Training Simulations Engage and Empower Employees

Training simulations offer benefits to learners

Effective online training content has to meet learners’ needs while aligning learning with business goals. For many types of content, where the goal is to get employees to do something in a particular way, to do something better — or even to stop doing something — scenario-based learning, often referred to as training simulations, is an effective training tool. That’s because:

  • A short scenario or simulation of a situation that feels familiar and could occur at work makes the training highly relevant to the learner.
  • Short training simulations are interactive and engage learners in thinking about how they would behave.
  • Simulations provide opportunities for thinking and problem-solving while practicing. Learners can also analyze the outcomes of different responses to a situation.
  • Offering practice that mimics tasks learners will perform or situations they will face on the job empowers them to confidently address those situations in their work.
  • Practicing tricky scenarios through simulations provides a safe way to make and learn from mistakes.

Short simulations simplify design & development

One red, wooden block that branches out into two more wooden blocks, and those block branch out into three more. Reach row is connected to the next by white lines and they rest on a pale blue background.

Full-fledged branching scenarios and immersive simulations are an outstanding learning tool, but they can also be time-consuming and costly to develop. A growing trend toward short training simulations or what eLearning pioneer Clark Aldrich calls “Short Sims” overcomes this potential obstacle while preserving many of the benefits of simulations and scenario-based learning.

Short simulations that take the learner less than 10 minutes to explore are especially effective, as they easily fit into a learner’s workday and offer some of the benefits of microlearning, such as relevance, not requiring a huge time commitment or advance scheduling, and, potentially, on-demand availability and a mobile-first design. Learners are likely to engage with short, relevant content multiple times, which reinforces their learning.

Meet both learners’ and organizations’ needs

“Two paths have to converge,” Aldrich told Learning Solutions in an interview just before the release of his book Short Sims: A Game Changer in the summer of 2020. 

Those paths, according to Aldrich, are the learner’s needs and the squeeze of “realistic” development cycles. Aldrich told Learning Solutions that creating a Short Sim takes him a matter of several days, whereas creating a typical game, simulation, or eLearning course generally requires several weeks or months of design and development time.

Low barrier to entry

An additional advantage to short training  simulations is that they are relatively easy to create. Short simulations can — and should — be created using simple tools, such as a familiar eLearning authoring tool, according to Aldrich. This is a departure from more conventional simulations and scenarios, which might be created using a game engine or a virtual reality tool — tools which require specialized skill sets. 

The goal is to create effective, though somewhat minimalist, scenario-based learning. Examples of Aldrich’s Short Sims are available on his website. In addition to being easier and less expensive to create than a complex immersive simulation or game, a short simulation will be easier to revise or update. This is because of both the simpler creation process and the shorter, more narrowly focused content.

Elements of an engaging short simulation

When planning a short simulation, the instructional designer should choose a familiar authoring tool, not get carried away with trying to figure out how to create fancy graphics or animations. This shift away from immersive or highly graphical environments, which many learning designers may associate with scenario-based learning, does not mean reducing effectiveness or losing learner engagement, though. And content design best practices still apply: 

  • The first step is identifying a relevant and appropriate learning goal or topic for a short simulation. Knowledge of microlearning might be helpful here, as focusing on a single concept or narrow task will be more successful than trying to create a short simulation that accomplishes a more complex goal. An example might be effective hand-washing or mask usage — rather than an entire COVID-19 safety protocol.
  • Next, talk with subject-matter experts (SMEs) and narrow down the “right way” to do the desired behavior, as well as identifying common assumptions and errors and their potential consequences.
  • A decision tree or workflow graphic can be helpful in planning the questions and potential responses; designers will need to decide whether learners must commit to a single response or will be able to explore all of the options. Free and low-cost mind mapping tools, like Bubbl.us, are available online.
  • At this point, the designer is ready to storyboard the short simulation, sketching out simple graphics and including draft text for the best solution, as well as one to four distractors. 
  • Plan to include meaningful feedback for each choice — why it is a less-than-ideal solution or what could result from this choice, for example, rather than simple comments like, “That would be an acceptable choice, but option A is better.” Feedback provided throughout the exercise can reinforce and deepen learning — and therefore make the training more effective.

Short simulations fit easily into a training plan

Representative illustration showing branching lines connecting to icons of people.

Fitting short simulations into existing curricula and training plans is easy!

  • Consider using them as pre-training “knowledge checks” to assess learners’ level of understanding or as non-graded knowledge checks during learning, to offer opportunities to engage with higher-level learning (see Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy).
  • Providing multiple plausible responses allows learners to “try out” approaches in a safe environment, especially if they can easily try all the possible options and receive feedback as to why one response might be the recommended approach.
  • Short training simulations can be light on fancy design elements — even as simple as a series of multiple-choice questions based on a description of a situation.

Add short training simulations to your eLearning toolbox

Short simulations are a useful solution to many typical training challenges. Adding this flexible and engaging approach to your toolbox can improve training outcomes. And by providing learners with realistic practice, short simulations can drive better performance and boost important business goals as well.

About the Author

Pamela S. Hogle

Pam is a research junkie who enjoys sharing her eLearning expertise to help you make sense of learning science and technology. She has a knack for explaining technical solutions and providing data-driven articles and white papers that you can use to improve learner experience and create eLearning that sticks.
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Pamela S. Hogle

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