I have recently started playing The Room, a series of incredible mobile games from Fireproof Games. It is an incredible, multi award winning game that test your mechanical and analytical problem solving skills, all within an incredibly detailed, steam-punkesque environment. While the game is deeply immersive, and a lot of fun, it got me thinking about if, and how, these types of “locked box” games could or do apply in an educational context.

Enter scenario-based learning (SBL). This is a hip way of describing a learning journey designed by educators that takes students on a tour or journey through a problem-based scenario, allowing them to “figure out” the answers in an environment that is close to the original but without the risk.

There is a strong theoretical foundation for this that shows that knowledge is best acquired and retained when taught in the context it is to be used.

The most well-known of these types of learning methods, I think, is pilot simulation software, where young pilots are exposed to a deeply immersive flying experience, and thrown a number of challenges that they need to solve, without the ultimate risk of crashing an actual plane. In the corporate world, trainers rely heavily on scenario-based learning, especially to teach staff how to resolve conflicts with tricky customers, without the ultimate risk of losing a real customer.

Scenario-based learning for young students

Scenario-based learning also has a number of benefits for younger learners. It can create high levels of motivation, improved retention and critical thinking development.

A scenario-based lesson is also inherently assessment-based (if students make it through the scenario, then they’ve certainly learned the lesson), and as such as is an effective way for teachers to get an immediate insight into how students are progressing with the concept or problem.

Finally, scenario-based problems should include a number of “red herrings” or be “ill structured” – this is to prevent students from “Rolodexing” their answers; Rolodexing occurs when students mentally flip through learned equations and concepts to see which one fits the scenario best, thereby significantly shortcutting the problem-solving journey, and ultimately the educational benefit of the SBL.

Physics, math and accountancy subjects often use the phrase “context-rich problems” to describe their scenario-based learning. It is a powerful way to engage students in the reality of how maths applies to the real-world. Some guidelines on developing context-rich problems:

  • Ensure the problem is a short story in which the major character is the student. That is, each problem statement uses the personal pronoun “you.”
  • The situation in the problems are realistic (or can be imagined).
  • The problem statement includes a plausible motivation or reason for “you” to do something.
  • Not all pictures or diagrams are given with the problems (often none are given). Students must visualize the situation by using their own experiences and knowledge.
  • The problem may leave out common-knowledge information.

Other teachers rely on scenario-based lesson plans called “branching”. Branching is similar to those children’s adventure books, where you choose which way certain characters go, and flip to pages that relate to your decision; the outcome of the book depends on what you decided throughout the story.

Branching scenarios, especially when designed using immersive technology, can be an effective way to immediately demonstrate to students the effects of their choices. Typically good branching scenarios have 3 key aspects: challenge, choice and consequence. Find a great blog on designing any type of branching scenario lesson here.

All in all

Developing scenario-based problem is not that easy, and requires a keen understanding of the topic, a clear learning objective and also quite a bit of imagination. I hope to hear about your successes with this technique in the comments.

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