13 Escape Rooms: An Alternative to Traditional Forms of Assessment

Samantha Willis, M.S.ED

Oklahoma State University

Abstract. Most people think of escape rooms as a fun recreational activity one can do with friends. In the educational world, escape rooms have become a popular way for teachers to utilize game-based learning as an engaging classroom tool. This chapter aims to explain the history of escape rooms, how escape rooms can be educational, and how to design an escape room. Additionally, this chapter aims to provide a brief history and overview of types of assessment and works to explain how escape rooms can be used as assessment tools. Ultimately, the goal of this chapter is to show how escape rooms can provide an experience of playfulness that appeals to students’ various learning styles, motivates students, provides teachers with a fun and productive way to assess, and provides a doorway for wonder and curiosity to enter a classroom.

INTRODUCTION

As time progresses, the world grows more technologically advanced as innovations in technology are seemingly created each day and new uses for old technology seem to be discovered by the minute. Every day, innovators create new ways to communicate and teach the world. Just as the field of technology never stops inventing and becoming more advanced, so should the field of education never stop advancing. Schools are the bases for teaching the future generation who will be the creators of more advanced technology, which means schools should not be left behind. Too often local and national news sources show that schools across the United States are using outdated technology, textbooks, and techniques. Ringstaff and Kelley (2002) point out that what can be “gleaned from most current research on the implementation of computer-based technology in K-12 education is that technology is a means, not an end; it is a tool for achieving instructional goals, not a goal in itself” (p. 5) Teachers should be reaching modern 21st-century students with modern 21st-century methods with a clear plan of how using technology can enhance their teaching and assessing. As Ringstaff and Kelley (2002) suggest “technology is most powerful when used as a tool for problem-solving, conceptual development, and critical thinking” (p. 9).

ESCAPE ROOMS

Escape Rooms can be defined “as live-action team-based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) within a limited amount of time” (Nicholson, 2015 as cited in Vidergor, 2021, p. 2). The use of escape rooms was first documented in 2007 when a single-room escape room game called Real Escape Game Event for 5-6 players was open to the public in Kyoto, Japan (Taraldsen et al., 2020). Taraldsen et al. (2020) suggest that the origins of escape rooms can be traced back to an array of genres such as “live-action role-playing, point-and-click adventure games, puzzle hunt, interactive theatre, and haunted houses” (p. 1) Martens and Crawford (2019) adds adventure game shows and Vidergor (2021) adds shows and movies to the list of origins. As a rapidly growing phenomenon between the years, 2012-2013, recreational escape rooms began to reach a large part of the world outside of Japan (Vidergor, 2021). Eventually, recreational escape rooms made their way to the United States, though it is not entirely evident how that transition happened or when it occurred. However, escape rooms soon were seen as more than just a fun experience for adults as they came to also be seen as an educational tool that teachers could utilize in their classrooms.

EDUCATIONAL ESCAPE ROOMS

“Escape” means to “free oneself from confinement” (Martens & Crawford, 2019, p. 74). As an educational tool, teachers can use escape rooms to help free themselves and their students from the confinement of outdated and boring lessons. Educational escape rooms allow teachers an opportunity to be creative and to truly customize and differentiate content to fit students’ needs by using a wide array of tools and resources within their escape rooms. Marki et al. (2021) and Taraldsen et al. (2020) define educational escape rooms as pedagogical activities that are time-constrained and problem-based. Having such interactive activities in the classroom encourages active learning from students through discussions and cooperation.

Escape Rooms as a recreational game can be used in different ways and can use a smorgasbord of tools to present clues and puzzles for those who wish to test their skills and see if they can escape. In an educational setting, escape rooms can take multiple formats. Teachers can use educational escape rooms as in-person activities that include hiding clues, puzzles, and other activities for students to complete in teams throughout the physical classroom. Additionally, escape rooms might use a blended format where some technology is used to help present clues and to keep track of students’ progress through challenges that lead to escaping the escape room. Sometimes escape rooms can be fully digital which means teachers use websites such as Google forms and Google Slides to present a scenario and students work through digital activities to escape the game. Digital escape rooms help to overcome the limitations of traditional classroom teaching by being game-based and learner-centered, allowing students to practice cooperation and problem-solving while using a variety of digital materials within the escape room list of tasks to find clues, solve puzzles, and ultimately escape the game (Huang et al., 2020).

HOW TO CREATE EDUCATIONAL ESCAPE ROOMS

Escape rooms might be fun and challenging to partake in, but the act of creating educational escape rooms can also be fun and challenging. To begin creating an escape room for classroom use teachers should go through a few steps to ensure they cover everything they wish to cover. The first step teachers should take is to identify their audience, the length of time they have to conduct the escape room, and the topic they wish to cover throughout the escape room (Neumann et.al, 2020). Next, teachers should pick several “takeaways” from their topic and then write a question for each takeaway that will challenge students to show what they know (Neumann et.al, 2020). One of the most exciting steps is to write a scenario to get students engaged. A good scenario is an interesting background story that sets up why students are trapped in the escape room and why they need to find a way to escape the game. For example, a scenario story might be that students went on a field trip to a movie theater where they become trapped in the theater and have to find a way to escape! Neumann et. al (2020) suggests that in the scenario story there should be hidden clues that students can use to solve the first puzzle. Teachers then need to decide what steps students are going to need to take to escape, what puzzles they will need to solve, and how students are going to unlock “keys” that eventually lead to their escape. According to Neumann et. al (2020), teachers should create a digital form where students can submit their answers to progress through the escape room. Teachers should create a digital “room” (see figure 1) that compiles the background story, the location, and a place for students to submit the answers to the puzzles in one place.

All of the steps above can be followed whether a teacher wants to turn their classroom into an escape room, a blended escape room (where parts of the escape room are in the classroom and other parts are done with technology), or a digital escape room. When creating in-person escape rooms, teachers can use old cash boxes, locks, keys, shoe boxes (designed to fit the theme), and other items that teachers can find that might fit the theme of the escape room. For blended or digital escape rooms, teachers have a wealth of resources through the internet. Resources such as Google suite apps such as Google Sites, Google Docs, Google Forms, and Google Drawings are free to use and can all be used together to create an extensive escape room. Many YouTube videos are available to assist teachers throughout the process of creating their rooms. Other online resources include virtual jigsaw puzzles, virtual newspaper builders, custom eye charts, and note generators. Teachers can also use sites such as Canva (see figure 1) or Genially to create templates or to create a virtual room such as a bitmoji classroom where there are clues and links to different places of how students solve all the tasks to eventually escape the room. While it may take time to design an escape room, it can be a fun and challenging endeavor for a teacher that will pay off in an engaging, motivating, and collaborative activity for their students.

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Figure 1. Virtual Escape Room designed using Canva. Most of the props on stage would be clickable to take students to another challenge that leads to students escaping the room.

ASSESSMENT

Teaching with modern methods is important, as is assessing students with methods that match the times. For schools in the United States, it is common practice to teach to the test or in other words for teachers to focus on test prep in order to achieve high test scores from their students. Assessing students should not have to follow traditional methods such as pen and paper tests. Teachers should be allowed to move past the influences of more significant economic and political trends to teach students with the most appropriate researched-based methods.

HISTORY AND TYPES OF ASSESSMENT

Since the 19th-century, assessments and the United States educational system as it is known in modern times, were created out of a need to educate all citizens and were inspired by the economic and instructivist ways that are still present today (Box, 2019). In the United States, assessments are an important aspect to determine students’ learning abilities in specific contexts. Assessments often take either a formative or summative form though there are plenty of other forms of assessment. Formative assessments are administered during instruction and summative assessments are administered after instruction to ensure students have learned the material (Dixson & Worrell, 2016).

One of the main methods of using formative and summative assessments is through portfolios and traditional pen-and-paper tests such as quizzes and exams (Dixson & Worrell, 2016). Unfortunately, more often than not, technology tools that teachers might use to engage students in learning activities are not used to assess students on the same topics. Current assessment practices do not typically allow for collaboration amongst students as they are expected to be tested individually and they do not encourage unique uses of educational technology.

Continuing with current assessment methods prevents students from engaging in more modern learning techniques and does not push teachers to try new teaching methods. New teaching methods such as game-based learning or escape rooms can help students retain more knowledge. When students retain more knowledge, they are engaged and well-suited to practice collaboration amongst classmates. One of the high-level goals of this chapter and why escape rooms as assessment tools should be considered in schools is echoed by the words of Brown (1992) when she said her high-level goal was to restyle K-12 classrooms from a workplace where students are thought of as vessels to be filled with knowledge from their teachers “into communities of learning and interpretation, where students are given significant opportunity to take charge of their own learning” (p. 141).

EDUCATIONAL ESCAPE ROOMS AS ASSESSMENT TOOLS

Educational escape rooms are generally considered a way to bring game-based learning into the classroom to engage students and cover content in a different way. Typically escape rooms are not thought of as an assessment tool. An educational escape room makes sense as an assessment tool for a variety of reasons. For one, educational escape rooms already cover many of the same skills that are expected from students when they complete traditional assessments. As mentioned previously in this chapter, one of the recommended steps when creating an escape room is for the teacher to write a question for each takeaway. When the questions are well-developed and thought-provoking they can serve as a way for teachers to assess students in a formative way while the students complete each challenge of the escape room. How successful students are in escaping the room is a way for teachers to assess students in a summative way. While designing educational escape rooms teachers can include different challenges and different ways to solve these puzzles, which creates unique and discreet ways to assess their students. Teachers can use any subject or a combination of subjects as a base for their escape room since many puzzles could potentially require math problems, scientific inquiries, riddles for English, or finding a location for geography.

Additionally, teachers can divide students into groups to work together to figure out how to escape while also deciding how much students can do together and if there are things they want students to do individually. If students work together it can help teachers assess social-emotional skills such as how collaborative and how cooperative students are with each other. In other words, how well students can work together to overcome mutual challenges. Allowing students to work together can also be a way to group assess students and discover which students need more help with certain topics (as they seem to be the ones not as involved in solving challenges) and which students are ready to move on to more challenging tasks (they appear as the leaders).

CONCLUSION

Over time, escape rooms have rapidly expanded from activities that fulfill the population’s desire for thrills and challenges to their now being an extensive use of escape rooms in educational settings as highlighted in studies by Huang et al. (2020), Taraldsen et al. (2020), and Makri et al. (2021). In more recent times, escape rooms have gained popularity in many academic disciplines showing that escape rooms can be used for any subject at any grade or educational level. As emphasized by Hill and Brunvand (2018), each grade level has unique advantages and challenges when designing and implementing escape rooms but implementing a gameful approach in every classroom can be an effective way to unlock different learning opportunities while promoting active engagement and collaboration amongst students. Martens and Crawford (2019) point out that escape room activities can help kindle children’s wonder and determination, which is crucial to building a foundation for future innovators. Time will only tell how the use of gamified education will change as teachers find new ways to implement escape rooms in their classrooms as a way to engage and assess their students.

REFERENCES

Brown, A.L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 141-178.

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Dixson, D. D., & Worrell, F. C. (2016). Formative and summative assessment in the classroom. Theory Into Practice, 55(2), 153–159. https://doi-org.argo.library.okstate.edu/10.1080/00405841.2016.1148989

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Neumann, K. L., Alvarado-Albertorio, F., & Ramirez-Salgado, A. (2020). Online approaches for implementing a digital escape room with preservice teachers. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 415-424.

Ringstaff, C., & Kelley, L. (2002). The learning return on our educational technology investment: A review of findings from research. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED462924.pdf

Taraldsen, L. H., Haara, F. O., Lysne, M. S., Jensen, P. R., & Jenssen, E. S. (2020). A review on use of escape rooms in education – touching the void. Education Enquiry (pp. 2,9,11).

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Learning in the Digital Age by Samantha Willis, M.S.ED is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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