Memorable Learning with Case Studies and Scenarios

Storytelling is a simple and effective way to grab learners’ attention and immerse them in a topic.

As one of humanity’s original teaching tools, we have long relied on the use of stories, both anecdotal and imaginary, to impart lessons.

Think back on your knowledge of a major event like World War II. Does your mind pop out a laundry list of dates and facts? Or do compelling stories of loss, struggle, and victory come to mind? You may also think of iconic images from the period. Imagery certainly helps the story (and related details) stick.

Scenarios and case studies are excellent ways to bring storytelling into your learning environment. They are effective in live instruction (in-person or virtual) and eLearning. When possible, integrating media in the presentation of case studies and scenarios adds to their memorability.

Let’s explore how to use case studies and scenarios in instructional design.

Case Studies

Case studies demonstrate how content works in the real world. Subject Matter Experts are excellent resources for case studies, particularly when looking for examples of how processes and policies are used in the workplace.

For example, a large healthcare network needed an eLearning module on the consequences of billing fraud for management-level employees. To accomplish this, a SME gave the instructional designer a case study.

In this case study, a health system was accused by a whistleblower of Medicare and Medicaid billing fraud. The accusation resulted in the system being required to sign an arduous and costly five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) with the federal government to avoid disbarment from Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements.

The instructional designer took the case study and built it into a compelling learning story. She opened with an optional refresher on key compliance terms used in the study, then broke the content into three parts: The Case, The Penalty, and The Costs. She rewrote the content to make it read like a story rather than a dry file. She selected stock images to illustrate the story (landscape shots of a health complex, photo of a whistleblower complaint, courtroom, OIG logo, beleaguered office workers) and presented the study using voiceover with the main points appearing on the screen.

The adaptation of the text into a three-part story format, combined with voiceover and images, brought the case study to life. Learners were able to easily absorb the dire consequences of billing fraud, motivating them to carefully monitor billing practices in their own system.

Case studies are a terrific tool when content needs to be brought to life by sharing an example. If you have several to choose from, select the case studies that are memorable and meet your learning objectives. Also consider whether the case study should present a typical or atypical case.

If you have a case study that could be used as a scenario (if the case has decision points related to the learner’s role), you should decide whether the learner would benefit more from being a passive or an active participant in the case. If you want the learner to play an active role while learning, then scenarios may be your better bet.


Scenario-based learning has been described as a choose-your-own adventure for adult learners.

A scenario takes the learner through a situation that requires them to make decisions along the way. At every decision point, the learner receives feedback and direction, culminating in the conclusion.

A simple scenario is designed in a bottleneck fashion, with each choice and its feedback leading the learner to the next part of the story. In more complex scenarios, each choice may branch off into a longer series of choices that end in either success or failure (known as extreme consequences) or circle back into the main scenario story line. As you may imagine, scenarios can become very complex!

For example, a wholesale company wanted a training for field reps on a proven sales technique. The company asked the instructional design team to create an immersive eLearning course that would allow the reps to practice the technique in a low-stakes environment.

The ID team used the five steps of the sales technique to divide the scenario, putting decision points at three of the steps. In the scenario, the learner follows a field rep character through a sales call; the learner helps the rep respond to his prospect, choosing from good, better, and best responses at each decision point. By designing in the third-person, the scenario feels lower-stakes; the character (not the learner) faces the consequences of their decision.

With scenarios, the learner can have the option to replay, exploring the road not taken (the responses they didn’t choose the first time around).

Ideally, scenario choices should be challenging to the learner, offering feasible options rather than obviously right or wrong ones. When writing scenario choices, ask your SME for 2-3 typical responses to the decision point, along with an explanation of why one response is better or worse than another. If you have a generous SME, ask them how a typical response plays out in the given situation. The more details you have, the more realistic and effective the scenario will be!

Finally, feedback should be an extension of the scenario story, showing the learner the consequences of their choice rather than saying “Correct!” or “Sorry, but you made the wrong choice.” When scripting a scenario, try to keep the learner in the scene, rather than popping them in and out with disembodied feedback.

It’s worth noting that scenarios can be expensive to design and build, especially if the branching is complex and ambitious. Use of a scenario should be factored in the pricing of a project. For clients seeking a fast and easy version of scenario learning, consider mini-scenarios, short stories with a single decision point. Whether using mini-scenarios or full blown branching scenarios, the key to success is making the story engaging. Good luck!