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  • Writer's pictureKaruna Sanghvi

Using Decision Trees to Enhance Scenario-Based Learning

As an instructional designer focused on creating impactful learning experiences for adult professionals, I often turn to scenario-based learning approaches. Scenarios that immerse learners in realistic situations provide meaningful context and opportunities to apply critical thinking. However, scenarios alone don't necessarily push learners to deeply engage with the complexities of decision making. This is where decision trees come in handy.


Integrating decision tree based activities into scenario-based learning can take simulation to the next level. A decision tree presents a series of options branch off at decision points, allowing learners to explore various paths and outcomes. Learners must analyze information, weigh alternatives, and make judgment calls while working through the tree.


At every decision point, the user is presented with a dilemma card with at least two possible responses. In case, you make a more complex decision tree, you can integrate four or five options, depending on the scenario. It is important to remember that you will have to work on an end point for each path that the learner navigates.


If your decision tree scenario is simple, then it will run into an end path for user. However, if there are complex options with many possible right answers and paths, then each path will enter a new scenario or integrate with the main scenario at a future point.


Mapping these paths requires skill and deeply analytical thinking. Working with an excel sheet is the best option when mapping a decision tree scenario. It allows you to create an option in each cell and navigation pathways easily. However, you can use other software to create tables. Make sure to highlight each path and cells therein with a different colour so that you don’t get lost.


When designing a decision tree with several pathways, it is a good idea to involve a developer before finalising the design. An instructional designer is often limited by the software you use for production. Most authoring software allow you to easily create several pathways but complex scenarios are a challenge unless a developer can program or use a code.


Here's an example of how I have effectively incorporated decision trees into scenario-based corporate training:


The scenario presents a sticky business situation where a long-time client makes an unreasonable demand. There are financial, legal, ethical, and customer satisfaction factors at play. Trainees assume the role of the account manager and navigate through a decision tree as the scenario unfolds.


At designated decision points, they choose response options that shape how the situation develops. Options include actions like refusing the demand politely, pushing back more firmly, stalling, negotiating, conceding, etc. Each path leads to various consequences and new information that informs the next decision.


The decision tree is intricate, with multiple branch points and over 30 total outcome variations. This encourages careful consideration of the subtleties. Learners may re-play to explore alternative paths. Seeing how decisions cascade and comparing outcomes side-by-side enhances understanding of the complex dynamics involved.


Debriefing questions prompt learners to reflect on their decision rationale, emotional responses, and lessons learned. Additional resources provide research on real-world statistics and case studies to further connect the experience to practical application.


The immersive, branching decision tree structure requires learners to truly grapple with the ambiguity and risk inherent in navigating difficult situations. Information revealed at each stage eliminates hindsight bias, so trainees feel the pressure of making tough calls with limited data. This active experimentation and discovery cements learning in a way that passive information delivery cannot achieve.


Decision trees lend themselves nicely to scenario-based learning approaches. Thoughtfully integrating decision points and variable outcomes can turn simple scenarios into truly powerful simulations that develop the critical thinking and decision making skills professionals need to succeed when faced with multifaceted real-world problems.

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