Critical Choices And Decisions: Part 1

You’ve probably been there too: facing an eLearning course with a dramatic workplace scenario. Well-written. Crisp. Stripped from all the extraneous cognitive load. The characters represent your global corporate nature. The new manager character clearly has something at stake in the “difficult conversation” scenario. And they depend on you to select the correct answer from the six well-constructed multiple-choice options.

What’s Wrong With You?

Deep down you know there’s something wrong with you. Yes, with you! Not with the scenario. With you! Because deep down you know that you couldn’t care less about this character and the choice to make. Why is that? You were told they’re a struggling new manager and this decision can break their career!

Yeah…you should feel the weight of the choice on your shoulders! Instead, you’re staring at the six options…you forget about the character and start comparing the available choices. It’s probably the longest option. Or are they trying to trick you? A and C are very similar. It must be one of them. Option C has a perfect grammatical structure, but the last correct answer was C as well…maybe it’s a trap! So hard to decide.

You’re second-guessing your initial decision. It is so mind-numbing that your mind starts wandering…that finale you watched last night. Oh, that episode! Now, why do you care more about fictional characters on TV? It was dramatic. That was a bold choice. Then you remember Sophie’s Choice, the movie with Meryl Streep. She was outstanding. Sometimes we make hard choices in our lives with real consequences. Then it hits you: what if you are a character? In a scenario right now? And some learners are making your choice for you? Is it really your free choice?

Choices Or Decisions?

Enough mind wandering. Back to the scenario. The story above is made-up to illustrate something important about choice. Did you notice how we switched between choice and decision? These words are used interchangeably, but are they the same? Is there a difference? And does it matter for learning professionals?

Choices And The Curious Mind

A curious mind always starts with questions. This two-part article explores the choices and decisions we make as L&D professionals as well as the choices and decisions we allow learners to make.

Part 1: Engagement, Motivation, And Learning Effectiveness

  1. What’s a choice? How do we humans make choices?
  2. What’s the difference between a choice and a decision? Does it matter for learning professionals?
  3. Is providing choices to learners a best practice? Does it make learning more engaging, motivating, or effective?
  4. Can too many choices be distracting? Is there a limit that we should be aware of? Is choice overload real?
  5. Is there a relationship between anxiety and choices?
  6. What’s the difference between real and perceived choices? Does it matter in learning design?
  7. What’s the relationship between intrinsic motivation and freedom of choice? How do we apply that knowledge in learning design?

Part 2: Branching, Simulations, And L&D Strategies

  1. How do we handle the complexity that comes with branching as we provide choices to learners?
  2. Does branching in narrative provide more engagement at all?
  3. How to design branching? What tools can help learning professionals reduce the complexity of design?
  4. Simulations are driven by the choices learners make. How do we make sure they’re leading to effective learning and not frustration?
  5. Are the decisions and choices we’re making as L&D professionals today working? Or do we need to rethink our strategy?

Part 1: Engagement, Motivation, And Learning Effectiveness

What is a choice? What is a decision? And how do they impact engagement?

According to, a choice is “an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.” So, there’s an overlap between a choice and a decision. But what’s the difference then?

If you google this question, you’ll get thousands of articles that start like this: Choices and decisions are not the same! And then they take you down the rabbit hole and leave you more confused than ever. It is like googling game-based learning vs. gamification.

According to, “The decision is the act of or need for making up one’s mind.” The word “decision” derives from the word for “cutting off.”

Collins Dictionary has a slightly different take on choice. “The choice is the right, power, or opportunity to choose.” The word “choice” derives from the word for “to perceive.”

Process Vs. Mindset

A decision usually happens after a deliberate process often guided by strategies. Decisions can be used to eliminate some options (“cut off”) to choose from. Once a decision is made, the direction is set. Decisions are often process-driven. Choices are complex and require two or more viable options. We make choices based on values, beliefs, and perceptions (“to perceive”). It is more mindset-driven.

True Choices

In their paper [1], Bryony Beresford and Tricia Sloper point out an important factor of choice: “[…] there need to be two or more alternatives from which to choose. In addition, these alternatives should have some positive value; in this sense, a ‘choice’ between something which is definitely desired and something which is definitely not desired is not a true choice.”

In the movie (and book) Sophie’s Choice, a mother has a “choice” to decide the fate of her children. However, all choices would most likely lead to death. There is no desired outcome. Therefore, this is not a true choice.

Are Multiple-Choice Questions Choices Or Decisions?

These distinctions led me to wonder about multiple-choice questions. If making a choice is more of a mindset activity based on our values, beliefs, and perception, and we often just speculate what the correct answer is between the options, isn’t it more like a process-driven decision? With the goal of the process to pass the test, rather than to reflect on what we would do in situations like that? In other words, our decision-making strategy is about selecting the correct answer rather than making a choice of our own. Maybe that’s why I didn’t empathize with the manager in the scenario?

If the point of a multiple-choice question is to prove you can pick the correct answer, then it is most likely a process-driven decision you may not even remember a week later on the job. When a series of choices are in a narrative you care about, with consequences you see (immediate or delayed), the experience becomes more engaging, more immersive, and more likely memorable. For example, try these two different takes on earning enough money to survive: Spent and The Uber Game. There is nothing fancy about these two examples and yet they are engaging because they offer meaningful choices in context.

Paradox Of Choice

Do people like to have choices? Intuitively, you may think the more choices we give to people the more satisfied, engaged, and motivated they get.

The UX article “Abundance of Choice and Its Effect on Decision Making” [2] claims that people do like choices:

“Studies have shown that people do like to have choices. Decades of psychological theory and research have demonstrated that giving people the ability to choose increases their intrinsic motivation, perceived control, task performance, and overall life satisfaction and happiness.”

But the answer is not as simple as that. Think about the last time you researched an electronic gadget online. Most likely you ended up with a page with three options only. The one in the middle might have been highlighted as recommended. You had one with a lower price point and one with a higher price point. This is not an accident. Apparently, we are happier to choose from a limited selection rather than facing too many. This is the paradox of choice, also called choice overload. For me, it’s like standing in the cereal aisle in the grocery store…so many choices it actually hurts. Some even say it can be a source of anxiety.

To be fair, attempts of reproducing the paradox of choice theory have produced mixed results [3]:

“Mixed results: A meta-analysis incorporating research from 50 independent studies found no meaningful connection between choice and anxiety, but speculated that the variance in the studies left open the possibility that choice overload could be tied to certain highly specific and as yet poorly understood preconditions.”

However, a new meta-analysis [4], conducted in 2015 and incorporating 99 studies, was able to isolate when reducing choices for your customers is most likely to boost sales:

In a meta-analysis of 99 observations (N = 7202) reported by prior research, we identify four key factors—choice set complexity, decision task difficulty, preference uncertainty, and decision goal—that moderate the impact of assortment size on choice overload. We further show that each of these four factors has a reliable and significant impact on choice overload, whereby higher levels of decision task difficulty, greater choice set complexity, higher preference uncertainty, and a more prominent, effort-minimizing goal facilitate choice overload.

How Do People React To The Number Of Choices?

Imagine you go to a grocery store where they sell chocolate. There are 2 sampling stations. One has 30 different flavors of chocolate, the ot

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