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Decision trees vs. real life scenarios in e-learning

Decisions, decisions... When I was a kid I couldn't wait to grow up and decide things on my own. Now that I'm an adult I sometimes wish to be just a child and let others take responsibility for all the decisions that have to be made. I always think about the cost of a lost opportunity and the question about what if I chose something else lingers on the back of my mind every time I make a decision.

I secretly wish there was a magic button I could hit any time I want, which would send me back to start whenever I took a wrong decision about major things in my life.

Making the right choice at the right time is not easy, especially when facing serious decisions that have long-term consequences on our careers and on our lives, and that affect the people around us. And this is where decision trees come in handy.

So let’s talk trees... decision trees

A decision tree is a graph that uses a branching method to illustrate every possible outcome of a decision. The starting point is a problem to be handled and the answers branch out into possibilities. For every possibility there are one, two, or more consequences, and so on, until you get a tree-like structure with a generous crown. Most of the time it actually looks like an upside-down tree.

Decision trees are quite useful for emergency procedures. Take CPR for example. It’s the fastest and best way to know what to do in a crisis situation.

Based on this method of decision making, content creators for e-learning courses developed an even better way of teaching: real-life scenario-based learning.

Instead of being a graph, this is a visual story that takes you through the decision making process at a higher level. It’s more complex, easier to understand and easier to remember. This method uses characters, names and real situations. Think of it as a novel where each new chapter is determined by the answers you choose. When faced with a wrong decision, you get to go back and retake the story from the beginning and see what you missed out.

It is used as a teaching method because for every bad choice you get a constructive feedback, with resources and guidelines to what you need to read and do again in order to make a better decision next time. It’s a trial and error system... and learning, I would add.

Trial, error and learning lead to better decisions.

Choose a tree with more than just branches

So can’t we just use the decision tree in all situations? You could, but you should know that there’s a better “tree” in town. The branches have leaves and flowers and tell a memorable story when the wind blows through them.

So here are a few points on how to make the learning scenarios work in your advantage in e-learning courses, instead of simple decision trees:

  • Start with a crab walk

    The decision tree starts with the decision to make in mind and then branches out to all the possible outcomes. When designing real-life scenario-based content, you start with the desired result in mind and go backwards to build the scenario until you reach the starting point. The main focus is on learners’ behavior rather than ideas.

  • Build the characters as you go

    You don’t start a story by presenting the characters’ resume (no one will remember the details when they will actually need them). You should make a small introduction instead, and the rest of the information should be scattered along the story, at key moments. Just like in real life, when you meet someone for the first time you don’t see their resume; you find more about that person by interacting with them and see how they handle certain situations.

  • Tag the characters

    As the story unravels you can set small tags for characters, to remind learners who they are (some situations call for more characters and it might get a bit tricky to remember them all), e.g. “Pete, HR manager”. There are usually no tags for the decision trees I’m afraid; just blocks and lines.

  • Don’t tell me, show me

    The good and the bad thing about e-learning is that you are mostly on your own (think self-paced courses). So if you just read or listen to a piece of information, it might not make all that sense to you. But when you see an example (picture, graphic, avatar, movie) with characters put into a real-life situation, things tend to get clearer a lot faster. Visual messages always have the strongest impact on readers.

  • Set the pace

    The decision tree is by definition a straightforward technique. But with real-life scenarios the designer must keep in mind to keep a brisk pace, and try not to overload the learner with too much information. Two to three sentences should be more than enough. It’s a pretty important trap you’d want to avoid falling into if you don’t want your learners to get bored or confused.

  • Slip in a no-consequence decision

    This works for both methods. The purpose is to give those involved in the decision making process a small break, especially when it is used in complex analytics and stressful situations. Sometimes, it’s ok to have no serious consequences for a decision and the final outcome remains unchanged.

  • Get creative

    When you create a story line you get the chance to be more creative than do this or do that. Decision trees are a little too dry in this area, it’s either black or white. Branching scenarios on the other hand allow you to slip some shades of gray, or even some bright colored options.

  • Provide feedback

    The decision tree has all the right answers in it. It just guides you towards the decision you have to take depending on the actions taken for each level. The learning happens when proper feedback is offered for each scenario sequence. In real life, every action has a consequence. In scenario-based learning, if the learner makes a mistake, the feedback they get will help them reevaluate their thought process. Therefore, when the learner goes back to the problem, they'll take a more informed and appropriate decision.

Closing thoughts

Nowadays wherever there is information to be taught, e-learning is most probably involved. It’s cost efficient, flexible and offers endless possibilities. So real-life scenarios put through an