In this article, we discuss the use of decision-making scenarios as the most important strategy to engage learners cognitively at a deeper level. It outlines strategies to help create effective scenarios, including making sure they reflect real-world challenges, using plausible incorrect answer choices, providing realistic consequences of decisions made and detailed feedback on why choices were correct or incorrect. The article also explains the importance of creating relatable characters and finding the right level of complexity in scenarios to challenge learners but not frustrate them.

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Two of my previous articles covered the idea of engagement in some detail.

  • The first one talked about the different types of learner engagement that there are, and what each one entails.
  • The second one discussed ideas to bring about and enhance emotional engagement.

In this third article in the series, I talk about… yes you guessed right. Cognitive engagement.

There are many ways to engage learners cognitively at a deeper level. But the most important strategy you might employ would be the use of decision-making scenarios. So let’s talk about these first.

A scenario, as you’re already aware, is a fictional situation that we place learners in, that requires them to make decisions. By doing this, we’re getting them to practice in a safe environment before they go out to implement what they’ve learnt in the real world.

Scenarios are one of the most potent learning tools available, but they’re also somewhat challenging to create. Here are a few strategies to help you succeed with your scenarios:

First, you want to make sure that the scenarios reflect real-world challenges that learners face, or are likely to face, in their jobs. Therefore, they need to be as relatable and as detailed as possible, and the obstacles they face should be realistic and relevant, without being too lengthy or cumbersome. The decisions learners are required to make should be the kinds of decisions you want them to make in real life.

An example I always like to use is workplace safety. People mostly disregard safety rules not because they don’t know what the rules are, but because they’re in a hurry, or have other priorities in mind, or in general, they aren’t thinking enough about the likelihood of an incident. Placing learners in a scenario can help them consider these choices in a fictional but realistic workplace setting. This helps them practice thinking about their choices and making decisions, so they are better equipped to make the right decisions when back in their workplace.

The incorrect answer choices (that is, the distractors) should be plausible, and not make learners immediately dismiss them as incorrect. Ideally, they should be based on common mistakes made by learners and on any misconceptions they’re likely to have. In our example, the scenario could be set up so the learner is in a hurry (their manager has called for an urgent meeting, or the like), and one of the choices could be to skip wearing PPE, just this one time (because of this urgent meeting).

Once they make a decision, that is, select an answer in the scenario, we must show them two kinds of responses:

  • A realistic consequence of the decision. In our example, if the learner decides to not follow the safety norm in a scenario, you could show them getting hurt. They forgot to wear safety shoes, so they step on a sharp object and get an injury. Depending on your circumstances and your organization’s culture, you can exaggerate or minimize the impact of the consequence, and even add a sense of humor if applicable.
  • Detailed feedback as to why their choice was the correct or incorrect one. Feedback for the choice made by the learner in our example would be that you should never skip wearing PPE, irrespective of how much in a hurry you are.

If you’re including characters in the scenarios, they need to be relatable too. Learners should be able to identify with them, either as themselves or their colleagues. This includes the description of the characters, how they look (if you’re showing them visually), the way they’re dressed (formal / informal / over-the-top / elegant, based on how people in your organization dress), their dialogs, their roles… everything.

So, how complex should the scenarios be?

A good approach is to start simple, and then let learners work their way up to more complex scenarios. By ‘simple’ and ‘complex’, I’m referring to the ease or difficulty of decision making.

We want the scenarios to be complex enough that they get challenged, yet simple enough that they don’t get frustrated.

This is referred to as ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), where the sweet spot is right between what the learner can do easily on their own, vs. what they can’t do even with support. In other words, it’s just the right level of difficulty for the learner, not too easy and not too complex.

As you would have guessed, ZPD is a moving target. As the learner acquires more skills with more practice, their ZPD expands, and hence the need for us to keep increasing the complexity of the scenarios.

How many scenarios should I include?

The correct answer is: As many scenarios as needed for them to acquire the needed skills. But I understand that there are practical considerations, in terms of resources and budget. So I would say look at the complexity of your topic and determine the number of scenarios needed. At a minimum, I’d recommend at least two scenarios per topic, if more is not possible.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are ways (other than scenarios) to bring in cognitive engagement in learners. Here are a few of them:

  • Prime learners for the learning experience. Metacognition refers to a critical awareness of one’s own thinking and learning. We can promote metacognition in learners by directing them to think about their learning. Some ways to do so could include:
    • Telling them to think about what they’re going to learn, and providing them with tips and strategies to learn effectively.
    • Allowing for reflection in scenarios. Once they make a choice, show them the consequence, and ask them to think about why it happened. Once they have drawn some kind of conclusion, only then give them feedback.
    • Making room for reflection at strategic points in the course. At the end of each topic, for instance, pause and have them reflect on what they’ve learnt so far.
  • Ask questions to get them to think critically. In our safety example, this could mean asking learners to think of 3 reasons why it is okay to bypass safety norms. And then, following it up with having them come up with counter arguments for these 3 reasons. By getting them to be on both sides of the argument, you develop their critical thinking abilities, and thereby increase their cognitive engagement with the topic.
  • Refer to what learners already know. Build on their existing knowledge. This helps learners become actively engaged in the learning process, rather than being passive recipients of information.
  • Towards the end of the course, get learners to think about when and how they will implement what they’ve learnt in the course. Get them to make it as specific as possible. This is referred to as Triggered Action Planning, wherein we are helping learners set up a super specific implementation plan.

By now you might have understood that while I’m talking about cognitive and emotional engagement separately, there are several overlaps between the two. Basically, when applying a strategy to improve engagement, you don’t need to be able to say which type of engagement it is. As long as you’re tapping into both types, you’re good.

So, these are my ideas for improving cognitive engagement in your courses. What would you add? I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Srividya Kumar, Co-Founder @ Learnnovators

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