Students’ Choice: Teaching Real-Life Decision Making with Branching Activities

You’re a graduate research assistant working in a lab. You enjoy the work, and some of the research you helped with gets published. There’s just one catch: the principal investigator left your name off the paper. What do you do? Quit the lab? Confront the PI? Go to the dean? Trash them on social media?

The situation may not be quite as exciting as the Choose Your Own Adventure™ books you read as a kid, but facing this real-life scenario and making decisions about what to do next is helping students in Ohio State’s online graduate pharmacology programs learn critical thinking and leadership skills they’ll use for years to come.

Branching activities – like this one in instructor Jennifer Plahovinsak’s PHARM 7562 Design and Management of Preclinical Studies class – take their name from the way the options split off in different directions like tree branches, guiding students through a series of choices to a final end point. These types of assignments typically conclude with students talking through their decision-making process on a discussion board or writing a brief reflection paper, said Steven Nagel, an instructional designer with the Office of Distance Education and eLearning.

“There isn’t really a right answer most of the time. It’s about the journey,” Nagel said. “The branching activities allow the students a chance to experience different pathways to learning about a given subject by providing them those different pathways they can explore.”

For Plahovinsak’s course, which covers best practices of pre-clinical trial sites and study management, quality and data management and leadership, Nagel and ODEE Educational Technologist Ross Tamburro collaborated to create five branching activities, touching on ethical issues such as uses of study data and conflicts of interest.

“It made (the students) think about things they had not considered before,” Plahovinsak said. “Once these situations are presented to them, they realize this could happen.” Branching scenarios translate a passive learning experience into a more active learning experience, Tamburro said. “It allows you to be able to put students in the hot seat of a real-life scenario. You can have students learning and applying at the same time.”

In another course, the capstone for the MS in Pharmaceutical Sciences, instructor Robert Weber worked with Nagel and Tamburro to create a more elaborate set of activities, some featuring video sequences that played out every step along the way. Students put themselves in the shoes of a pharmacy administrator preparing for an approaching hurricane or a medication safety officer talking to a pharmacist who made a medication error.

Nagel likens the activities to case study-teaching that is commonly used in in-person classrooms. “You can use branching activities to create interactive case studies in online courses,” he said. “You get a really nice, rich experience for the student that they share out, explaining ‘This is why I went to this end point.’ It gets them to think about the material in a deeper, more significant way.”

Plahovinsak found the activities created a sense of community among the 14 students in her online course.

“They worked through those scenarios by themselves, and then the discussion board allowed them to share those personal experiences, which helps to demonstrate the relatability of those exercises,” she said. “They’re going through a lot of the same courses together, so it’s nice to see them building relationships, and it gives them an opportunity to learn from each other.”

Learning how to make judgement calls – and how to face the consequences of one’s own choices – is a vital piece of educating students, one that’s particularly suited to this teaching tactic. Branching activities typically don’t allow students to go back and select a different option once they see how the scenario plays itself out.

“I feel like it’s really important to give students a good foundation before they leave and set them up with the resources that they need to succeed,” Plahovinsak said.

Nagel and Tamburro presented on the benefits of branching activities at ODEE’s InnovateX conference in May 2019 alongside Plahovinsak and Weber. Together they discussed their students’ responses to the technique, which were overwhelmingly positive. The instructors also thanked Nagel and Tamburro for their assistance in creating the activities.

“If you have to come up with this on your own, it can seem overwhelming, but if everybody can take their own piece of it, it makes it a lot less overwhelming,” Plahovinsak said. “Utilize your resources. Have a conversation with ODEE staff and figure out how they can help you. You’re not out in left field by yourself.”

Have a question about online education? Contact our distance education team.

Getting Started

Interested in building a branching activity for your class? Here’s how:

  1. Choose your scenario and your end points.
  2. Create a diagram of the activity, planning each decision or “branch” in between the start and end points.
  3. If needed, adjust your start and end points.
  4. Construct the activity in CarmenCanvas or a third-party tool such as Twine.

Learn More