Monday, March 13, 2023

From “Click Next” to “Choose Your Path”: Elearning with Branching Scenarios

Most of us have taken compliance e-learning at some point in our careers. Think of that annually required elearning course that we all dread, where you listen to a narrator drone on to explain a policy and you click the Next button over and over. At the end, there’s a multiple-choice quiz to see if you remember what you listened to 10 minutes earlier.

If that’s your only experience with elearning, you may not see much opportunity for anything better with online workplace training. However, elearning can be much more than just asking people to “click next” through a narrated presentation and quiz. One of the strategies for improving elearning is through branching scenarios.

What are branching scenarios?

If you’ve ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you’re already familiar with branching scenarios. In a branching scenario, you make decisions. Based on the choices you make, you see the consequences of your action, and then you make another decision. The options available to you often depend on what decisions you previously made.

In branching scenarios, instead of being a passive listener, you’re an active participant in your elearning. You choose your path through the training. When you reach the end, you get feedback or coaching on your performance. Branching scenarios are often designed so people can replay them several times, choosing different options to reach different outcomes. A branching scenario usually has multiple different endings: one ideal ending, several bad endings, and some in the middle. The endings in the middle are usually the result of partially correct choices or a mix of good and bad choices–just like real life might be.

Compare typical elearning questions to branching scenarios

In typical linear elearning, you are assessed with multiple choice questions. These are often abstract and not particularly connected to your work. Compare these two examples. Both are for a hypothetical training program for new managers to learn how to provide helpful feedback to their teams.

Example 1. Here’s a typical multiple-choice question:

When giving feedback to employees about problematic behavior, what should managers focus on?

  1. The personal characteristics of the employee
  2. The specific observed and desired behaviors
  3. Providing a lot of positive feedback to balance the negative

That question probably sounds a lot like questions you have seen in elearning quizzes before, right? It’s not a bad question, but it’s not very interesting.

Example 2. Compare that question to a scenario-based question:

You’re working for a tax preparation software company. You were promoted just two months ago to the team lead in the inbound call center. One of the senior call center agents on your team, Mollie, recently yelled at a customer during a call. You need to follow up with her and give her feedback.

When you meet, you ask Mollie what happened. She explains, “He was being completely unreasonable! He expected that our software would already have all of his personal information entered into it. I know I shouldn’t have yelled at him, but I just couldn’t convince him the software didn’t magically know his info as soon as he logged in!”

How should you respond?

  1. You have a short temper, and you get angry with customers too easily.
  2. You raised your voice, but we expect you to remain calm and de-escalate situations like this.
  3. You are a great agent with a lot of valuable experience. I’m sure you can do better.

In a branching scenario, the question above would be followed by more of the conversation with Mollie.

  • If you choose A, Mollie resists the feedback and resents you as a manager.
  • If you choose B, Mollie grudgingly accepts that she needs to do better at remaining calm.
  • If you choose C, Mollie is satisfied, but she doesn’t realize how serious her behavior was.

The conversation would continue from that point, with different paths according to the choices you make. In this example, Mollie would be more or less receptive to feedback and continuing the conversation based on this choice.

Which one of those questions seems more interesting? Which one do you think you’re more likely to remember later? The scenario-based question puts you into the middle of the action and requires you to make a decision. The story makes it much more engaging.

Putting people in the position of picking an action is also more similar to the types of decisions they have to make in their actual work. Typical multiple-choice questions usually measure what people remember and understand. A branching scenario gives people the opportunity to apply what they learn and practice making realistic decisions. People are more likely to improve their performance on the job if they have the opportunity to practice in relevant scenarios.

When to Use Branching Scenarios in Your Elearning

When should you use branching scenarios in your elearning? They work best for strategic skills that require decision-making and judgment, rather than for routine, repetitive, or procedural tasks. Branching scenarios are ideal for training tasks that require a series of related decisions, rather than a single isolated decision. They can help employees explore the nuances of situations where there aren’t always clear-cut correct decisions. They’re also excellent for situations that are risky to practice in the real environment.

Interpersonal, communication, and soft skills are excellent opportunities for branching scenarios. Diagnosis, troubleshooting, and repair can also be good topics for simulations and scenarios. Skills where people have to balance multiple competing factors, such as project management, can also be a good fit for branching scenarios. Compliance training can be more engaging and effective with branching scenarios because you practice applying policies in realistic situations.

Choose Your Path in Elearning

For your organization’s next elearning project, consider incorporating branching scenarios. Choose a path to giving employees practice making relevant decisions in realistic situations to improve the results of your elearning initiatives.