What is scenario based learning?

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, in their influential book Situated Learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991) argued that learning is most effective when it occurs within the context in which it is going to be used. Scenario based learning (SBL) is rooted in this idea. SBL, according to the definition provided by Massey University, “uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based and case-based learning”. The course developer creates a narrative – typically based on a complex, real-world problem – that the student works through and solves. SBL thus provides a safe yet realistic environment for the student to demonstrate their subject-specific knowledge and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, because SBL is often non-linear, it can provide numerous feedback opportunities to students, based on the decisions they make at each stage of the narrative.

I’m a course developer. When should I use scenario based learning?

Sometimes – in cases, for example, where students are required to make decisions and display critical thinking in complex situations – it can be difficult to provide realistic practice opportunities within the confines of a traditional course. In these cases, SBL comes into its own. Amongst countless other examples, SBL has been used successfully in engineering, nursing and business studies. It can be used to support both formative and summative assessment – but note that, for routine tasks that don’t require decision-making or critical thinking, there are more appropriate methods of assessment.

What tools can help me develop scenario based learning?

Moodle contains several tools that can be used to develop an SBL approach. The four tools I’d suggest can be used to build a learning narrative are: Database, Workshop, Forum and Lesson. (This is only a suggestion. The most important thing is to connect various activities and reinforce student learning.)

Below is one model that would permit the assessment process to become a wider, more holistic approach over the duration of a course. A range of short, targeted activities would give the students time to research their next task and help them develop their own learning profile.

Database -> Workshop -> Forum -> Lesson

  1. The student writes a short essay, based on their own experiences relating to a given task, and submits to the Database tool. Then, from these submissions, the academic allocates each student a different piece of work to mark/analyse.
  2. After assessing their assigned piece of work, each student submits their analysis to the Workshop tool (following criteria defined by the academic). The Workshop tool allows students to peer assess the submissions and get a final grade based on both their submission and their ability to assess others’ work.
  3. Once all this is finished, the Forum is used to get the students to discuss their experiences of the subject and how they could each improve certain aspects of their work.
  4. Lastly, the Lesson tool presents a high-risk situation to the student. The lesson can be developed to provide a realistic yet safe environment to explore the situation. The Lesson tool allows for either a branching or a linear format.

Each phase offers the student the chance to reflect on what they have learned and offers them ideas on what they should now do with the new information and theory they have researched as part of the unit.

These various elements could be done one straight after the other, or spaced out over the course of a unit. My recommendation would be to allow time between each assessment, which would give students the chance to develop and learn from what they have previously done.

If you are considering SBL as a means of assessment but would like to have a discussion about how you can implement within your teaching the TEL team runs a training session called “Facilitating Scenario Based Learning” or you can contact me tom.langston@port.ac.uk


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Cambridge: CUP.

Image credits: Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash