Critical thinking skills are listed among the top-most in demand skills in the modern workplace. What are they and how can you develop these vital skills in the workforce? How can branching scenarios improve critical thinking?
What are Branching Scenarios?
A branching scenario is a learning activity which presents learners with a question or problem with multiple options, each with its own consequence or set of consequences. It can be compared to a choose-your-own-adventure story.
Branching scenarios challenge learners to apply their theoretical knowledge, experience and intuition to practical applications.
Learners must act as problem-solvers and decision-makers as they deal with each scenario.
Each choice has a consequence.
A complex branching scenario takes learners on a non-linear, unpredictable path.
This makes for a more engaging and immersive experience than traditional training.
Instead of being passive recipients of information presented to them, learners must actively participate in the lessons.
Instead of a quiz with a set of right and wrong answers, learners see a range of possible life-like consequences to their actions and decisions.
This instant feedback allows them to evaluate the results and to improve their responses during their next attempt or back on the job.
This is the problem-solving feedback cycle:
In a digital eLearning lesson, this problem-solving cycle is completed almost instantaneously.
It provides opportunities for learners to practice repeatedly and to discover the best possible solution. Because of this instant feedback, scenario-based training helps learners achieve better results and to fast-track both their reasoning abilities and complex procedural learning. Let’s explore how in more detail:
1. Complex branched scenarios help learners develop critical thinking skills fast.
What are critical thinking skills and why do employers want them?
Employers want employees who can evaluate a situation or problem and come up with the best solution. Someone with critical thinking skills can be trusted to make good decisions and use their initiative to solve day-to-day problems. They will require less supervision and ‘hand-holding’.
Some of the top capabilities listed among critical thinking skills are:
- analytical skills – the ability to understand information or a situation, ask relevant questions and evaluate the evidence, data or context
- problem-solving skills – being able to generate solutions, be innovative and evaluate results
- communication skills – being able to share ideas, assess information, collaborate, explain and present information
- creativity – being curious, flexible, innovative, visionary, making abstract connections and imagining solutions
- open-mindedness – being able to evaluate without bias, aware of different perspectives, reflective, fair, humble
The following three examples will explain how a well-researched branched scenario can be used to develop most of these skills:
Critical Thinking Skills Example 1: Improving customer care skills
The learner is a relationship manager to high net worth clients. She must deal with unhappy clients.
The scenario challenges may require the manager to
- interpret questions asked by a client,
- seek relevant information from the client,
- recognize similarities and differences, and
- analyze the data provided.
If dealing with a foreign client, the manager may also need to
- assess the situation without bias,
- understand different cultural perspectives or practices
The manager’s problem-solving skills may be tested by a complex branched scenario that requires logical reasoning, attention to details, identification of patterns and application of standards.
Critical Thinking Example 2: Developing appreciative inquiry decision-making skills
A complex branching scenario could be used to train potential leaders to use the appreciative inquiry strategy for directing decisions.
Traditional problem-solving focuses on what is wrong and how to fix it. In contrast, appreciative inquiry (AI) focuses on strengths and what is working well to find pathways for future improvement and growth.
Since AI is an unconventional strategy, scenarios must be well thought-out.
Critical Thinking Example 3: Medical diagnosis and treatment of patients
A real-life branching scenario for nurses may involve providing learners with
- the patient information they need to move through the investigation,
- a framework for assessing the symptoms and potential causes,
- feedback at the diagnosis and treatment levels where learners may make the correct diagnosis but choose the wrong treatment, and
- an opportunity for a do-over where learners can rectify mistakes and give an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Ultimately, branching scenarios should ensure effective learning outcomes, inspire reflection by learners on the critical thinking skills they must improve, and deliver an engaging experience.
2.Branching scenarios improve procedural learning
What are procedural skills and why do employers want them?
Procedural learning refers to the acquisition of motor skills and habits, and certain types of cognitive skills. It usually requires repetition of an activity, and associated learning is demonstrated through improved task performance.1
It is a slow and inflexible learning system that requires extensive practice. Eventually it takes on an automatic or reflexive quality. “It is, however, long-lasting and reliable, as any bike rider knows—even after years of absence from a bicycle, one never loses the skill.” 2
Researchers report that procedural memory forms a person's character. Learning certain behaviors or emotional responses causes them to become automatic responses to specific situations. This can reinforce good habits but also make it difficult to shed bad habits. 3
The aim of training to improve procedural learning is to reinforce good habits and desired behavior patterns and to give plenty of practice to get rid of bad habits.
Branching scenarios work well for practicing tasks that require multiple steps and several consecutive decision points. The trainees’ active participation in decision-making pathways increases learner involvement and engagement, particularly for ‘dry’ topics like procedural rules and safety regulations.
In many instances, procedural tasks also require intuitive evaluation and critical thinking skills.
For example, a driver who finds herself in a risky situation will unconsciously assess the possible options, such as
- apply brakes, or
- check behind, indicate and swerve into the next lane or
- speed up to avoid danger.
After choosing an option, she will implement her driving skills, which are ingrained procedural habits, to handle the vehicle and respond appropriately. This is a simple example, but in some work situations, employees need experience in assessing more complex procedures and decision pathways.
SimTutor branched scenario planning tool
The next two examples explain how a well-researched branched scenario can be used to develop a complex set of procedural skills:
Procedural Skills Example 1: Transporting elderly and disabled clients safely
An organization providing transportation services to the elderly or disabled may use eLearning for training.
Branching scenarios could be used to teach drivers the correct procedure for securing wheelchairs inside the vehicles safely. The module may provide procedural practice, such as checking a passenger in a wheelchair, identifying whether or not there are any issues, and rectifying them; sequencing the steps to move the wheelchair correctly into the vehicle; and performing the steps to secure the wheelchair, after choosing the appropriate equipment.
Procedural Skills Example 2: Implementing a decision-making policy
Procedural learning can also be applied to the understanding of policies and their utilization in relevant day-to-day situations. The training content might be a policy manual. Employees must first become familiar with it and then start implementing it.
A branching scenario can be a successful design. It could provide a variety of experiences which allow employers to use the instructions and procedures in the policy for decision-making.
This will be more interesting and engaging than simply quizzing employees on policies. When learners can view the consequences of their actions/selections, they more likely to realize the value of a selected procedure or policy than if they were simply instructed to follow the rules.
In conclusion, complex branching scenarios are an excellent design approach to practice skills in challenging situations that require critical thinking or a keen familiarity with procedures, including the value of each procedure to the end goal. An interactive training design can make scenario-based learning more engaging and less overwhelming, no matter what the industry or nature of training content.
Try out the SimTutor branched scenario planning tool, free:
References:1. Koziol L.F., Budding D.E. (2012) Procedural Learning. In: Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA, https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4419-1428-6_670
2. Procedural Learning: Humans, Learning and Memory. Encyclopedia.com. 17 Sep. 2019 .
3.Kim Zimmerman, Procedural Memory: Definition and Examples, https://www.livescience.com/43595-procedural-memory.html, 22 February 2014