6 Design Principles for Educational “Escape Rooms”

*NOTE* I am resurrecting this blog from the nether regions of the Internet so that I can more readily engage in discussion of topics of importance to teaching and learning.  Read the old posts at your own risk!


I love innovative teaching methods and the most interesting instructional consulting projects I have been involved with recently have been the design of Escape Rooms for education.  Usurping this contemporary social gaming phenomenon for teaching and learning purposes may be just another fad or it may evolve into something that has staying power.  Regardless, Escape Rooms, like other serious games, have the potential to be an effective learning tool, but they also need to be carefully and thoughtfully designed to take advantage of their affordances. Having now been involved in the design of 3 (and soon to be 4) different Escape Room educational games, I have a pretty good feel for how they should be done.  Stay tuned for the manuscript(s) and presentations.

1. Design for learning, not just for fun

It is really easy to create an exciting and fun Escape Room that involves finding clues and solving puzzles pertaining to content, but it is a different thing entirely to use solid instructional strategies that match the activity to clear learning outcomes.  While the game should be fun, the puzzles, clues, and game strategy should be based on sound pedagogical approaches such as recall of prior knowledge, evaluating information, making connections, etc.  There is much more to discuss in depth about this, but I’ll save that for the upcoming manuscript.

2. Choose proper group size

The size restrictions should be obvious to those semi-versed in group behavior and communications.  The larger the group, the more free-riding that occurs.1  Being more observer than participant is okay for entertainment purposes, but maximizing the educational value requires that each individual learner is engaged and doesn’t just stand idly by while others put forth cognitive effort. Ideally, I personally recommend groups of only 4 or 5, but up to 10 is still reasonable.

3. Use established gamification principles

One of the benefits of using games for education is that they tend to be very engaging and keep the participants from ‘zoning out.’  But good game design is difficult.  Unfortunately, what happens when educators design learning games is they often create something that is the worst of both worlds – “A game that’s not very fun and an educational activity with very little learning!”

Like education, game design is a science and there are certain principles to follow if games are to be immersive. Immediate feedback, multiple attempts, clear rules, continuous challenges that are just ‘out of reach’, etc. are staples of game design.2

4. Build in instructional safeguards

You never know how people are going to react and perform in this type of learning environment the first time.  Group dysfunction is a real thing!  What do you do if the game was more difficult than you expected and learners fail to complete on time?   Assign someone (or yourself) to be in the room and provide hints when the team is in danger of not completing.  You can always assign a penalty for hints, but you don’t want the students to be short-changed.

5. De-brief

This is one of the most important aspects.  Students can become so enmeshed in breaking out, that they may not always grasp everything they should have learned.  Always include some type of post-activity review and/or assessment to ensure that the main learning points were recognized and understood.  The de-briefing points can be designed beforehand or within the game itself by letting students identify review points by making them present questions or reflections as the final task for escape.

6. Consider the ROI

Escape Rooms for learning are fun and exciting, but also a lot of work. Depending on the design, they may also require an investment of extra manpower, additional space, creation of props, etc.  The time needed to design and implement the games can become quite high.  As educators we should weigh all the costs and benefits of any instructional strategy. If students can learn just as well with much less effort and time, well………………

 

One last tip: Don’t overdo it.  These games can be mentally exhausting for the participants – especially introverts like me.  I would hypothesize that to get optimal benefit and student satisfaction, this instructional method should be used sparingly.


REFERENCES

  1. Strong JT, Anderson RE. Free-riding in group projects: Control mechanisms and preliminary data. Journal of Marketing Education. 1990; 12(2): 61-67.

     

  2. Cain J, Piascik P. Are serious games a good strategy for pharmacy education? American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2015; 79(4): Article 47.

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