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The 4 Cs to Designing Meaningful Scenarios, Part 1: Choices

At its core, a common scenario isn’t that difficult to craft: tell a story, ask the learner what they want to do about it, and let them know how they did. To craft a meaningful scenario, however, there are four areas—four ‘Cs’ to be specific—that you need to strategically design.

  1. Choices
  2. Consequences
  3. Connections
  4. Corrections

Are you maximizing all of them? In this first article, we’ll focus on the first ‘C’: Choices.

Do Your Homework to Make Them Meaningful

Choices refer to the options a learner must select from as they respond to a decision point in a scenario. There are common issues on both sides of the Choice equation: the designer likely “creatively invented” several of the choices without informed context, and the learner sorted through the most unlikely or obvious choices using a process of elimination to decide how to answer. Does this sound like a meaningful learning experience?

To promote a quality cognitive experience in your scenario, the choices you design for a learner should contain a representative mixture of three things:

  • Common mistakes other performers would make in this same context
  • Choices that would be considered a good or “okay” move but are perhaps not optimal
  • Choices that represent the best way to handle the situation

If you aren’t sure what these items are, do your research with the audience, stakeholder, or SME. These types of well-designed choices are the ones that contain “nutritional value” for the learner, rather than the empty calories randomly generated thoughts from a designer provide.

Make Each Choice Sound Like the Best Idea

Remember that every commonly-made mistake by a learner is a well-reasoned one and usually well-intentioned. Connect with that reason or intention and write the choice from that perspective, which will make it come out sounding like a viable consideration.


In a scenario about potentially missing a deadline, one of the “common mistakes” may be to work longer/harder without communicating the issue in the hope that things will still work out on time.

  • Poorly designed choice: “Start working long hours to meet the deadline without communicating the potential risk.”
  • Well-designed choice: “Take ownership of your project and the work required, working longer hours as necessary to ensure the deadline is met.”

Notice in the poor example that it just sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Even though many people actually do this when projects are late, few are likely to select this option because it sounds negative. As you compare that choice with the better design, you can see how reflecting the good reasons people do it, and writing the choice that way, makes it sound much more viable. Learners who make this mistake are now likely to select this option and learn from it accordingly (see CONSEQUENCES in the next article).

Rid Your Choices of Obvious Answers

Many designers make common mistakes when writing question stems, choices, and distractors. Familiarize yourself with these common mistakes and filter them from your writing so that the learner can’t truly tell what the right thing to do is unless they KNOW it. Using negatively toned words, or words like “always” or “never,” are giveaways that this choice is wrong without the learner having to truly evaluate it.


Negatively toned choices are obviously wrong:

  • “Let your boss know it appears you’ve let them down and need some help.”

Use of the word “always” is obviously wrong. It makes the choice feel so black and white that it can’t be right:

  • “Communicate the risk immediately. All project risks should always be communicated the minute they are discovered.”

Use of the word “never” is, similarly, a giveaway.

  • “Never give up on your part of the project. No project deadline should be missed.”

Leave Your Bag of Tricks at Home

Trick questions have no instructional value and can sabotage the learning experience. The intention of trick questions is supposedly to make the learner “really think” – but you can do that by accurately representing the shades of gray, judgement, or complexity of a scenario through your description and meaningful choices.

As you can see, there is a lot more to crafting meaningful choices than just creative writing. Meaningful choices produce more meaningful learning experiences. In our next article, we’ll talk about the second ‘C’: Consequences.

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