eCoaching Tip 48 Using “What-If” Scenarios — Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities

June 16, 2007 Summer Tip #7 (Checkd Nov 27 2019)

eCoaching Tip #48 Using “What-If” Scenarios — Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities

This tip includes another fundamentals tip as part of our summer quick reminder series.

Fundamentals Tip – Timely Feedback on Assignments

How am I doing? And very specifically, what do you think of my intellectual work? This is a question that students anguish over. They worry about what you think, and about their grade, particularly if an assignment involved a great deal of creative thought, analysis, and writing or other productive work.

How can you give your students a self-assessment rubric so they can almost predict their grade?  How long is “average” feedback time for large assignments? Read more here about managing expectations, structuring assignments for fast feedback, and scheduling hints in eCoaching Tip 19  Feedback on Assignments: Being Timely and Efficient

Advanced Tip — Using “What-If” Scenarios — Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities

Picture this.  You are the manager of large grocery store, but the number of new food products and variants, such as yogurt cheerios, apple cinnamon cheerios, and multigrain cheerios seems endless. Oh, if only you had infinite shelf space.

Or try imagining a variation of our political and philosophical world. In alternate or counterfactual history, writers ponder scenarios that explore possible worlds if our familiar history was not so familiar. For example, some alternate world scenarios explore questions such as,  “What if Socrates had died before his philosophy was written down by Plato?” (Hanson, 2002)  or “What if FDR’s life or circumstances had been different in the 20th century? (Ward, 2002)

In the case of the store manager wistfully desiring a world with infinite shelf space, this wish has virtually been granted. This new world is persuasively described by Chris Anderson, an editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine in a 2006 book called, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.  Examples of infinite shelf space already abound, Anderson claims, for books, music, and other media, enabling marketers to profit from low-volume and unique, specialized interests. This phenomenon, Anderson argues, will reshape common culture into infinite niche cultures. How this will, in fact, play out is unknown, but even a partial reshaping of mass culture will have significant effects. One of the challenges that current marketers face is how to profit from this infinite shelf space and alternatively how to understand and shape consumer behavior.

Do you think that a scenario of infinite shelf space might have been the focus of a business course 15 to 20 years ago?  What types of scenarios might you want to use in your course today to encourage thinking in new ways and about new possibilities?

This tip examines some possible uses of “what if” scenarios in your course and when you might want to use them.  Let’s look at a definition first.

What are “What If” Scenarios?

What are “What if” scenarios?  “What if” scenarios are a specific type of a larger category of problem solving teaching strategies.  Other strategies include role-playing activities, simulations and case studies. These strategies all share a common characteristic of intense student engagement and student decision-making.  Problem solving activities encourage students to be involved and engaged on both intellectual and often, emotional levels.  When working on these categories of learning activities, students must evaluate and analyze data, make decisions, observe results and make decisions dealing with the consequences of earlier decisions.

Why Use “What if” Scenarios?

Here are three reasons for using “what if” scenarios in your course.

  1. Using “what if” scenarios encourages spontaneity and flexibility in thinking. When a group explores what-if scenarios, they are basically dealing with fictionalized events. One requirement for this fiction, however, is that once a context has been established for a scenario, the happenings within the event must have internal consistency.

In  “what if” scenarios there are seldom right or wrong answers, but rather possibilities.  Devising scenarios is relatively straightforward because all scenarios, real or imagined, depend on a set of assumptions.  Change the assumptions and you have a new scenario. Have Socrates die earlier and his philosophy is not written down.  Assume that you have fixed shelf space or assume that you have infinite shelf space. Assume that gas prices will be about $6.00 a gallon.  Change the assumptions and then examine the results.

  1. Using “what if” scenarios in your course often helps students develop confidence in what they know or don’t know. Exploring the assumptions behind the scenarios requires that students examine their own knowledge structures and communicate what they think and why.
  2. Using “what if” scenarios is often an excellent device for keeping the course content fresh for both faculty and students.

Getting Started with  “What If” Scenarios

How do you get started with scenarios?  Here is one way.  Search out case studies in your field and then change some of the variables and some of the assumptions.  In fact, taking a case study and then having the students identify the core assumptions and then develop a different set of assumptions or happenings can itself be an excellent collaborative learning activity.

If you want to control the design of a scenario, build a scenario around a change in the life event of an influential figure, such as a scenario in which Al Gore became president in 2004. Or build a scenario in which an influential figure in your discipline developed a significant insight earlier or later.  Any of these changes could result in what-if scenarios to  explore for a leadership course, political science, or economics.

Next Steps with Scenarios

Scenarios, while engaging and effective interactive teaching and learning tools, also present challenges in assessing what students have learned.  Planning and taking time for these activities often requires opening up and flexing your course design.

Other tips will take up these challenges.  For now, if you are using scenarios and would like to share your hints, or have other questions/comments, please post on the open blog.


Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more. New York, New York Hachette.  A 2004 article by Anderson on this phenomenon is at 

Boettcher, J. V. eCoaching Tip 19 (Summer, 2006) eCoaching Tip 19: Feedback on Assignments: Being Timely and Efficient

Hanson, V. D. (2002). Socrates Dies at Delium, 424 B.C. What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. R. Cowley, Berkley Trade; Reprint edition (October 1, 2002): 427.

Ward, G. C. (2002). The Luck of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. R. Cowley, Berkley Trade; Reprint edition (October 1, 2002): 427.

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita-Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2019