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Escape to the classroom: challenging learning environments

Paul Greatrix finds out about how escape rooms can be used in higher education
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Escape rooms can be great fun and really challenging. Some people hate them too of course and there is always the possibility of friendships ending in acrimony at the failure to exit in time.

But with the huge range on offer from science fiction to bomb disposal and from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter there does seem to be something for everyone.

Escape to victory?

I must admit though with all the Crystal Maze type excitement I wasn’t aware of the educational opportunities – it seems that quite a few teachers have been using escape room approaches in their classrooms for some time. This happens both at school and university with different levels of complexity.

Liz Cable, Senior Lecturer in Social Media, Digital Narratives & Transmedia Production at Leeds Trinity University, has been specialising in this area for some time and a few years ago wrote two linked blogs on what was then the HEA site, now Advance HE, in which she described her approach:

The first escape room style lesson I made was a simple team-building induction activity. I could only afford a few boxes and so I made a “one-box-wonder” – one box locked with one four digit padlock per team, along with five puzzles – one puzzle for each digit, and a fifth puzzle for the order – about a 30 minute game. The students loved it. Working in teams they quickly became so immersed in the puzzles that the noise levels rocketed, and there wasn’t one person just standing by. In fact this activity seems to appeal in particular to those students who are perhaps normally the most reticent in group situations, and it has proved to be a great leveller when the puzzles are sufficiently different to engage everyone’s skills.

Liz continues by describing the approach at Leeds Trinity University where they are:

using escape room style games as immersive scenarios for the classroom, as part of a series of “assessment centre” activities, as a successful playful alternative to library and study skills sessions run by the librarians, and as projects for teaching enterprise and employability skills. With the creation of “Trinity Games” we will shortly be providing work-based learning for students from all disciplines in creative, commercial, media-rich projects.

The format also works really well with crime scene apparently and therefore offers useful learning experiences for students on Criminology or Forensic Science programmes. Or indeed for those aspiring to university; as this report in the Yorkshire Evening Post notes the approach works well for sixth formers taking part in Leeds Trinity University’s summer programme:

Criminology programme co-ordinator Dr Sarah Barnes said: “It’s about good communication skills, team working, appreciating other people’s skills – things you really need if you get a job in the police or probation service.
“Both sets of students who have done it absolutely loved it. The guys on the second day didn’t actually manage to get out, but they still said it was a lot of fun.”
The challenge was based around a murder mystery scenario, with participants gathering clues for the evidence board as they worked together to find out the killer’s identity.

The great escape

A long piece in the Atlantic from a few years ago also explored the escape rooms phenomenon and their deployment in education. Whilst most of the discussion is concerned with escape rooms in the school level curriculum there is also some commentary on their use in higher education:

At the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Sherry Jones, a games-studies instructor, is admittedly receptive to games in education, but was especially impressed with how quickly escape rooms engaged students. She said they’re structured so that players instantly become active participants, with a vested interest in winning. “In games, you read materials and have a Q-and-A session,” she said. “There’s no hand holding here.” Jones believes that escape rooms will start spreading through education as a “way to make the classroom a lot more fun.” That, in turn, could create a stronger incentive for learners to engage with their studies. “Escape rooms in education is pretty new,” she said. “There aren’t many initiatives—apart from Breakout EDU, but that’s not a full-scale escape room.”

In part two of her blog Liz Cable goes on to talk a bit more about the direct educational benefits and outcomes and how to ensure that everyone involved understands the solution and participates in team discussions and team roles. She also notes that teachers

can help students uncover what they learned about themselves and others, what they learned about the subject of the game, and any assessment of the mobile and digital tools used. These games arouse learning on many levels, and create such an atmosphere of trust and collaboration that discussion afterwards is always lively.

Liz also has her own company which offers “immersive events including Escape Rooms, Live Action Role-playing and Murder Mystery Dinner Parties” all of which sounds like it will be helpful in the next HEBCIS return. Other commercial offerings are available too, such as this one

which includes this interesting zombie focused activity:

Welcome to Nano-Gen Enterprises. We’ve created Josie, a supercomputer that can cure anything by healing the body quickly. The problem is, she created a nano-virus that also destroys every part of the brain that makes us human. Infected people are vicious, hard to kill and, well, eat people. The media calls them “zombies.”
Before he died, Dr. Figaro Skaramousch left clues on how to neutralize the virus before anyone else turns. But, he had to hide and disguise everything so Josie couldn’t find them. You will have to solve the clues he left you and reprogram the nano-virus before it gets worse. Not hard enough? Well, as soon as you enter the room, you will be infected. You have 30 minutes to find the cure before the disease has done severe damage to your body, and you become a zombie.

It really does sound like escape rooms and the like can offer an interesting and exciting dimension to learning. Especially handy if you want to avoid becoming a zombie.

2 responses to “Escape to the classroom: challenging learning environments

  1. The challenge the escape rooms pose is the most interesting part of it. The fact that I get to solve puzzles with my friends is the most exciting thing about my weekend.

  2. “…we will shortly be providing work-based learning for students from all disciplines in creative, commercial, media-rich projects.”

    I really look forward to these innovations! You are cool guys – good luck in this matter.

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