Story-Based Self Tests as an Instructional Tool

by Nick Iuppa (c)2012, co-author of End to End Game Development

A client had recently developed an advanced simulation system to provide stress reduction training for the military. The idea was to provide trainees with a set of concepts and tools that would:

    • Describe the benefits of stress reduction
    • Demonstrate methods that could be used to combat stress
    • Strengthen stress reduction techniques in exercises based on the methodology
    • Transfer to the real world through simulations of high stress situations that would require the use of these stress reduction techniques.

The simulations were developed and proved to be effective, but there was not enough transfer of some very important basic concepts. Developmental and alpha testing suggested that what was needed was a set of self-tests that could be employed at the end of each unit to make sure that the trainees really mastered the basic concepts and methodology. The self-test mechanism also needed to provide remediation for misconceptions, and poor performance.

Because the simulation itself was classic First Person Training, we suggested that we create a set of story-based self-tests that enabled the trainees to review the concepts by explaining them to another person, a fictional member of their military unit.

The story logline: in preparing to enter an upcoming difficult assignment, a new guy is beginning to experience a meltdown due to stress over the upcoming military operation.

By making the subject of the exercise another person, it didn’t matter whether the actual trainee was male or female. Also, because the subject of the exercise story was another person, all the important causes of stressors that might transfer from personal life could be invented for our character to make sure that the most common outside causes of stress could be presented without implying that these were the results of actual situations in the trainees’ lives.

For example a common cause of stress in soldiers on assignment is problems with a spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend back home. This stress can combine with other stress factors at the start of an op and contribute greatly to failures due to stress during the actual operation. Because our “hero” was a fictional character we could give this “new guy” relationships and even personal problems that would fill the requirements we wanted to test without implying that the trainee had these specific problems.

In order to do this we created a brief Character Bible for the new guy. We developed a backstory that would give us details and a framework for structuring the behavior and motivation of the “hero” of our self-test. Among the many benefits of this approach were

  • Giving the character a name, age, level of education, etc.
  • Assuring consistency of the responses we created
  • Providing a good list of story-based motivators and de-motivators
  • Providing historical background about relationships to impact actions

The idea that the character has a name seems obvious enough, but maybe not as the self-tests are being written. We went through several drafts and even some developmental tests calling our hero the new guy, and then the kid. Our test audience didn’t like those names and instead suggested we call him your buddy. That got old pretty fast too. When we decided to call our hero Chris the writing certainly got easier. It also eliminated the possible misconception that stress problems only happen to young soldiers or military personnel on their first assignment.

What about motivators and de-motivators? One of the exercises called for Chris to combat stress by selecting positive images that he could use to overcome negative feelings. Our mini-character bible gave us enough backstory to know that Chris had a dog, a happy home life with a positive attitude about his parents and a good feeling about the house he grew up in. So we could point to pleasing his dad (for example) as a positive motivator. Chris had a fiancé and plans for a future with her: more positive images that we could draw on in creating exercises about Chris.

The structure of the test content was basic instructional design. Make the test items match the behavior to be learned. So ordering exercises were used when appropriate, matching exercises when that was the right behavior, identification exercises when that was the activity to be simulated, and of course, multiple choice exercises when a discrimination problem was presented.

The learning system employed a talented narrator to provide the content of the presentation, and we used that same narrator to tell the story of the self-tests, ask the questions, and provide feedback. The feedback always explained not only what was right about the correct answer, but also what was wrong about the other choices. We made it a point to present choices that addressed all the important misconceptions about the content, and made sure we always told why a common misconception was inaccurate.

By scoring the self-tests we established criteria that determined pass/fail. Pass meant going on to the next lesson, first fail meant taking a second self-test, and second test fail meant going through the lesson again.

In the end, the self-test development effort meant creating two sets of self-tests for each of the nine units of the simulation lesson. The same self-tests were then evaluated with members of the trainee population and revised based on their feedback. We also adjusted the point value assigned to each question so that the participants’ final score represented an accurate assessment of their success at grasping the content of the lessons.

In sum, creating narrative and character-building story elements helped user immersion into the simulation. Learning was improved through the combination of solid instructional design and an understanding of how storytelling can aid training simulations.

For more “tales from the trenches” like this one, check out our books End to End Game Development and Story and Simulations for Serious Games, both published by Focal Press and available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

1 comment so far

  1. […] a brand-new article composed by co-author Nick Iuppa exclusively for this site, on some of the work he’s been […]


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