Scenario-Based Learning Promotes Relevancy and Value of New Knowledge

“When am I ever going to use this in real life?”

I remember hearing that question a lot in my high school days. I may have uttered the words myself (especially in my math classes!). Funny to think how the high school version of “real life” looks beyond the classroom into some vague, incomprehensible future, when actually real life is happening all the time. We drew imaginary boundaries between real life, and what?… Fake life? In those days, “real life” is when you’re a “grown-up” with a “real job” and are faced with “real problems.” Sure, this concept has some merit – But I digress…

This question - When am I ever going to use this in real life? - doesn’t really stop in high school either. Even if we don’t say it out-loud, we scrutinize every new piece of new knowledge with the same expectation: Am I ever going to use this? 

We remember information that is valuable to us. Unfortunately, in places like high school, certain topics are not made valuable for students. Yes, I do say “made valuable,” because it is the instructor’s role to promote the value of the new knowledge. I remember formulating parabolas as something I did not care about, and never would care about. It was not made valuable by my teacher. When would I ever use parabolas?

As instructors, it is our responsibility to promote value of new knowledge by advertising its relevancy. When students ask when they’ll use it, show them! One of the best ways to conjure and present relevancy of new knowledge to your learning audience, (whether they be high school students, or corporate sales people) is to offer a relevant story in the form of a real-life scenario. 

Scenario-based learning engages learners by providing a real-life problem and the application of the new knowledge to solve the problem. 

As an example, in my experience developing eLearning for healthcare software, I scripted pertinent cases that were solved through utilization of the software. A nurse confronted with a patient assessment needs to document the patient’s condition in the electronic medical record. Or a healthcare supply chain purchaser need to track the rush delivery of syringes to his hospital.

Including a story in the learning experience can improve engagement because it produces relevancy. Scenarios better contextualize the learning experience! But, there are a few principles your scenarios should abide by, or else they can be less influential, less beneficial, and even distracting for your learners.


In the case of the nurse documenting a patient assessment, the scenario should center around the needs and knowledge of the nurse. The scenario should not involve writing of prescriptions, or scheduling the next appointment. These tasks are delegated to medical doctors (prescriptions) and administrators (scheduling). Do not create a scenario outside the application of the learner’s new knowledge. Do not provide new knowledge that the learner does not need to know. The scenario should allow the learner to use the specific new knowledge they are developing.

Practical and Real

Sometimes while building eLearning for medical doctors, I would create a scenario that was not medically accurate. As a result, the doctors who reviewed the materials would become distracted. They would point out that, in the story, no one could ever have these types of symptoms, or under these circumstances the patient would be dead! These kinds of inaccuracies stole from the doctors' focus on the new knowledge and forced them question the merit of the eLearning. Verify that the scenario is practical and real for your learners. They should never be distracted by an improbable or impossible plot.

Get Involved

As I write this, I work for a company that provides hospitals visibility of their healthcare supplies purchasing. This visibility can be rather passive. It provides analytics of the hospitals’ spending and tracks the delivery status of the supplies. But, the scenarios need to invoke some interaction with this visibility, prompting them to evaluate the analytics, or hunt down the delivery. Learners should not be made passive. They need to engage. They need consequences. They need a call to act and reasons to apply their knowledge.

Scenario-based learning eliminates the question “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” It gives you a chance to demonstrate how the new knowledge is valuable to your learners, thus increasing their curiosity and engagement. This technique should be very common in your repertoires of learning methodologies as it may be one of the lowest effort, highest reward approaches to instructional design.

Mitchell WollComment