How do I create problem-based (PBL) scenario?

Scenario-based learning (SBL) uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based Learning.

How do I create problem-based (PBL) scenario?

February 26 2020

Scenario-based learning (SBL) uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based learning. It normally involves students working their way through a storyline. Students must apply their subject knowledge, critical thinking and problem solving skills in a safe, real-world context.

How do I create problem-based (PBL) scenario?

In an interactive scenario, the individual is taking charge of the scenario, and takes responsibility for the actions and consequences. The scenario should start with, you are ‘the apprentice engineer’, ‘the resident doctor in an emergency’ or ‘the telephonist taking calls’. This approach increases personalization and identity with the scenario. The learner’s role may change during the scenario, as you choose.

Hypotheses or thoughts don’t count, because only an action can move the scenario forward – thus the term active learning. For example, in a physician scenario where the challenge is to make an accurate diagnosis to guide treatment, we could offer various diseases that match the symptom pattern (simple matching task) or, using action-driven choices, require the learner to prescribe a course of treatment for what they deduced from the symptoms to be the correct diagnosis.

If the symptoms listed were for a viral infection, but the student prescribed antibiotics (for a bacterial infection), it becomes clear that the student’s knowledge gap is in diagnostics, not in the course of care prescribed.

On Choices

In many real-life situations making, there will be a number of possible choices to make. Some people will make excellent choices, some good choices, and some poor choices. Because real-life situations can be complex and hurried, poor decision making is common. In a written scenario, those complexities and pressures are absent, so the correct choice is easier to make, while less good options/choices are easily ignored.

Now imagine the correct decision represents the player with the ball, and the learner in the scenario is an opposition player. As the author, you can run interference by introducing a secondary character to cut across the scenario, making it more difficult to identify the correct choice. A classic example where you can run interference, is a visit to our family doctor with a sore throat. He may examine you, ‘reassure you, and send you home’. Usually the doctor is right, it’s a small symptom, he sees a bigger picture, and we usually get better anyway! However, in a virtual scenario, a learner will be suspicious of this route, thinking it will lead to a bad outcome, so ‘reassure and send home’ isn’t really an option.

Plausible Errors

In creating wrong options, it is important to make them plausible. If every wrong choice is an obvious error, learners will avoid them and learn little or nothing.

Covid-19 Example. You wake up in the morning and feel a little sick, e.g., headache and sniffles. You should… A. Go to the emergency room. (obviously wrong) B. Check your temperature and stay home. (plausible but wrong) C. Go to work and see how it goes (plausible but wrong) D. Stay home and contact your healthcare provider. (correct choice).

In this example, the learner is presented with two plausible courses of action, both of which seem reasonable but, given best practices, are incorrect.

Providing reasons in the text which guide learners towards an option which is technically incorrect, but which can be made to seem plausible. It is a similar issue to running interference but with a different solution. Given a choice that often happens in real life, but is nevertheless against best practice, the learner when considering an issue, will often take the most technically correct choice. For example, in the following food poisoning scenario, the question is, does the GP test for a ‘notifiable’ (serious) food poisoning agent or not? Experience shows that GPs will test perhaps half the occasions in that similar scenario, but learners will ALWAYS test! So, the learner must be led into thinking ‘not testing’ is a realistic option.

Steps to Create an Active Problem-Based Learning Scenarios

Step 1 : Identify the learning outcomes
  • Identify what you want the students to achieve on completion of the scenario, and then work backwards from the learning outcomes to create the situation that will lead to the learning.
  • Use critical incidents and challenging situations that have occurred in your area.
Lead with the trigger event or situation:
  • As we create a scenario, Identify decision points and key areas for feedback and student reflection.
  • Creating a storyboard is an effective way to do this.
Step 2: Decide on Game mechanics

Add time or points

Step 3:Create an ideal pathway
  • This does not have to be the only way through the scenario, but will determine the size of the scenario and the optimal path through the scenario.

Draw arrows between the boxes to show the direction the scenario is going. These arrows can be simple and flow forward from one box to another, or in branching scenarios they may be more complex and lead backwards, in several directions, or to dead ends in the scenario. Through this process you’re creating a mind map of your virtual scenario. A simple example of this can be seen below (Figure 1) where the scenario is linear and consists of 6 boxes or pages.

Insert additional consequence nodes at decision points of interactivity (choices) on the main path.

Your scenario may be a straightforward linear story, in which case this step is not needed, you can move to the next section (4.

Your scenario may include full branching pathways that represent the various paths within the scenario, and the choices connecting them, and you can start creating these now. These pathways may become alternative poorer choice pathway, which nevertheless induce corrective actions, so that the pathway re-joins the ideal pathway further on.

Alternatively these alternate pathways may become virtual dead ends; if for example the consequence of your action is catastrophic to the continuance of the scenario, the learner may need to return to where that option was taken. In this circumstance, the pathway may return to the option point which initiated this choice or, as with games, they must restart the whole scenario.

For the author of a VS creating steps of interactivity, this is perhaps the most interesting task, because this is where an already interesting story can really come alive. It is a step that embodies creativity, imagination and even perhaps a little ‘trickery’.

Add surveys or questions (MCQs, matching items, SBAs)

Mazetec is the only scenario authoring system that has a complete built in survey system and game engine in the virtual scenario authoring tool.

You may include (Multiple choice questions, open-end questions, and surveys with the Form node as interactive elements.

The addition of questions will allow the learner to be more engaged and tested whilst going through the scenario.

Peer review your scenario:

  • Ask colleagues to work through the scenario to ensure that it flows in the way you expect, and achieves the outcomes you intended.


  • Are the outcomes based on skills development or problem- solving?
  • Is it difficult or unsafe to provide real-world experience of the skills?
  • Do your students already have some relevant knowledge to aid decision-making?
  • Do you have time and resources to design, develop, and test an SBL approach?
  • Will the content and skills remain relevant for long enough to justify the development of SBL?

Quick Tips for Authoring Virtual Scenarios

  • Ensure there are direct and real consequences for every action the learner takes.
  • Allows learners to influence outcomes in the affective domain.
  • Encourages critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Allow risk-free exploration of outcomes.
  • Challenge the learner without overwhelming their mental capacity.
  • Include as much interactivity as possible.

For the author of a VS there are four main objectives when creating their scenario:

  1. Create a scenario that is engaging, so that ‘new learning’ is memorable
  2. Create challenges in the scenario that mimic the challenges of real life or the workplace
  3. Create a scenario that mimics not just the real-life challenge but also the tensions, distractions and uneven issues that build up pressures that can make real-life decisions more difficult.
  4. Create ‘interactivity (choices or questions) where possible; where the learner has to consider what to do or think about possible solutions to a situation. The situation should provoke the learner to think through a number of solutions or options which become clearer as they move forward in the scenario or if thinking about branching scenarios the options should be attractive enough to ensure that learners are often drawn to the wrong choice; errors are more memorable.
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