You wake up in a locked room… Using digital escape rooms to promote student engagement

Game-based learning can unlock students’ motivation to learn and develop skills such as critical-thinking, teamwork and problem-solving, as Steven Montagu-Cairns explains

Steven Montagu-Cairns's avatar
University of Leeds
15 Jun 2023
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Illustration of man in keyhole-shaped light from hole in wall, escape concept

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An introduction to creating escape rooms
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Escape room at university

As academics, we live in fear of the “wall of silence”, that awkward time between the asking of an open-ended Socratic question and the merciful release when a student finally answers it. While the Socratic approach can be a useful educational method when we are able to establish a thoughtful dialogue, sometimes the theory does not measure up to the practicalities of the classroom.

In my own discipline of legal education, pedagogical conservatism has led to an impersonal, uninspiring and disjointed learning experience for students that does not fit with modern educational principles. The traditional approach to legal education predominantly revolves around didactic lectures followed by Socratic seminars, a model that has its origins in the 19th century and Langdell’s casebook method. Despite attempts by some to introduce situated and experiential learning, these efforts are often impeded by factors that include resistance from accreditation bodies, timetabling constraints and institutional inertia.

Can technology offer a literal escape from this situation?

Game-based learning

Game-based learning (GBL) is an innovative, active-learning pedagogical approach that leverages games to deliver subject-specific content and achieve key learning outcomes. GBL has garnered attention among legal educators due to its potential to engage and motivate learners, foster creativity in thinking, facilitate knowledge retention and transfer, and cultivate critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Analogue and digital methods have both been employed to teach critical legal skills, aligning with the skills and cognitive attributes outlined in the QAA subject benchmark statement for law.

Can we use digital escape rooms to teach law?

An escape room refers to an immersive game in which participants collaborate to solve puzzles and overcome challenges within a time limit. While previous work has explored in-person escape rooms in the legal context, recent advancements in digital technology have helped these experiences move into the digital realm. Popular gaming platforms such as Roblox or Minecraft, as well as specially programmed games featuring sandbox functions like Escape Simulator, enable the creation of digital escape-room experiences. Or, using immersive digital platforms such as Genially and others, academics now have the capacity to design immersive escape-room environments that can be used synchronously and asynchronously.

What a digital escape room can bring to teaching

Escape rooms offer a valuable opportunity for skills development, particularly in legal education. They prompt analysis, pattern recognition and logical deductions, which fosters critical thinking. Problem-solving skills are honed as players navigate challenges and think creatively. Teamwork is emphasised, promoting effective communication and cooperation. Time management is essential to meet the escape room’s time limit. Stress management skills are developed as players handle pressure. Attention to detail improves through careful observation. Adaptability is tested as circumstances change and perseverance is cultivated through multiple attempts.

How to design an educational escape room

  1. Establish learning objectives. Prioritise the identification of clear and measurable learning objectives as the initial step in this process. Recognise that the use of technology in education should be driven by pedagogy rather than being solely technology-focused.
  2. Develop a theme or narrative. Tailor the theme or narrative to align with the interests and motivations of the intended audience. Consider whether a professional setting (such as a work-based environment) or a classic genre (such as mystery, adventure or horror) would captivate the participants more effectively.
  3. Establish a workflow for the escape room. Create a structured workflow that guides players through sections or rooms, enabling a well-defined educational journey. This segmentation assists in determining the number and nature of puzzles to be solved, and how tasks align with individual learning objectives.
  4. Design engaging puzzles. Matching learning objectives with appropriately challenging puzzles is the most intricate aspect of the process. Strive to avoid contrived puzzles that disrupt the immersive experience. Each puzzle should possess a clear objective and provide a solution that leads to the next clue or challenge. To help with this, excellent resources are available to unlock puzzle-based learning and help design your own escape rooms.
  5. Test and refine. Acknowledge the significance of this often-overlooked stage. Personally experience the escape room and actively seek feedback from others. Remember, a puzzle that seems obvious to you might not be perceived similarly when viewed objectively. Iteratively refine the escape room based on the insights gained through testing and feedback.

Using escape rooms for university assessment

Escape rooms can be effective tools for assessing both knowledge and the development of soft skills. Consequently, a wide range of authentic assessments can be implemented using escape rooms. One approach that I particularly like is the reflective log. Typically, students are not given enough time for self-reflection. However, employing a pedagogically innovative activity such as an escape room offers students the opportunity to critically analyse their actions and identify areas for personal and professional growth.

Case study: financial crime escape rooms

To capitalise on their benefits, I implemented a suite of digital escape rooms with success in my master’s module Financial Crime. In early 2020, amid the confinement of remote learning, I re-evaluated my teaching methods and scrutinised the engagement metrics for the weekly formative multiple-choice question (MCQ) tests. The data revealed that, at best, only 46 per cent of students actively participated in the questions, while the lowest engagement rate plummeted to about 7 per cent.

This prompted me to explore digital technology as a way to augment student engagement. Despite the advantages of MCQs, such as automated grading and scalability, students were not motivated to actively engage with them. It became crucial to redirect their motivation from extrinsic factors and rewards to intrinsic factors, encompassing personal enjoyment and satisfaction derived from the activity itself. These escape rooms fostered critical engagement with the subject matter and created a low-stakes environment that allowed students to progress at their own pace.

Over three academic cycles, I compared the impact of MCQs with that of the digital escape rooms. Weekly engagement increased between 68 and 285 per cent throughout the academic cycle. Moreover, student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with numerous free-text comments highlighting the games as the most enjoyable aspect of the module.

By leveraging the power of GBL, legal educators can create more dynamic and effective learning experiences for their students. The digital escape room is one example of this and, while GBL is no panacea, it can complement traditional teaching methods and help learners develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the wider world of work.

Steven Montagu-Cairns is a lecturer in banking and corporate law at the University of Leeds.

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