On the Question of Whimsy in eLearning Scenarios

When you create an elearning scenario, you’ve typically gone through a number of steps first. You’ve thought about:

  • The skills learners need (what they need to be able to do)
  • The activities that will help learners develop these skills
  • The scaffolds that will help support these activities

Your next step is to develop a narrative or story to tie these activities and scaffolds together.  Should this story and the characters in it be highly realistic in their look and feel? What’s the impact of a more cartoony setting? What if you used a story that takes place in a different world where you need to use the same problem-solving skills and tools but the characters are fantastical and the stakes, in addition to including real-world stakes,  include mythical ones like slaying a dragon or finding a treasure? Is there a value in creating some distance from the real world?

On the one hand, research has shown that high levels of authenticity in learning scenarios result in better retrieval from long-term retrieval memory (Thalheimer, 2009). As noted by Thalheimer (p. 10), “[W]hen learners encounter real world cues on the job, they will be successful in memory retrieval to the extent that they have practiced retrieval with cues analogous to those on the job.”

On the other hand, are there pitfalls to highly realistic scenarios? Do we run the risk of locking learners into a less receptive state because the scenario triggers emotions like fear of failure and a desire to second-guess choices to do what’s approved of versus what’s needed?  Does too much realism  deprive us of a sense that we’re free to experiment and fail as we learn? Would  a less realistic setting help learners to think outside of the box?

I think that the answer probably lies in the execution of the scenario and the debriefing that’s associated with it. Highly realistic scenarios can be made less stressful  by allowing learners to gain appropriate constructive feedback at each step where they might stumble, with the option to repeat scenario steps as they desire. But whimsy can also be an option if you provide learning cues that are sufficiently realistic and tied to what needs to be done in a real world setting. You may want to build in more opportunities for reflection to allow learners to connect the scenario setting to their real world setting to allow them to construct the most helpful mental models. Under the right circumstances, the fun, gameful aspect of the scenario might create a more more lasting impression.

Of course, since the whole point of developing elearning scenarios is to develop a learner-centered experience, feedback from your target audience is the ultimate test of whether the execution/debriefing works or not. Involving learners early and often is the ideal design/development process.

After saying all this, I am curious about learner preferences among instructional designers and educators who might read this blog, so please participate in this single question poll.

Go to poll: Do you prefer realism or whimsy in elearning scenarios?


Thalheimer, W. (2009, April). Using Linguistically, Culturally, and Situationally Appropriate Scenarios to Support Real-World Remembering. Retrieved June 15. 2011, from


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