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Goal-Based Scenarios

By Randy Thomas

Goal Based Learning is based on the concept of learning a set of skills during the process of completing a specific goal. The learner will learn a set of pre-conceived skills during the process of attempting to reach a goal that is of interest to the learner.  This is based on the concept that we learn from our experiences and mistakes and that we learn best when in a natural learning setting as opposed to the artificial setting general implemented in our educational institutions.  For example, the concept of learning to speak French in order to spend a summer in France would be considered a Goal Based Scenario.  In this concept, the best way to learn French would be to be surrounded by native French speakers and the learner could learn from his/her attempts at communication.


It is recognized in Goal Based Scenarios that though the above scenario would provide the best learning scenario, most people would not opt to do so.  Humans desire to keep their mistakes more private.  For this reason, Goal Based Scenarios can use Computer Based Training as a great alternative.  Our French student could spend time listening to French conversations through a video feed and attempt to decipher what is being said.  They may choose to learn vocabulary through a computer based French tutor.  This would allow the learner to practice in some privacy before attempting live communications with a native French speaker.


In the report “Goal-Based Scenarios” by Dr. Roger Schank it is expressed that our natural learning tendencies, such as learning through experimentation, is repressed and the “natural learning goals are replaced by artificial ones.”    Dr. Schank states that learning is not intrinsic in our schools, but extrinsic.  Students are not taught to learn in order to expand their knowledge, but they are taught to learn because it pleases the teacher or to avoid ridicule or to achieve a good grade.  He believes the assessment movement that currently overshadows our educational system guides this. 


Using a Goal Based Scenario as a teaching and learning tool allows for more authentic learning.  Designers of learning should state their objectives in terms of skill the student(s) should master instead of topics of study.  The primary focus is on working toward a goal instead of students being singularly exposed to subject matter as separate entities.  Under the concept of Goal Based Scenarios a students could learn many different skills and about many different subjects as they strive to achieve a single goal that is important to the student.


Dr. Schank believe that courses need to be redesigned to allow students to pursue their own interest.  Once a student has chosen a topic of interest and creates a goal, he/she will then learn the various topics and skills they need to know during the pursuit of their chosen goal.  It is also important under the concept of Goal Based Learning that a specialist in the topic be available as a guide, tutor and advisor. 


On the surface one may believe that Goal Based Scenarios would support only “learning by doing”, but it does not.  Learning by doing is a wonderful way to learn if is would not cause harm to the learner or anyone else.  For example, you would not want to teach someone how to perform surgery strictly through learning by doing.  For this reason Dr. Schank supports the use of digital models and virtual training environments where appropriate.  Learning “on the job” in safe environments has draw backs as well.  A learner may only be exposed to a couple of different scenarios when learning a skill in an authentic environment, leaving them unprepared for the eventuality of other situations.  For this reason it may be best to organize a learning scenario which would allow the learner to experience a wide variety of possibilities.


If you would like to learn more about Goal-Based Scenarios in learning please visit:



Schank, R . (1992). Goal-Based Scenarios, Technical Report Retrieved April 21, 2011 Web site:


Schank, R., Fano, A., Bell B., Jona M., (1993/1994).  The Design of Goal-Based Scenarios. The Journal of Learning Sciences, 3(4), 305-345. Retrieved April 19 from Web site:

 Schank, R. (1996). Goal-Based Scenarios: Case-Based Reasoning Meets Learning by Doing.  Case-Based Reasoning: Experiences, Lessons & Future Directions, 295-347 Retrieve April 19 from Web site: