Hide the Key
Building a History Escape Room
In a classroom decorated like a Victorian room, students watch a video narrated with my poor British accent: “Welcome to the detective’s study. He’s been called away and has asked you to decipher the puzzles he left behind. Work together to get to the final solution. I will give no further instruction but can provide hints if you ask. Also, this is your midterm.”
With these cryptic directions, students begin exploring. One finds a jigsaw puzzle piece hidden inside a teapot. A second thumbs through old books and discovers a list of multiple-choice questions. Someone else solves a puzzle box and is rewarded with a hidden key. Another finds a rotation cipher inside a box disguised as a book. All of them scratch their heads when they encounter four different combination locks.
I began designing a pedagogical escape room in 2020, when I started my tenure as an innovation fellow at Houston Community College (HCC). The fellowship program teaches design-thinking and innovative approaches to education, and fellows are encouraged to think outside the box, come up with unique solutions to problems, and test new pedagogical ideas. In my free time, I often enjoyed visiting escape rooms—as the name suggests, a room where small groups solve puzzles and riddles to open a locked door in a set amount of time. Maybe I could design a pedagogical escape room that could both achieve learning outcomes and be fun for students.
I had used game-based learning in my classes for some time as one way to engage students in a topic and group dynamics, and help them gain deeper understanding. I thought that designing an escape room for classroom use could be an entertaining avenue to practice key competencies like critical-thinking and communications skills, personal responsibility, and social responsibility. Critical thinking is essential to solving puzzles, looking at items in a new way, making connections between riddles, and determining codes to locks. Communication is necessary because the escape room requires that participants express their ideas to each other in a productive way. Personal responsibility connects “choices, consequences, and actions” to decision-making. In the escape room, the choices one makes have a direct consequence on solving a piece of the puzzle. Finally, the escape room offers an opportunity for a variety of people to work together in a meaningful way and thus practice social responsibility.
In an escape room, small groups solve puzzles and riddles to open a locked door in a set amount of time.
Because our classes were still meeting online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I started with a virtual “room,” played with students in online breakout rooms. It was a meaningful diversion from talking into the video screen of the online classroom and provided levity in a difficult time. After we returned to in-person learning, the project eventually blossomed into a permanent installation at HCC’s West Houston Institute that could be customized for different classes and activities.
I worked with a team of people from across the college to prepare both the space and the challenges within. Makerspace technicians 3D-printed ciphers and puzzle boxes, made custom jigsaw puzzles with a laser cutter, and printed backdrops onto giant pieces of vinyl. An academic adviser helped me formulate experiences for new students, an English professor wrote copy for the video and promotional materials, and a chemistry professor mapped out scientific puzzles.
On the content side, I use backwards design, first identifying learning outcomes for the escape room visit. These might include understanding a reading or a historical time period, or even learning a writing skill. Then, I create questions to assess. If they are familiar with the content, participants answer the questions from memory. If I want to introduce something new, I hide short articles around the room that they can reference to answer the questions.
How do I measure outcomes? First, I have developed a rubric that facilitators can fill out while observing participants in the room that can assess group dynamics, conceptual understanding, and creative thinking. In an exit survey, participants answer questions about group dynamics and the content, so I can get their perspective on the experience. I also provide feedback to participants and their instructors with suggestions for growth in the competencies measured.
My favorite ways to utilize the escape room are for assessments, team-building, and interdisciplinary events. As a midterm activity, an escape room activity can measure students’ content understanding. In my US history survey, the activity allows me to assess how well students grasped the material I have presented thus far in the term. In one portion of the game, they read and analyze primary sources such as the 1783 Treaty of Paris and Revolutionary-era newspaper articles to figure out a lock code. In this case, I determined the content knowledge I wanted them to know (the causes of the American Revolution), then made the game fit.
As a midterm activity, an escape room activity can measure students’ content understanding.
As a team-building activity, I have also run the room for faculty and staff to introduce the core ideas of our innovation center. For instance, as a way to reinforce the design-thinking process, participants had to put aspects of the Stanford Design Model in the correct order, substitute letters for numbers, then find a code to a combination lock. In a debrief, we discussed the disorientation of beginning an activity, helping participants to empathize with students who are new to college. This version of the escape room highlighted personal responsibility through innovative decision-making.
The HCC escape room has also been the setting for an interdisciplinary murder mystery event. A chemistry professor led a fingerprinting activity in the genetics lab, and then students came to the escape room to determine the “murderer.” Participants read articles about the history of fingerprinting to answer questions. This event used a similar sequence of puzzles to the midterm assessment but told in a different way. Because these participants were mostly strangers to each other, I focused on the learning outcomes of communication skills and social responsibility.
In the next phase of the project, students will be determining content and making puzzles for the escape room. This will certainly test their critical-thinking skills!
Back in the escape room, with a countdown clock projected on the wall, participants share clues with each other, cheer when they unlock a box, and groan when they hit a roadblock. My favorite part is when they realize they have all the pieces to the last combination. They all cluster around the final lock and hold their breaths until it clicks open.
Utilizing game-based learning takes creativity and an open mind. It is more than possible to accomplish learning outcomes through an activity like an escape room. The game is afoot!
Lauran Kerr-Heraly is professor of history and an innovation fellow at Houston Community College. She tweets @ProfessorLKH.
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