Learning by Design in the Modern Digital Age: How to Create Interactive Branched Case Scenarios for E-learning

Credit: iStock.com/saidka
Credit: iStock.com/saidka

Case-based learning (CBL) is a teaching method that uses real-life scenarios to teach skill-based tasks. At the same time, it enhances learners’ awareness of the various contextual factors that affect problem-solving in complicated cases.

CBL now uses interactive, branched scenarios that present learners with a problem and offer multiple avenues for exploration. Branched case scenarios challenge learners, require them to make decisions, and then present consequences. Each consequence produces new challenges and more choices. As learners make decisions, the story unfolds in unpredictable ways, thereby making such learning interactive, engaging, and fun.

Thus, at a fundamental level, branching scenarios

  • follow different routes through the targeted content depending on user actions;
  • place learners in the role of decision-maker, allowing them to make their own choices and see the outcomes play out;
  • challenge users to make decisions and then representing the consequences that ensue according to the action taken; 
  • provide a safe space for learners to try out different approaches and see the consequences of their actions, preparing them for similar situations in the real world; and
  • put learners in control so they learn by doing.

Types of branched case scenarios

According to their purpose and complexity, we can classify the following four types of scenarios that impart real-world experience within an academic environment. The scenario types and levels of learning are adapted from work done by Eric J. Roberts (2014) and CommLab India Rapid eLearning Solutions (2021).

TypesPurposeWhen to use
DescriptiveTo identify a set of conceivable alternatives or choices to present a complete description of a problem within its context    Suits well for alternative analyses when comparing a solution against a set of criteria or determining likely or possible solutions
Key question: What are the alternative solutions?  
ExploratoryTo examine many possible outcomes with more than one correct answer  Works best for behavioral and exploratory training
Key question: What might happen?  
NormativeTo develop strategies to achieve a specific intended result  Suits well for synthesizing information to reach a given or asserted outcome
Key question: How to reach a specific outcome?  
PredictiveTo predict different types of outcomes, especially in the case of what-if scenarios or what happens as the next step in a given situation  Works well in predicting the long-term effectsof a given situation, behavior, or action
Key question: What will happen?

Essential elements of branched case scenarios

To create a robust branched case scenario, we need to be familiar with the core elements that enable us to create a well-defined scenario structure. The following key components of branched case scenarios are adapted from the model defined by Tom Kuhlmann’s 3C model (challenge, choices, consequence), and Christy Tucker’s 4C model (characters, context, challenge, and consequences).

  1. Characters: Actor(s) or main character(s) in a scenario that will drive the action related to the case or problem
  2. Content: Subject matter or topics to be thought
  3. Context: Positioning the content in a setting that will shape learning in a manner transferable to a real-life situation
  4. Challenge: A question posed to a learner to make a decision for solving a problem with options such as best choice, wrong answer, and not the best choice
  5. Choices: Proposed options as answers for a challenge question that should have feedback for each option
  6. Consequences: Outcomes for each choice with specific immediate feedback

Examining each key element for building branched case scenarios will provide a strong foundation for a storyboarding process to help us think through the scenario design and layouts.

How to design effective branching scenarios

Start with a plan to design effective branching scenarios. The following steps will help you develop sophisticated branching scenarios that impart real-world experience and reinforce knowledge and skills acquired via an interactive digital learning environment.

Select the most suitable content for branching scenarios  Analyze the learning content and context by asking yourself:
  • Does the content have complexity that allows for creating branching scenarios? If the content is linear and straightforward, we cannot produce challenging scenarios.
  • Is the content suitable to creating a task for problem-solving and decision-making? Keep in mind to ask “what if?” and “then what?” of the given content to focus on branching.
  • Does the content align with the learning objectives and assessment?
Identify the goals and learning objectivesIdentify the goals and learning objectives by asking the following questions:
  • What knowledge and skills do your learners need to build as part of your course or program?
  • What information do they need to retain by the end of the branching scenario?
  • Which performance behaviors and competencies do you intend to assess or evaluate?
Create a visual structure    Developing branching scenarios requires keeping everything organized with using a preplanned technique. If we do not create a visual structure, it is easy to misplace multiple decision options and consequences with their feedback. You can develop your own branched case template from scratch to customize every element that you need in your design.
  • Start with a template, asking yourself,
    • How should the main characters be introduced in the opening scene?
    • How can we create an emotional connection with characters so that learners can relate unique personality traits and appearances?
    • What do we want to focus on? What actions do we want our learners to take?
    • How should I branch different paths depending on learners’ responses to the challenge questions?
    • What are the best and worst outcomes for two separate decision paths?
    • What will be the conclusion, or how will the scenario end?
  • Create a storyboard laying out the obstacles and problems associated with each branching path.
  • Map out each branch, outlining every detail of a problem or obstacle so that you can analytically dig into the content to provide a reflective experience to your learners.
Note: Some technology and authoring tools may have prebuilt branching scenario layouts you can use for your case design.  
Write the script for your caseMost branching scenarios use character dialogue. Composing a script involves creating the initial idea, planning a scenario, and structuring your story within a context to help you visualize every branch. In branching, each decision point should follow from the previous one and show learners the consequences of making mistakes rather than just telling them. A well-written script enables us to check the complexity of the case and how learners may react as they imitate real-world situations. This script will serve as a blueprint to make production of a branched case scenario as smooth as possible.  
Choose the ideal technology tool or an e-learning authoring tool  It is critical to select the right technology tools or an e-learning authoring tool that can assist you in converting your visual map into a sophisticated branching scenario with attention-grabbing graphics and characters. Using the wrong tools will increase both the time, cost, and overall complexity of the development process. To determine the appropriate technology tools, you can test a few different platforms to find the right one for your purpose and needs. Some authoring tools may offer templates, themes, specific interactive elements, and other media that you can use for your branching scenario.  

Here are some potential technology tools for creating branched cased scenarios:  

Free tools Propriety tools
Test it  You can test the full functionality of the final product to find out whether each decision path seamlessly flows to the next and leads to the appropriate outcome. As a tester, you put yourself in the end user’s shoes and eliminate any flaws or glitches, including grammatical errors and anything out of place. You can also invite a group of learners or your team members to try it out for themselves and provide feedback. This process will help you catch any mistakes you may have overlooked or highlight areas for improvement.  

Branching is a way to increase motivation for learning and helps learners practice scenarios in a more engaged manner by answering all the subsequent questions that depend on the response to the prior question given by the learner. In this way, leaners contribute to their own learning as well as improve their retention.


CommLab India Rapid eLearning Solutions. (2021, April 15). Scenario-based eLearning: Using the power of imagination to help learners learn. https://resources.commlabindia.com/webinar/scenario-based-elearning

Roberts, E. J. (2014). Exploratory scenario planning: Lessons learned in the field. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. https://www.lincolninst.edu/sites/default/files/pubfiles/roberts_wp14er1.pdf

Kadriye O. Lewis, EdD, is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Medicine.

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