Learning from Escape Rooms
By Althea Need Kaminske
You open the desk drawer to find a box with a lock on it. You look at the timer on the wall - only 4 minutes left. How will you figure out the combination in time? It takes 4 digits… wait. Didn’t you just solve a math problem that had a 4 digit answer?
Escape rooms have become increasingly popular over the last decade. People sign up to be locked in a room and timed on how fast they can solve puzzles and riddles, usually following a narrative thread. The interactive format and team based problem solving has made escape rooms popular with teachers as well. Escape rooms offer a creative way to get students engaged with material and excited about concepts and problem solving.
This past week I had the opportunity to work with K-12 math and science teachers at a workshop focused on designing collaborative hands-on lesson plans. We used escape rooms as an example of how to use concepts from across disciplines to structure activities. On the first day of the workshop we had the teachers work in teams to solve the mystery of what... or who... started a major fire in California. I was excited to go through the escape room with the teachers because I see some cool opportunities for retrieval practice and concrete examples in escape rooms. They can be a lot of work - the escape room that we designed for the teachers took regular meetings over a few months to put together - but they can also be very rewarding. After the teachers went through the escape room I shared a few tips from learning science with the teachers on how to get the most out of the escape rooms, and escape room games.
Debrief after the Escape room
It’s important to connect the experiences students had in the escape room game back to what they learned in class. Ask how the material they learned in class helped them solve the problems to leave the room. It may seem obvious to you exactly how the mad scientist scenario you came up with was a perfect example of how to use the scientific method - but it may not be obvious to them. Students may focus too much on the surface details of the escape room example and not notice the important structural details. Part of what makes escape rooms so attractive as a classroom activity is that students can get so invested in the game that they forget that it’s supposed to be educational. That can be fine in the moment, but make sure afterwards to help them connect the dots between what was presented in class and what happened during the experience.
Give hints… but not too many
Another challenge that might come up when using escape rooms as a classroom activity is students getting stuck on a problem. They may not be able to recognize what skills they need to use to solve a problem or riddle. Having some challenging questions or problems is fine, good even, but only as long as students are reasonably able to solve them. If they get stuck for too long the activity becomes frustrating and counter productive.
Commercial escape rooms get around this in two ways. First, they make all information readily available. They can’t rely on people coming into their escape rooms with prior knowledge of Edison, the Cold War, or whatever else their scenario is based of off. For teachers, however, giving students the opportunity to recall material in a new context is part of the appeal and advantage of escape rooms. You don’t want to make the answer too immediately obvious, but you should make the process clear. Having letters or documents written by someone asking for help can be a great way to sneak in clues. For example, if the solution to an algebra problem is the code for a lock, then instead of just giving them the math problem have it come at the end of a letter asking for help solving this tricky algebra problem. Or if the date of a historical event is the key you want them to find, then a dated letter describing the event or an old newspaper describing the event would be useful clues. Possibly having a few letters and papers lying around, some with common place events, would be a good idea so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious.
Second, commercial escape rooms offer hints, usually with a set number. This approach might work best in a classroom escape experience. Have a few hints means students can use them if they get really stuck, but they should be limited enough that they will only use the hints as a last resort. In other words, students will need some structure and guidance as they complete the activity. The amount and type of guidance should be factored in when designing your escape room experience.
Use real-world scenarios
One of the coolest parts about escape rooms is being able to provide an answer to that age old question - “when will I ever use this?”. Now, admittedly, the escape room is a contrived scenario. However, well crafted scenarios and problems in the escape room can help students to see more relevant and concrete examples of the processes and concepts that were talked about in class.
When done well I believe escape rooms can be a fun and very educational experience. As more people start using these games the classroom I look forward to new research and best practices on how to use escape rooms, and other interactive gaming, in the classroom.