The value of scenarios in genetics education

This post is an excerpt from one of my contributions to a chapter in the recently-published collection Genomics and Society, edited by Dhavendra Kumar and Ruth Chadwick, published under Elsevier's Academic Press imprint. My colleagues Michelle Bishop and Sandie Gay and I contributed a chapter about how to promote learning about genetics and genomics with professional but non-scientific audiences.
Image of the book 'Genomics and Society'


Stories are like flight simulators for the brain.

Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick (2007) p. 213

When a clinician begins a discussion with a patient about a genetic condition and when an educator initiates a debate about the ethics of genomic testing, the conversations that ensue are rarely simple and uncomplicated. For example, they are likely to require some communication about a number of key scientific concepts, about the processes involved in the testing and the use of genomic information, about values and priorities, and about the implications for other people. As we saw in the case of Angelina Jolie [discussed elsewhere in the chapter] cases involving genetics and genomics, by their very nature, are multi-layered and complex. This is one good reason why it is very valuable to use scenarios in education and training about genetics and genomics.

Scenarios add context and detail that make content relevant and relatable. When done well, scenarios help learners to visualize and put themselves into a story in a way that can help to forge connections with important knowledge. Scenarios encourage learners to apply their understanding to the real, multi-layered, ‘complex’ challenges of genetics and genomics 1.

So what might this look like in the teaching of genetics? Here are a few suggestions.

Simple scenarios for application of the basics

Short patient scenarios or family histories can form the basis of exercises that can be used to encourage application and grasp of some of the fundamentals of genetics. Given the narrative detail provided, learners can be invited to apply their understanding of inheritance, of risk and probability, and of how to create a formal family history pedigree, for example. This initial, practical application of these ideas and habits can help to foster their retention more than if they were simply or only ‘transmitted’ or described in the abstract.

Challenging scenarios for decision-making

Scenarios that invite people to not only apply some genetic knowledge but also to conduct some analysis of the scenario and make decisions or recommendations about the scenario can really push people to learn a lot. Such scenarios can be developed with a little more effort than that required to construct basic patient narratives or family histories. Ideally, they should push the learner to grapple with some grey or contentious areas and either recommend a decision or choose from a set of plausible decisions.

A useful tactic when creating challenging, decision-focused scenarios is to introduce options or actions which are plausible but ultimately wrong or inappropriate. Scenarios should not necessarily show or push learners to what good practice looks like; they can draw learners into valuable learning by showing or spelling out the consequences of making wrong or even catastrophic decisions—the kind of outcomes that your learners will be motivated to avoid.

A couple of hours spent writing challenging, decision-making activities that help people learn through experience can be rewarded several times over. As soon as your scenario is sufficiently detailed, it is likely that it can be interrogated from a number of different angles and reused or revisited as you and your learners move on to other topics.

The characteristics of a good scenario

What does a good challenging scenario look like? Ideally, it should:

  • be sufficiently concrete; for example, using realistic names, dates, ages, and locations;
  • contain some telling human detail; for example, about behaviours, feelings, and conversations;
  • offer plausible options for the learner to select from and provide well-crafted, detailed feedback about the consequences of each option;
  • draw the learner into a situation which requires some weighing up of alternatives or analysis of grey areas where they have to draw on a range of knowledge or skills.

A good decision-making scenario might be extended further by being turned into a staged or sequential scenario in which, much like in the real world, not everything happens or is discovered at once. In sequence, learners can be provided with parts of the story and invited to make decisions and anticipate consequences. The consequence of those decisions (right or wrong) can then be explored further as more detail is provided and new decisions need to be taken. Wrapping this series of analyses and decisions around a single, developed narrative provides learners with a strong set of hooks into the knowledge we wish them to acquire and retain.

Starting a teaching session with a scenario

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that you should start a teaching session (whether face-to-face or online) with a challenging scenario before you have covered the information that needs to be known to successfully deal with the scenario. However, this approach has many benefits and several studies suggest that when we challenge learners first and then provide instruction, we can improve their ability to apply what they have learned to other situations 2.

Rarely will you encounter a group of adult learners who all have exactly the same level of knowledge about genetics and genomics. To cover everything before you let your learners loose on scenarios might both overwhelm some of your learners with new information at the same time as patronizing or boring others with material they already know. So why not throw them in at the deep end with a challenging scenario?

Starting with a scenario can achieve a number of things:

  • It can help learners to determine the level of their pre-existing knowledge.
  • From the mistakes they make, it can show learners where they need to focus.
  • Carefully crafted feedback supplied in response to mistakes can foster understanding of the basics.
  • A concrete, detailed narrative can provide learners with a memorable set of hooks on which to hang the more abstract information that may follow in the teaching session.

As the instructional designer Cathy Moore writes: “If you want to make sure everyone has the same basic knowledge before continuing, design activities that let people either prove they know the basics or discover the basics through feedback” 3.


  1. Bean C. The accidental instructional designer. Alexandria, Virginia: ASTD Press; 2014. p. 133_143

  2. Clark RC, Mayer RE. Scenario-based e-Learning: evidence-based guidelines for online workforce learning. San Francisco, California: Pfeiffer; 2012.

  3. Moore C. 5 quick ways to pull learners into a course. http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2014/05/5-attention-grabbing-ways-to-start-a-course/. [Last accessed 08.02.16].


Header image CC BY Indi Samarajiva

Stuart Sutherland

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