It is news to no one who knows me well that I love games. Board games, sudoku, puzzles, jeopardy—you name it, I probably love it. It is not surprising to anyone, least of all me, to learn then that I create a lot of games to play in the classroom. Yes, they are often fun, but more than that they offer exciting ways for students to retrieve information and engage with material.
About a year ago I experienced my first escape room, and I was hooked. I knew then that somehow, some way, I was going to create an escape room for one of my classes.
Given the challenges this semester (see my other blog post about teaching in the face of trauma) I’ve had some days where my motivation to lecture has been low or where I just feel too overwhelmed to think properly. Moreover, on a few days I’ve defaulted too much to lecturing. So I started to think this might be the moment to experiment with an escape room activity, especially during a week when I knew students would be tired and possibly anxious.
I started planning about 3 weeks in advance, although I’d already been thinking about this for many months.
I decided to use a lecture on Mughal art and architecture as my material for the escape room. I bought some locks and a couple of lock boxes, and repurposed another one I found. (However, you don’t need any locks or lock boxes–you could use this activity with just paper and perhaps a stamp).
My students are already arranged into permanent teams throughout the semester. I let them know in advance that we’d be doing an escape room activity that they’d complete in teams, and encouraged them to take great notes on the assigned materials for the day’s class. If they got stuck, they were allowed to pull out their notes for a certain amount of time. (In case you are interested, here is what I assigned them, mostly content on Smarthistory: Introduction to Islam, Arts of the Islamic World, Arts of the Islamic World: The later period, The Taj Mahal and Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to a Kings. I also assigned the Heilbrunn Timeline’s The Art of the Mughals after 1600).
I decided to allow 30 minutes for the activity, largely because if it was a complete failure I didn’t want it to drag on for an hour.
What did I need to do to organize the game? And how did it work in practice?
I decided to create 5 “puzzles” that would unlock different codes. Solving each puzzle unlocked the following one, until all the puzzles had been solved. Each team who finished would then be able to unlock the final box, which had prizes in it. (In this case, I had prizes related to a series of jeopardy games which we play 5-6 times before each exam, with each team being able to win certain amounts of $$$ that could increase their changes to earn participation points, a notecard for the exam, and an opportunity to rewrite exam essays).
Instead of re-lecturing on this material, or adding new material during lecture, I made the puzzles to focus on the core concepts and ideas that I really wanted them to take away from these readings from Smarthistory and the Heilbrunn Timeline. Each puzzle became more difficult.
Each puzzle was basically a series of multiple-choice, image annotation, or matching questions. Teams had to work together to unlock the codes associated with each puzzle. On one puzzle, the letters for the multiple-choice questions spelled out a word. On another, they had to add up the numbers to use a 3-digit code to unlock a padlock. Still on another they had to use a cipher discovered by answering the questions.
Once a team finished a puzzle, they either unlocked a padlock or brought it to me–if it was correct, then they had access to the next one.
Students were excited! They were literally running in the classroom. They were jumping up and down. They felt good when they solved the puzzles. They worked together. And let me tell you–they learned about Mughal art and architecture!
30 minutes proved to be perfect for this first game. Most teams finished around 22-25 minutes, a few teams around 25-27, and a couple at the final minute. The 30-minute clock definitely added to the fun, but also kept them from getting distracted. Plus, they literally did need to solve the puzzles before I’d let them escape the classroom.
They all enjoyed it, and they want more.
It was certainly one of my most creative activities, and I plan to do another later this semester–using the full hour.
On their first exam, students knew this material well, so I felt it was successful. Even though I missed discussing Mughal art and architecture with them, I think they were more engaged than listening to me lecture for 90 minutes.
Here’s to experimental pedagogy! Escape the lecture!