMEs and learners ask for them. One of the important elements in a scenario is the feedback…whether the learner answers correctly or incorrectly, immediate and useful feedback contributes to the learning process and can guide them in making their next decision in the scenario.

@Cammy: I did watch Waterworld. I actually kind of liked it, but the Waterworld reference probably made a bit more sense than Heaven’s Gate does.


What a great way to bring home the seven points. Absolutely great visuals, still LOL. Thanks.

Thank you Tom for bringing these ideas together in one place 🙂

[Also, there is a typo in the second last paragraph: “. . . performance with your elearning courses, THAN building scenarios . . .”]



I got to your blog late in the day due to projects, but your points are well taken and well received. Don’t know what my chiropractor is going to think about your “visual” with the jack hammer. 🙂

For e-learning IDs/developers in corporate settings, I recommend using any time you can squeeze out of a week to make mini-modules based on the 7 points. Often, certain corporate environments continue to put up roadblocks and “won’t let you do” what you want to for your learners. But, if you can SHOW them….. the lightbulb may come on.

Tom, #1 is key, and it’s where I start with a new client. “When the course is over, what do you want the learners to know/do, and how will things look 6/12 months from now in your workplace?”

Thanks for the reminders.

@Matthew: the typo was intentional. It’s my way of testing the qualifications of the blog’s readership.

[…] 7 Tips for Better E-Learning Scenarios | The Rapid E-Learning Blog "A scenario can put the course content into a context that is relevant to the learners because they can use the information in a real world setting. Even if you don’t create a pull-type course, scenarios are still effective in helping your learners. […]

Your usual, concise, valuable advice. Tip 5 (keep it simple) echoes advice from novelist Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Jenise’s advice is excellent as well. Few things are as convincing as an actual demonstration. I’d also look for a way to say (without sarcasm), “Does this job involve answering a lot of multiple-choice questions?”

[…] by benduffy on May.27, 2009, under My Internet Memory Great post over on the Articulate Rapid eLearning Blog:


I want to place special emphasis on your tip: “Ask how or when learners would use this information.” We use scenarios all the time…and often customers don’t initially see the value in them. However, when we explain that learners struggle to engage when they don’t get the “how” or “when” of the information, they tend to buy in more. We’ll start out by asking the customer, “Can you give us an example of when X learners might use this information? How would they need to apply it? What would be the context? We actually create “scenario worksheets” for SMEs to fill in (either on their own or via an interview with us); we then turn those into scenarios that can build throughout the course.

May 27th, 2009

I develop policy-related courses. One of the most effective sources I have found for meaningful scenarios is to gather information from my business partners on actual incidents or events that have taken place in the organization. I change the names and some of the specifics in order to protect the identity of the actual participants in the event but leave in enough information so that employees will be able to recognize that this is a scenario that is real and consequently meaningful to his/her job.

May 27th, 2009

To create scenarios that are ‘reality-based’, I use a combination of some of my own client situations. I’ll roll several together so that the scenario does not reflect any one of them individually.

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May 28th, 2009

Hi I recently started looking into elearning programs (I’ve been unemployed for about 3 months now and figured it’d be a way to boost my resume a bit) but I was wondering if anyone had feedback on any elearning schools/communities they’ve heard of. One that taught my eye ( has course packages directly related to the new jobs in obamas stimulus package. Any feedback on this University or others would be veryyy helpful!

Thanks so much!

May 28th, 2009

Hello! Tom,
Your post is quite useful for me at this moment, because I work on designing a course with Articualte to introduce Sexual Harassment in work place. You have given me some tips and the direction to build the scenarios.

Great post. Another great thing about building in scenarios is that it provides the opportunity to add humor. Learners will love you if you can sneak a little fun in with their learning.

@Melissa: good question. I’d look at some of the elearning certification programs. I know University of WA has a good one. There are a few others out there as well.

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Great ideas Tom !!!

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I’m raring to go. I just need some clients that DON’T demand “click next, click next, click next, multiple choice quiz”!

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Hi, this is great stuff. I just have one question, how do you make these cartoon characters? what is the easiest way to make or find cartoon characters? Thank you very much for your help.

@sambuu: those characters are just clipart images that I ungrouped and modified. “Easiest way” is kind of relevant depending on your skills. I’d start with the free stuff like the clipart. Yo can buy vector images from places like istockphotos. Try, as well.

[…] 7 Tips for Better E-Learning Scenarios […]

May 4th, 2011

@Tom, May 26, 2009. Technically correct answer however…which style are they? Thanks!

@Michael: style 925

hey great information and nice tips to improve in elearning solutions..

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Hi, I am writing my paper (MA) and a topic that I want to include is learning scednarios. Can you lead me to some articles or papers that focus on this theme? I would add your post to my paper, but I don’t think my teachers will accept it 😉

Hi excellent tips on building scenarios thanks for sharing your ideas!!!