Using scenarios to engage learners

What are scenarios

Scenarios can be used to engage students with challenging situations as a basis for learning. Scenarios are ‘imaginaries’ (Mansell, 2013): credible and useful descriptions of imagined situations. They are most effective when they are carefully designed to create a brief but concrete description of a situation that can be analysed by the students to develop or test their learning. A scenario is,

“a concrete description of activity that the user engages in when performing a specific task, description sufficiently detailed so that design implications can be inferred and reasoned about.” – Carroll

This briefing uses a model by Carroll (2000) whose own interest in scenarios is in the professional context of software engineering where he has used scenarios as a reliable means of designing and testing software. He explains that scenarios allow the designer to construct concrete and complex situations which, in real life, could not be accessible or affordable.

Scenarios can,

  • Provide descriptions of the past, present or future;
  • Establish problems and set the scene for discussion or evaluation;
  • Provide risk-free tools for imagining and ‘concretising’ the future for asking ‘what-if..?’;
  • Provide colourful narratives or process statements;
  • Provide ‘good enough’ or highly detailed representations of possibilities.

Scenarios address six challenges

  1. Support consideration of problems;
  2. Provide the basis for collaborative action and reflection;
  3. Allow diverse interpretation by being ‘sufficiently detailed’ and concrete;
  4. Accommodate the management of problems in dynamic situations;
  5. Accommodate multiple views of a problem situation;
  6. The need for a method to articulate and capture outputs of idea generation activities.

Note, that the term ‘scenario-based learning’ can be used to describe the use of scenarios to support learning, however, it is sometimes used to describe a particular methodology used in computer-based training. Our interest here is in how scenarios can be used in many ways to enrich interactive learning in the classroom or online.

Why use scenarios

In teaching and learning, whatever our discipline, scenarios allow us to ask, “What if…?” or, “What would you do and why?”. Such questions are typical of what Lave and Wenger call situated learning (1991).

Well-articulated scenarios allow students to test theoretical frameworks and they support the students to move from abstract conceptualisations of knowledge to a more concrete sense of applied knowledge. They allow students to rehearse their use of knowledge, including processes, in safe environments and so develop critical confidence before applying what they know in real world situations. To this extent, scenarios have much in common with simulations which tend to be much larger, expensive and often technology-driven constructs. Scenarios, on the other hand, are descriptions of a useful problem statement usually set out in writing.

Scenarios can also form the basis of assessment because, as descriptions of situations, they can be analysed by students in exams.

Scenarios usually include variables in their essential design and this means that it is easy to modify a scenario or produce multiple versions of it to easily generate alternative problem scenarios. Doing so can reinforce the essential problem or function and, in assessments, can present students with different versions of the same thing. For example, in the psychology of perception, changing the ethnicity of a key actor in a scenario can reveal unconscious bias.


  • Use diverse kinds and amounts of detailing;
  • Allow us to consider alternative consequences of action;
  • Can be abstracted and categorised;
  • Help designers to recognise, capture, modify and reuse generalisations or patterns;
  • Support reasoning;
  • Make design tasks and problems accessible to diverse expert stakeholder groups.


To develop scenario-based learning,

  1. Learning outcomes – begin by identifying the learning outcomes you want your students to achieve and the attributes they can develop;
  2. Format and activity – decide how your students will be expected to use the scenarios. Ask, how will they be presented, in what media, what theoretical frameworks or ideas will they use or test, and what will they produce (e.g. a comment, a report, a group presentation, etc.), and how will you support and give feedback on the activity?
  3. Scenario topic or story – what will the scenario describe or what narrative will it deliver? Think about ‘critical incidents’ – episodes that reveal or present a key idea or challenge.
  4. Define the trigger event or hook – a scenario story will immediately engage the reader and will often establish a problem as an outcome of a trigger event.
  5. Peer review – ask a peer to review your scenario. Alternatively, involve more experienced students in reviewing the validity of scenarios.

Producing scenarios

A scenario should be a brief and clear description of a situation written in plain English. Usually, it is light on detail, with the detail that is incorporated being critical.

Carroll says a well-designed scenario includes the following dimensions:

  • Goals, sub-goals or outcomes – this creates an explicit purpose to the narrative;
  • Settings – the setting establishes the stage or the context for the scenario and will be descriptive. The setting may include a problem statement, but its purpose is to establish the scene or parameters of the scenario. Think about what the scenario reader needs to consider.
  • Agents or actors playing primary or supporting roles (descriptions of who is involved, how and why)
  • Plot – sequences of actions and events done by or to the actors or changes to the setting. Changes to events show how scenarios can be used dynamically to assess different decisions and outcomes.

Using scenarios successfully

Scenarios use natural language and are usually presented as short narratives. Alternatively, they can be presented using or incorporating various media to make them richer or take the form of a powerful image that communicates a situation and requires forensic analysis. Some suggestions for communicating scenarios:

  • Text
  • Visualisations, diagrams, pictures, rich pictures or concept maps, etc.
  • Comic strips and photo storyboards created in Powerpoint
  • Videos
  • Multimedia
  • Post-it notes
  • Whiteboards

Their use needs to be introduced carefully as students will normally first be engaged by being presented with the scenario as a stimulus – the scenario problem.

“Students must clearly understand the reasons why they are attempting a learning task and the PBL scenario needs to be carefully set and managed to promote the desired learning outcome.” (Gossman et al., 2007, p. 149)

Secondly, students need to be guided to look beyond the specifics of the problem scenario when they come to reflect on the activity. They need to be guided to identify and analyse the overarching principles. This can be done by asking them further ‘what if…’ questions based on changing one or more of the variables in the scenario. For example, “What if the subject had been a woman rather than a man? Would it have made any difference?”

Scenarios become living memories for the class that can be recalled in later weeks or assessments. “Do you remember when we looked at..?” Such references can help to reinforce and develop conceptual learning and an active learning culture.

Students as producers of scenarios

Scenarios can be used in diverse learning contexts because they are essentially descriptions of situations. However, learning to develop scenarios can be a useful skill for students. Ensuring that the description of a situation is reliable can be a challenging and engaging activity that requires a student to have a deep understanding of a knowledge area in order to apply it and check their scenario’s validity.

Such skills evidence an ability to brief other people which, as graduates, is a role many students will assume in their professions.

Further information

  • Scenario-based learning briefing – Massey University. Online


Carroll, J.M. (2000). Five reasons for scenario-based design. Interacting with Computers 13, pp.43 – 60

Gossman, P., Stewart, T., Jaspers, M., & Chapman, B. (2007). Integrating web-delivered problem- based learning scenarios to the curriculum. Active Learning In Higher Education, 8(2), 139-153.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge.

Mansell, R. (2013). Introduction: imagining the Internet: open, closed or in between. In: Perini, Fernando and Girard, Bruce, (eds.) Enabling openness: the future of the information society in Latin America and the Caribbean. IDRC, Fundación Comunica, Ottawa, Canada, pp. 9-20.