Scenario-Based Learning and Behavior Change: A Brain Science Analysis

Key Stakeholders: Chief Learning Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers, Learning and Development Directors and Managers, Corporate Trainers, Content and Learning Product Managers, Leadership Trainers, Cybersecurity Trainers, Compliance Officers, Environmental Health and Safety Trainers, Sales Managers.

Why It Matters: People skills, compliance skills, safety skills and other skills involve choosing the right behavior in real-time or near real-time. It is behavior change that is the gold standard for Learning and Development, and many L&D vendors utilize scenario-based approaches to elicit behavior change. In this report, we use brain science to evaluate the effectiveness of scenario-based learning approaches in eliciting behavior change, and determine whether this approach helps employees to choose appropriate behaviors and to be more effective managers and employees.

Top Takeaway: Real-time interactive scenario-based learning approaches optimally elicit behavior change by directly engaging the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Non-interactive scenario-based approaches are effective for behavior change (although to a lesser degree) because they engage emotional learning centers in the brain that draw learners in, and make them feel like they are part of the training. Non-interactive scenario-based approaches are practical and cost-effective alternatives to real-time interactive scenario-based approaches.

Overview

When companies incorporate learning and development into their organization the goal is typically to educate and train employees on things like workplace rules and regulations, or on the product line that the company sells and maintains.

In other cases, the goal is to build behaviors.  These can range from people skills or leadership behaviors to reducing inappropriate workplace behaviors or “clicking” behavior that leads to cybersecurity threats, training health and safety behaviors, developing effective sales communication behaviors, and more. Although many L&D vendors market their offerings as ones that lead to important behavior change, often these claims are not tested or validated.

One approach to behavior change that is gaining in popularity in L&D is to combine scenario-based storytelling with microlearning and macrolearning. Microlearning is an approach to learning with the goal of conveying information about a single, specific idea in a compact and focused manner in a brief time period (usually a few minutes). The key is to provide information within the learner’s working memory capacity and attention span and to provide just enough information to allow the learner to achieve a specific, actionable objective. Macrolearning is the more traditional approach to learning in which multiple ideas must be trained and the learning process could take hours, days or even weeks.

Scenario-based storytelling is grounded in the fact that context-rich stories are engaging, and allow one to incorporate the nuance that is critical to behavior change. Scenarios often draw the learner in, and allow the learner to see themselves in the training. Sometimes a scenario is described using static pictures and text, whereas others use video-based presentations either with animation, live actors or both.

The objective of this report is to use a brain-based framework to evaluate the effectiveness of scenario-based learning approaches in eliciting behavior change.

A Brain-based Framework for Evaluating the Effectiveness of Learning Technologies

Learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science—suggests that there are three steps that must be followed to determine whether a learning technology is effective. These steps are summarized in the schematic below.

First, one must identify the knowledge or skill to be learned. Second, one must identify the learning system or systems in the brain that need to be engaged to optimally learn the knowledge or skill. And finally, one must evaluate the effectiveness of the learning technology to engage the learning systems in the brain identified in step 2.

Figure 1: Three Steps to Learning Efficacy

Learning Tasks

A common approach to categorizing corporate L&D tasks is as either fact-based or as behavior-based. Fact-based knowledge includes learning the rules and regulations, the product line, and the structure of the organization. Behavior-based skills include people skills, leadership skills, cybersecurity skills, safety skills, sales skills and more. Behavioral skills focused on what we do, how we do it and our intent. It is one thing to know “what” to do (fact-based), but something completely different (and mediated by distinct learning systems in the brain) to know “how” to do it (behavior-based).

For example, one may know what harassment is, but not know how to avoid eliciting harassing behaviors. Or one may know what email links to avoid, but may not know how to stop themselves from falling prey to a phishing attack. Finally, one may know what they should say to close a deal, but may not know how to say it.

The question at hand is whether scenario-based approaches to learning are effective tools for behavior-based skills training and behavior changes.

Learning Systems in the Brain

The brain is comprised of at least four learning systems. These include the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, and the emotional and experiential learning systems. Because the focus of this report is on computer-based training approaches, we exclude a discussion of the experiential learning system in the brain, and instead focus on the other three systems.

(Note: Readers interested in experiential learning approaches in corporate learning are directed to this report focuses on the use of immersive technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, in corporate learning.)

The cognitive skills learning system relies on the prefrontal cortex, is limited by working memory and attentional processes, and is the primary system in the brain for learning fact-based knowledge (the “what”).

The behavioral skills learning system in the brain has evolved to learn behavior-based skills (the “how”). The behavioral skills learning system links environmental contexts with actions and behaviors. Behavioral skill learning is mediated by the basal ganglia and involves gradual, incremental dopamine-mediated changes in behavior.

Interestingly, this system does not rely on working memory and attention. In fact, there is strong scientific evidence that overthinking it hinders behavioral skills learning.

Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. Behaviors that are rewarded lead to dopamine release into the basal ganglia that incrementally increases the likelihood of eliciting that behavior again in the same context. Behaviors that are punished do not lead to dopamine release into the basal ganglia thus incrementally decreasing the likelihood of eliciting that behavior again in the same context. Real-time feedback is critical because basal ganglia activation decays quickly (with a few 100 milliseconds) following initiation of a behavior. If feedback is delayed, even by a second or two, the dopamine will be released into the basal ganglia, but basal ganglia activation (driven by the behavior) will to so weak that no learning or unlearning will occur.

Figure 2: Cognitive, Emotional, and Behavioral Learning Systems

 

 

Critically, behavior skills learning is optimized when the learner trains on multiple different scenarios that differ qualitatively or in very nuanced ways. For example, harassment training scenarios could include those with a large or small group, a very ethnically diverse or homogeneous group, like-minded individuals or individuals with a broad array of beliefs. It is the breadth of scenarios that enhances generalization, transfer and long-run behavior change.

The emotional learning system relies on the amygdala and other limbic structures. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are less well understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but emotional learning strongly affects both cognitive and behavioral skills learning. Much like behavioral skills learning, emotional learning is enhanced when multiple situations and scenarios are trained.

Evaluate Learning Tool Relative to Task at Hand

The brain science is clear in showing that behavior change is optimized when the behavioral learning system is directly engaged. This system is directly engaged when learners are in scenarios in which they elicit behaviors that are followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. Unfortunately, few computer-based learning platforms incorporate real-time interactive feedback into the scenarios. Learners rarely practice the relevant people, leadership, cybersecurity, or safety behaviors and receive real-time reward or punishment feedback.

This begs the question of how well scenario-based approaches without real-time interactivity elicit behavior changes. The brain science suggests that these approaches can be effective (although not as effective as real-time, interactive approaches).

The critical factor is the quality of the scenarios and storytelling, and the level of engagement that they elicit in the learner. The key is to use storytelling to engage emotional learning systems in the brain. The more emotional systems are engaged, the more that the learner is drawn in, and the more that they see themselves in the training. Rather than directly engaging the behavioral system through behavior training, scenarios and the way that they draw learners in, engages the emotional learning centers that then indirectly engage behavioral learning centers. The behavioral engagement levels are smaller in magnitude, but high-quality scenarios prime the learner for behavior change, and when combined with targeted practice for learners following scenario-based training, can help employees to understand how to do the right thing from a people, leadership, compliance, or safety perspective.

As mentioned at the outset, behavior change is broadly relevant in many corporate settings including people and leadership training, cybersecurity, compliance, health and safety, sales and many other applications. If you can’t incorporate true real-time interactivity, then your best bet is to incorporate context-rich and engaging scenarios.

Recommendations

If your organization is shopping for an L&D vendor and your goal is creating real and meaningful behavior change in your organization, then we have a number of recommendations based on the science of learning.

  • Find a solution that uses real-time interactive scenario-based learning that directly engages the behavioral skills learning system. If you can’t or it is not cost-effective, then consider a non-interactive, scenario-based solution. They are practical and cost-effective alternatives to real-time interactive scenario-based approaches that prime the learner for behavior change.
  • If you decide to choose a non-interactive, scenario-based solution, then ask the vendor if they have objective metrics of the engagement elicited by the scenarios and ask to speak with some of the vendor’s clients. The quality of scenarios varies greatly across vendors, and a discussion with vendor’s clients will be informative. In addition, demo the scenarios yourself and have others on your team demo the solution. Make sure that you select a diverse group of individuals to demo the solution. Your goal is to evaluate the level of engagement of the solution as applied to your organization. This may not be the most objective and scientific approach, but it is still a useful exercise and can steer you toward the best solution for you.
  • Ask whether targeted and well-defined practice for learners is a part of the offering. High-quality scenarios draw learners in and engage emotional learning centers that then indirectly engage behavioral learning centers. This primes the learner for behavior change, but when combined with targeted and well-defined practice for learners following scenario-based training, can help employees to understand how to choose the right people, leadership, cybersecurity, or safety behaviors.
  • Probe the vendor about their roadmap. In particular, what are their specific plans with regard to real-time, behavioral interactivity in which learners generate behaviors that are rewarded or punished in real-time. Do they plan to incorporate behavioral interactivity into the scenarios? Tests and quizzes are good, but they are not the same as training actual behaviors. Make sure that the behavioral interactivity is in real-time. The brain requires real-time interactive feedback to directly train behavioral skills. Although interactive scenario-based applications may not be implemented today, make sure that they are on the vendor’s roadmap for the near future.
  • If a specific aspect of behavior change is critical to your organization, such as effective leadership or sales coaching, then explore offerings that combine virtual reality and artificial intelligence to provide real-time interactivity. With these offerings, learners generate behaviors within immersive scenarios and receive real-time reward and punishment feedback on their behaviors. This directly engages the behavioral skills learning system and trains appropriate behaviors. The variability in the quality of these offerings is large so you will need to evaluate each offering critically, but the promise of real-time, interactivity and the immersive nature of virtual reality may be worth the effort.

Conclusion

Behavior change is the gold standard for Learning and Development. People skills, compliance skills, safety skills, sale skills and other skills involve choosing the right behavior in real-time or near real-time. Many L&D vendors utilize scenario-based approaches to elicit behavior change. Real-time interactive scenario-based learning approaches optimally elicit behavior change by directly engaging the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Non-interactive scenario-based approaches are practical and cost-effective alternatives to real-time interactive scenario-based approaches, and are especially effective when combined with targeted and well-defined practice for learners following scenario-based learning.

Organizations seeking commercial reprint or usage rights for this piece or for a presentation or workshop based on this topic can contact Amalgam Insights at sales@amalgaminsights.com to discuss with our Director of Client Services, Lisa Lincoln. 

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