Your Complete Guide to Using Scenario-Based Learning in the Classroom

I recently stumbled upon the concept of scenario-based learning a while back when I was trying to think of ways to immerse students in a “future reality” type of scenario. I was also trying to come up with a way to implement a scenario-based learning support (either an app or online simulation) for students with ASD to help them through situations that involve socializing with others, holding a conversation, and recognizing body language and conversational cues.

As I read more about scenario-based learning, I began to understand how beneficial it could be for students in the classroom and how similar it was to inquiry-based learning. What I uncovered about this type of learning got me so excited to share my ideas!

What is scenario-based learning?

Scenario-based learning is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; it’s an approach to learning based on an authentic scenario that mirrors real-life situations, issues, and decision-making. Like inquiry-based learning, scenario-based learning is will-suited to teach students soft skills, such as decision-making, communicating, problem-solving, and cooperation.

Students (and people, in general) tend to understand through comparison and through examples. Personally, when someone tries to explain a new concept to me, it helps for them to explain it in context; as in, using a scenario to demonstrate how something works or the steps I need to take to accomplish something. This type of learning can work for students, too.

Scenario-based learning can be useful to teach students decision-making and critical thinking in situations whereby:

  • a decision needs to be made now that will affect other events later
  • there are several paths to take, with no single correct solution
  • a task is complex and requires thorough analysis and problem-solving
  • a student wants to explore different outcomes of a global issue

While scenario-based learning can’t replace real-world experience, it can help students understand the complexities that are involved in decision-making and analysis of real-world problems, such as climate change, poverty, and international relations.

Why is scenario-based learning important to students?

There are several reasons why scenario-based learning should be used in the classroom. You’ve probably used it at some point during a lesson or project without realizing it; whether to explain a concept, probe for deeper answers, or evaluate the success of a decision.

Students benefit from exposure to scenario-based learning because it allows them to put themselves in the shoes of highly-regarded people, such as engineers, doctors, politicians, architects, managers, and scientists and determine what solutions might work for the problems that face the world today. Students are motivated by real issues that affect them. Analyzing decisions typically made by professionals and coming up with a solution that is strategically thought-out can provide huge amounts of intrinsic motivation for students who would otherwise be bored with imaginary problems or one-sided learning activities.

Other advantages of using scenario-based learning:

  • it is usually presented as a story or narrative, which is how many people conceptualize new ideas and information
  • it focuses on the processes of engagement, critical thinking, and improvement as opposed to “getting the answer right”
  • scenario-based learning engages students directly in the situation
  • the focus is less on theoretical information and more on practical learning
  • students become aware of gaps in their own learning and understanding, but in a non-threatening way
  • it helps students understand how their behaviour is affected in different, but realistic situations and helps them take ownership of their decisions
  • helps teachers explain difficult concepts that require a practical example or scenario

The state of “flow”

Solving problems increases student engagement and also increases their motivation to explore new possibilities and new approaches to already-existing problems. Hitting the right balance of keeping students motivated while also challenging them is difficult to achieve, but produces amazing results. This is what Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the concept of “flow”; when there is a balance between a students’ current skills and the level of challenge they face.

Low-floor, high-ceiling activities are great to engage learners of all levels. The challenge should increase as the students solve increasingly difficult problems. If the students’ skills are higher than what is needed for the problem, they become bored. On the other hand, if students do not have the skills with which to solve a problem, frustration ensues.

The concept of “flow” needs to be considered when you design your project. A balance needs to be struck between keeping the challenge open and accessible, and adding in elements that increase the difficulty in small increments to keep students motivated and eager to continue their learning. Teachers who know their students and perform regular assessments are well-equipped to set challenges at the appropriate levels; this ensures that boredom and frustration are both kept at bay.

Creating a scenario-based learning project

Before diving into the world of scenario-based learning, there are a few things to consider:

  • Are the outcomes of your scenario based on the development of skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, etc?
  • Do students already have some relevant knowledge about global issues, world events, and the discussion and analysis of them?
  • Will the skills gained from this activity remain relevant to justify the work put in?
  • Do you have the time and resources to design and implement a scenario-based learning approach?

If you are confident in the above points, then scenario-based learning is probably worth delving into! It is a fun and interesting way to teach critical thinking and decision-making in a safe space. Once you’ve determined that scenario-based learning is right for your students, consider the following steps:

1. Identify the skills you want your students to practice

Look at your students as a whole and determine what soft skills they could practice. For example, if your students tend to give up easily, perhaps they need to practice their resilience. If students have a difficult time communicating their ideas, building in opportunities to strengthen their communication skills might benefit them.

Soft skills include things like time management, teamwork, resilience, initiative, cooperation, leadership, organization, creativity, and many more. In Ontario, students are graded on their:

  • self-regulation
  • initiative
  • independent work
  • collaboration
  • organization
  • responsibility

Usually teachers are able to cover the majority of these soft skills throughout the duration of a project. They are skills that students continually develop, whether they are aware of it or not. Try to aim for coverage of at least 3-4 of these skills specifically when planning a scenario-based learning project.

Related: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy in Inquiry and Scenario-Based Learning

2. Tap into student interests

Tap into what students are talking about and what interests them. Consider the following questions:

  • Are students interested in the political actions of their Mayor, Premier or Prime Minister?
  • Do they discuss global issues such as poverty, homelessness, and hunger?
  • What organizations are they involved in? (e.g Girl Scouts, Red Cross, YMCA, etc)
  • How do they express concern and care for others?
  • Are they interested in their country’s response to global issues?
  • Do they discuss issues like climate change, drug or human trafficking, or gang crime?
  • Have students shown interest in implementing social change within their communities?
  • In what ways do they communicate with one another and with people around the world?
  • How can their skill sets be utilized to create powerful change that matters to them?

Discussing these questions with students provides a glimpse into what they’re talking about, what’s important to them, and their interests. Teachers usually have a broad idea of their students’ interests, goals, and hobbies, but getting to know students on a deeper level can help determine what types of scenarios would resonate with them. Furthermore, it will produce learning that is meaningful to them.

For example, develop a scenario that models how global leaders tackle climate change. Discuss things like carbon tax or the Paris Climate Accord. Discuss how these solutions have worked or how they can be improved. Take into account current proposals and the barriers that might be in the way to creating sustainable change. You might even take the learning opportunity further by imagining that students run their own country on earth – how might they tackle the issue of climate change in their country?

Related: How to Teach Effective Questioning Skills in the Classroom

3. Consult the curriculum to construct the parameters

The Ontario curriculum is full of opportunities to implement a scenario-based learning experience for students of any age. However, intermediate and high-school students would likely reap the most benefits from this structure of learning because they have a broader understanding of the world around them. By that age, they should have a stronger grasp of issues surrounding politics, the environment, society, and everyday interactions. They can more clearly understand the barriers to things like policy implementation, international aid, and environmental action.

The Ontario curriculum provides some guidance as to the questions you can pose to students, and the criteria they should be considering when coming to conclusions and making decisions. Students work towards things like:

  • developing an understanding of the diversity within local, national, and global communities
  • understanding power dynamics and the complex relationships that exist globally
  • exploring issues related to personal and societal rights and responsibilities
  • investigating moral and ethical dilemmas, issues, and developments
  • visualizing data and scenarios using spatial skills in order to help them solve problems
  • developing curiosity and skills that enable them to investigate developments, events, and issues around the world and close to home
  • investigating controversial issues and adopt leadership roles to approach them
  • analyzing and making sense of past societies, and connections between human environments and communities
  • voicing their informed opinions on matters relevant to their community or country
  • exploring the concepts of citizenship and disciplinary thinking

4. Build the scenarios

This is probably one of the more difficult steps of the scenario-based learning process. However, it allows for unlimited creativity and exploration, so it can be really fun to plan. Think of the learning your students have done over the past few weeks or months. Identify the types of situations where students could apply their knowledge. You may find that there are a number of different routes you could take with this.

Each scenario should take students down a few different pathways, depending on what actions they take. There should be enough room for them to explore different decisions and figure out which one is best for their circumstance. There should also be instances where students need to weigh different criteria to arrive at a conclusion that benefits the most people.

Key considerations

Try to use the following tips to help you narrow down the perfect scenario that will provide the most benefit to your students:

  • Identify and build scenarios where difficult and complex decisions have to be made
  • Determine the depth of student involvement in a scenario prior to creating it
  • Select 2-3 scenarios that might work well with your students and map out how the experience might transpire
  • Figure out the most important or critical considerations your students will have to keep in mind to make good decisions (remember, there aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers with this kind of learning)
  • Consider situations that arise, or wrenches that might get thrown into the scenario; find opportunities for students to flex their decision-making muscles
  • Take into account how similar-aged students might approach the problems in the scenario as opposed to how people who are older or younger might approach the problems – what are the key differences and similarities? How will those differences affect the decision-making process?
  • Determine the knowledge gaps that might exist and build in small, quick activities to bridge the gaps; for example, if your students are addressing hunger in Africa, they might not know what an NGO is, so build in some time to teach them the key information

Types of scenarios

You will also have to consider the type of scenario you want your students to experience and work through. There are a few different types, but these are the ones that would likely work best in a classroom setting, with middle school or high school-aged students:

  • Problem-based scenario: Students have to investigate a problem, make decisions, use logical reasoning, and think critically
  • Issue-based scenario: Students take a stand on issues (usually humanitarian in nature) and explore them to understand how the decision-making process applies to them
  • Speculative scenario: Students predict the outcome of an event in the future using their present knowledge, understanding, and ideas

Be sure to provide the necessary details to help structure the scenario and give students as much support as possible. Work through the scenario before presenting it to students and figure out the different paths students may take ahead of time. Think about the natural progressions they might follow as they come up with solutions. Ensure that it flows the way you expect it to (in general terms, don’t plan everything down to the detail) and achieves the outcomes you intended. Also make sure that your scenario includes opportunities for students to practice essential skills; for example, collaboration, imagination, flexibility, social responsibility, civic and technological literacy, and initiative.

5. Build in opportunities for reflection

In both inquiry-based learning and scenario-based learning, reflection is incredibly important. Tune into what students thought of the learning process. Turn feedback into effective instructional tools by taking the time to explain mistakes or wrong turns, and suggest alternate ways to arrive at solutions.

Along the way, providing instant feedback is important for students to know so they can quickly reflect on their choices and prepare for the consequences. This could be as simple as a quick comment, or it may involve showing them a detailed explanation as to why and how the outcome occurred. Discussing possible remedies can help avoid future negative outcomes and help students to see areas for improvement.

A great reflective activity could involve having students map out their course of action, and examine each decision one-by-one to notice patterns, biases, or detours they took that led them to their final destination. Students sometimes find it challenging to make decisions objectively, so taking the time to reflect on their choices and decisions and the reasons that led them to make those choices can be crucial in identifying any pre-existing biases.

For example, if students needed to choose between saving the economy and saving people during a future disease outbreak (similar to the pandemic we’re living through now), they might say that choosing the economy only ended up benefiting people who could afford to shop. Students can consider how their upbringing influenced their decision by taking into account their own socioeconomic status, spending habits, family dynamic, and other factors.

Perhaps students think they should have saved people rather than the economy because the end result could have seen a complete overhaul of the capitalist system, and a shift to a socialist society (which many students, right or wrong, tend to favour).

Sample Scenario-Based Learning Activities

photo of a natural disaster

Responding to a Natural Disaster

Expectations: Grade 6 Social Studies – Strand B.2
Framing Question: How have natural disasters affected Canada and the world?

In this scenario, students take the role of Prime Minister of Canada. A Category-5 hurricane is 2 weeks away from making landfall on the imaginary impoverished nation of Brundea in the Caribbean. Drawing on their knowledge and understanding of Canada’s responses to global natural disasters, students plan a course of action to help prepare for and defend Brundea’s people against the impending hurricane.

This scenario involves the understanding and application of the following expectations from the Grade 6 Social Studies curriculum:
  • explain why Canada participates in specific international accords and organizations and assess the influence of some significant accords and/or organizations in which Canada participates 
  • analyse responses of Canadian governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and individual citizens to an economic, environmental, political, and/or social issue of international significance
  • explain why some environmental issues are of international importance and require the participation of other regions of the world, along with that of Canada, if they are to be effectively addressed
  • formulate questions to guide investigations into global issues of political, social, economic, and/or environmental importance their impact on the global community, and responses to the issues
  • gather and organize information on global issues of political, social, economic, and/or environmental importance, including their impact and responses to them, using a variety of resources and various technologies
  • analyse and construct different types of maps, both print and digital, as part of their investigations into global issues, their impact, and responses to them 
  • interpret and analyse information and data relevant to their investigations, using a variety of tools
  • evaluate evidence and draw conclusions about global issues of political, social, economic, and/or environmental importance, their impact on the global community, and responses to the issues
  • communicate the results of their inquiries, using appropriate vocabulary and formats
  • identify some of the major ways in which the Canadian government interacts with other nations of the world
  • describe Canada’s participation in different international accords, organizations, and/or programs
  • describe the responses of the Canadian government and some NGOs to different disasters and emergencies around the world

Pipeline Construction Project

Expectations: Grade 9 Geography – Strand C (1-3)
Framing Question: How do we balance our needs and wants with sustainable resource development?

In this scenario, students take the role of a Lead Engineer in the province of Calperta. Your company has proposed the construction of a pipeline through the province in order to extract and deliver crude oil to other countries. However, there are several issues to contend with, including the potential impact the pipeline will have on the environment, consultation with and approval from affected Indigenous communities, as well as analyzing the possible health risks involved. Coincidentally, the parameters of this scenario mirror the exact parameters of the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline.

This scenario involves the understanding and application of the following expectations from the Grade 9 Geography curriculum:
  • describe strategies that industries and governments have implemented to increase the sustainability of Canada’s natural resources and evaluate their effectiveness
  • assess the impact of Canada’s participation in international trade agreements and of globalization on the development and management of human and natural resources in Canada 
  • analyse the influence of governments, advocacy groups, and industries on the sustainable development and use of selected Canadian resources
  • analyse the roles and responsibilities of individuals in promoting the sustainable use of resources 
  • explain how the availability and spatial distribution of key natural resources, including water, in Canada are related to the physical geography of the country, and assess the significance of their availability and distribution, nationally and globally
  • analyse, from a geographic perspective, issues relating to the development, extraction, and management of various natural resources found in Canada
  • assess the renewability and non-renewability of various natural resources in Canada
  • assess the feasibility of using selected renewable and alternative energy sources to augment or replace existing power sources in various parts of Canada
  • analyse the main factors that need to be considered when determining the location of sites for different types of industries

Have you used scenario-based learning in your classroom?

What types of activities have you created?

We’d love to hear your experiences and tips in the comments below!

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