Pedagogical Guide


Part 2
How to integrate ER into the school curricula

Table of Contents

Part 1: Why Escape Rooms are useful for STEAM education
Part 2: How to integrate ER into the school curricula
Part 3: How to capitalize on previous knowledge of the students and how to valorise the skills and knowledge developed during the Escape Room
Part 4: How to animate an Escape Room
Part 5: How to integrate different profiles of students

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2.1. Defining the objectives of the Escape Room starting from the school curricula

One of STEAM education’s priority is to provoke students’ interest and to provide an authentic learning experience. According to Reeves et al. (2004), students should have authentic tasks that have a real-world context, ill-defined problems, complex or multi-step questions, multiple ways to approach a problem, integrate across the disciplines, and have failures and iterations built into the assignment itself (Armory, 2014). Many teachers praise the benefits of STEAM education, recognizing that the “design and creativity of the arts are crucial underpinnings of the successful mathematician, scientist and engineer” (Hogan & Down, 2016, p. 50).

According to Bertrand (2019), a few questions arise:

  1. What curriculum and instruction models of STEAM education are implemented in schools?
  2. What do students learn through different models of STEAM education?
  3. What sorts of assessment of student learning is occurring in STEAM education?
  4. How do classroom teachers view such models of STEAM education in meeting their curriculum and instruction goals?

The new changes in society are critical for understanding the emerging trends in education. With the proliferation of data and communication technologies, we face multiple challenges when it involves educators, therefore we must be ready to try new and effective modern teaching experiences and to make the necessary changes to stay up-to-date.

To cope with this new emerging reality, new trends in education are to be experienced and evaluated. Nowadays, we are faced with more interactive and collaborative technological environments (Amberg, Reinhardt, Haushahn & Hofmann 2009).

Escape rooms have already been used in education. An escape room in STEAM tries to gather tasks that involve knowledge from several subjects. It is important to have a clear briefing, from the very beginning, that states the age group of the students, the number of students, and the place where the game will be played. When working with an educational escape room, it is important to define the educational content the group will face as early as possible.

To do that, teachers should first meet and reach a consensus about several things:

  • the age group and educational needs of the students
  • the length of experience
  • the difficulty of puzzles for different levels of players
  • the mode of the escape room: Cooperation based vs Competitive based
  • number of participants the game/room is to be designed for

The next step is to develop the objectives of the educational escape room experience. According to Arnab & Clarke, developing the objectives for the game experience early in the design process will ensure that the experience is designed purposefully and that the game theme and puzzles are developed to reinforce the objectives instead of attempting to embed objectives into an already designed game.

The objectives are presented by:
  • Learning Objectives: Learning objectives are required to create a meaningful educational game. These objectives are often worked into the theme, its puzzles, and its chosen mode to assist in structuring the training plan/outcomes. Creating tangible objectives allows to develop the evaluation strategy to assess players learning experience, learning achievements, change metrics, and can be iteratively redesigned to focus on the desired outcomes of the experience.The educational escape room can be used:
    • To provide alternative and exciting ways for learning new knowledge, skills or aptitudes.
    • To test existing knowledge/skills/understanding/growth level.
    • To link knowledge to multisensory, effective, active and\or practical memories.

    The educational escape room is built to learn with various but specific learning objectives:

    • To learn something concrete (subject, topic, empathy, social skills, and knowledge).
    • To increase self-esteem and awareness, social interaction.
    • To understand what role best fits in the team.
    • To open the mind and look at things and situations from different perspectives.
    • To use what is already known for a different purpose.
    • To apply existing knowledge or skills, sometimes for a different purpose.
    • To create awareness of the attitude and behaviour of learners and the effect of that on themselves and others in the group.
  • Solo/Multi-Disciplinary: The escape room can be created to solve problems specific to one subject, or a group of subjects such as STEAM. It can be valuable to bring students together to explore problems from different viewpoints.
  • Soft Skills: Interactive live-action games are by their very nature, great tools for helping to develop soft skills such as communication and leadership. One method could also be to run the experience across multiple rooms, with the answers split between them.
  • Social Skills: Escape rooms offer opportunities for groups of students to work together to solve puzzles, gaining the benefits of knowledge and insights from others.
    • Good escape rooms are designed in such a way that they cannot be solved alone (for example they need two people in different spaces to solve a code) so that players have to communicate and collaborate to solve the puzzles.
    • Lateral thinking. Many of the problems and puzzles that players face in escape rooms require them to think differently from their usual mindset and combine objects and ideas in novel ways. This type of thinking is an important underpinning of creativity and innovation.
    • Time management is also at stake in a time-based challenge. Together with collaboration, this can promote overall personal resource management.
  • Problem Solving: Develop problem-solving challenges to make the game experience interesting to players. A range of challenges will be attractive to different learner types. Challenges might be physical (think checking out an item), intellectual (i.e. algebra or maths puzzles), or many other variations.
    • Escape rooms present a variety of different types of puzzles from codes and cyphers and traditional puzzles, to finding or manipulating objects and complex digital puzzles. Players are presented with a variety of problems that they have to solve, gaining skills in thinking through problems, and developing approaches to solve them.
    • Players also develop resilience as they make multiple attempts to solve puzzles in different ways, and creativity as they come up with different novel solutions.

Following this step should provide a foundation in which it is clear what the objectives are that the intended game is trying to achieve with the participants. This will also provide a basis for developing the evaluation strategy later on in the design process and will help the debriefing stage.

2.2. Defining the content/materials introduced

The basic objective of an educational escape room/game is to assimilate content in a modern and different way so that knowledge is better comprehended. The escape room will lead students through the knowledge already acquired in lessons or will help gain new knowledge, skills, and competences innovatively. That will follow one of the principles of the scaffolding strategies, that is, tapping into prior content area and connect it to the future (Alber 2014). Therefore, such an escape room can be used as a way to revise for a possible exam or for introducing a new unit/chapter using already studied content.

Teachers meet to reach a consensus about the scope and the different activities that students will have to carry out in order to escape from the class. On the one hand, teachers will have to decide the type and number of assignments depending on the length of their escape room. On the other hand, they have to bear in mind materials and places for these tasks. Some of the ideas for the elaboration of this escape room include puzzle, locks (directional, alpha, digit, etc.), decrypt messages, hidden objects, searching for items in odd places, searching for objects in images, lights, pattern identification, blacklight pens, riddles, ciphers without a key, secret codes, sounds, mirrors, abstract logic, lockable containers or zippered pouches, research using information sources, mazes, physical agility, UV flashlights, shape manipulation, magnets, piece together parts, smell or taste, etc. Some of these ideas have been extracted from Nicholson (2015).

Ideally, of course, the solving of these puzzles and riddles should be based on STEAM school materials seen in the classroom, or for which the solution is available in some form inside the room. A geometry formula, the missing name of a biology system, Mathematics calculations, etc. It is important that educators know the level of their students in every subject. Accordingly, the tasks should be challenging but achievable. If assignments are too difficult, it could be counterproductive as students could be disappointed.

In this step, a first teacher meeting will be held to establish the main topic of the educational experience through brainstorming ideas. A further meeting will set the content that is going to be studied/revised and activities with a more detailed description.

After identifying the educational goals and available resources, comes a crucial step: creating a STORY for the room. As explained in the introduction, you have to create a narrative about what is going on in this room and what the learners need to do.

In this step, players’ motivations, game story, and content are considered to bring about an amazing game experience for the students. Popular themes such as; detective mysteries, prison breaks, escape the kidnapper, spy/espionage games, etc. are used to build believability of the game experience using a range of decorations and props, lighting, music, puzzles and riddles and clues that follow the theme of the room. This step has been informed by the work conducted by Nicholson. The theme step is split into four areas for developers to consider in their design process.

  • Escape Mode
  • Escape a locked room in a set time.

  • Mystery Mode
  • Solve a mystery in a set time.

  • Narrative Design
  • Develop a compelling narrative for the game to keep players’ interest.

  • Stand-alone/Nested
  • Determine whether the game is a one-off experience or part of a larger, nested experience in which several games can be designed and played.

Within the four steps, the developers are asked to consider the composition and narrative structure of the game so that players can identify with the game experience and build personal motivations to complete the game.

The escape room aims to utilize learners’ potential by addressing different skills and competences and at the same time be relevant to the content/ theme of the game. Tasks should respond to different learning styles, qualities, and personalities.

Elements that contribute to learning, understanding, remembering, creating awareness, and personal growth are:

  • Use of pictures;
  • Use of pieces of text and information in order to understand it and come up with the answer;
  • Use of quotations/ facts and need to structure them and put in order;
  • Logical thinking tasks;
  • Creative thinking tasks;
  • Chemical, biological, physical related tasks;
  • Lateral thinking tasks that force the participant to understand and escape from their own box;
  • Possible tasks that are not mandatory for solving the room and exit, but those tasks are exciting and useful for learning objectives

2.3. Creating a coherent context

It is relatively easy for teachers to define good teaching goals and to find a narrative scenario. Designing a game-flow instead is less common: in an escape room, it is a matter of designing the puzzle sequence that players would have to solve to get out of the room. Escape rooms could have a predefined sequence (sequential game) or a more flexible one (open sequence), or even hybrid solutions with more paths (Nicholson, 2016). Teachers also need to consider whether there is something for everyone to be doing during gameplay. This will depend on the degree to which the puzzles are open or sequential.

An entirely open game may lack narrative flow, while a sequential one may leave some players on the sidelines. A balanced combination of different parallel paths provides a solution but needs careful testing to ensure that all paths are with the same degree of difficulty.

After creating the story for the room, the teachers should use their creative thinking abilities to figure out the TASKS (games, puzzles, riddles…), each kind of challenge inside the room that learners will have to solve to advance in the escape room and get closer and closer to the final goal.

Each task should reveal some information, provide a guideline, or key that learners will use afterward. Those tasks are also the opportunity to link the room with the educational goals.

The tasks should be designed according to different competences and abilities of learners; not all of them should require only logical, digital, or mathematical challenges. The tasks should be solved using different perspectives, ensuring that all learners are included as each one can bring to the common goal something different but equally needed.

All exercises and assignments must be prepared and placed in advance. It is important to have a system to check the game-flow of the room, the puzzles and their order, and the key objects that the players need to interact with. A simple way to do this is by creating a room map – this details each puzzle and provides a memory aid to where it is located in the room, and visibly shows the flow of the room in terms of the order in which the puzzles must be completed.

A room map is useful for checking for consistency in the room design, sharing the design with others in the design team, and acting as a key to re-setting the room once it has been played.

It also provides an overview of the room and enables you to consider the game balance:

  • Have you included a range of different types of puzzles?
  • Have you included a range of different puzzles difficulties?
  • Have you used a variety of different types of lock, such as physical (padlocks, keys), mechanical (magnets, weights, gears), and electronic (computer passwords)?
  • Are there many different things for people to do (e.g. searching for objects, solving puzzles, opening boxes)?

It is also important to consider how to integrate the narrative into the game – it will be the key to solving the puzzles or simply add to the atmosphere of the game. Teachers need to think creatively about how to bring the narrative into the game from initial briefing through to the end game. Teachers also need to think about the finish of the game – what is the objective from the students’ perspectives and how they can make it as satisfying as possible if they achieve it. It might be to escape a room, but it could involve defusing a bomb, or solving a mystery.

Again, tying this together in a coherent narrative can significantly add to the players’ enjoyment of the game. As with all aspects of the game, it is important to test each puzzle individually with as many people as possible. Consider:

  • Is it clear? Do the players understand what they have to do? Are there other possible interpretations of the instructions?
  • Does the puzzle assume some prior knowledge? Can you make this available in some form?
  • Is there only one solution, and is it obvious when the correct solution has been found? This is a very important point: nothing is more frustrating than finding out a puzzle has been solved first try without even realizing it!

Once there is a plan and the basic individual puzzles that form the game, the teachers can bring them all together. Testing at this stage will enable teachers to discover whether they have the right balance of playability and learning, and allow them to refine existing puzzles or add new ones. At that time, supplementary elements (secrets and surprises that add an extra level to the game) can be put in.

The next thing to think about is the necessary equipment to make the puzzles work and to set the scene. Consider:

  • Staging and props. What can be added to the room so that it fits in with the theme?
  • Lighting and sound. If there is control over the light, how will it be set? Will there be music playing?
  • Backstory. Are there additional elements that fit in with the narrative and provide colour through a backstory?

Testing the escape room at all stages is crucial in order to develop a game that is both educational and fun to play. A self-evaluation checklist tool can be used to guide testing.

2.4. Tools to integrate content; Visuals, Apps, …

Developing the puzzles and activities that the players will interact with during the game experience is a very important stage in the overall design of the escape room. This step has been informed by the work conducted by Nicholson.

  • Puzzle Design
    Puzzles and riddles should be diverse, challenging and adapted to fit learning objectives.
  • Reflect Learning Objectives
    Refer to proposed learning objectives and themes to ensure that puzzles reflect the overall goals of the learning experience.
  • Instructions/Manuals
    Clear instructions and explanations are of major importance to help guide players
  • Clues/Hints
    Escape Rooms are notoriously hard. Insure clues are available and the method of delivering these clues to players in-game does not break player immersion.

Ensuring that the puzzles accurately reflect the objectives set previously in the design process will allow for easier validation and assessment of whether the objectives have been achieved at the end of the game experience. It is also useful and an essential part of escape rooms as noted by Nicholson, that the developers provide players with clear instructions and have a plan for providing clues when/if players get stuck whilst playing through the game.

Most Escape Rooms have levels of difficulty ranging from beginner to intermediate and finally landing on expert. Depending on the group, you will want to challenge the group but not stump them so the puzzles and riddles are nearly impossible to solve.

Create the easiest puzzle first and increasingly make the tasks more difficult. You will also want to create a wide range of puzzles, clues, and strategies to adhere to the different skills each player will possess. It will get boring if the same person who is great at finding patterns for codes is used over and over again.

A possible example for designing the assignments for the escape room:

  • Choose 6-9 puzzles for an hour-long experience. Puzzles might be things like substitution ciphers, visual images, word puzzles, word searches, or logic puzzles.
  • Divide students into teams of 4-8 people.
  • Use Google Forms as the basic “progress meter”: this is where each puzzle is presented, the answer is typed in, and the next puzzle is revealed with the instructions to make the next handout actionable. Every subsequent puzzle will need a correctly spelled answer in the Google Form to advance to the next screen, which provides the needed clues to solve the next puzzle, and so on until the end.
  • Each team gets an envelope with all the puzzles as the game begins. While the handouts are all present at the start of the game, none of them makes sense at the outset until the first puzzle is solved. Each subsequent puzzle only makes sense as the last one is solved, because it provides a necessary clue in the introduction of the next puzzle.

Another important step in designing the escape room is the location/equipment that should be used to support the game experience, informed by Nicholson’s work. If the design of the game is to be supported with technology, this step can be useful to consider and plan for how the players are going to interact with that technology and what to do if the technology fails. For example, should you want to create digital puzzles and clues, free software such as Genially are very sufficient for pedagogical ER.

  • Location/Space Design: Ensure enough space for the game experience and that it is comfortable to move around. The environment should reflect the theme as realistic as possible within means.
  • Physical Props: Puzzle props, red herrings + general environment items, these are needed to make a compelling and workable experience.
  • Technical Props: Use technology to enhance the game experience.
  • Actors: Real-life actors can help concrete the experience further as believable. Actors can also indicate the time or can give out hints if they see the players have difficulties.

This step is used to bring animation to the game experience in terms of providing a life-like or believable setting for the players to interact with.

2.5. Debriefing to link to the school curricula’s requirements

It seems appropriate to mention that the ability to make judgments has recently become a major issue. It refers to the ability to analyze and evaluate information and make a reasoned decision, which will empower students’ critical thinking. By groups, students will have to assess two dissimilar aspects. On the one hand, students will have to value the escape room itself. They have to learn to make constructive comments that could help teachers to improve the work. On the other, they will have to evaluate themselves as a group. Students must be aware that what a person in a group does might affect the rest of the partners.

The power of the escape room experience often lies in the debrief. The teachers should set aside at least 10-15 minutes to allow students to talk about the experience. It is recommended to have students explain each of the puzzles, and after discussing what the teachers observed. Pointing times when teachers saw communication fall apart, or when they thought students were on the same page,is a great way of having students understand where their strengths and gaps lie..

What about learning? Every task should be linked with the story and provide some learning, either from a specific topic or transversal topic thanks to the game itself (while working in a team, discovering own competences and needs, dealing with time pressure, etc.). Depending on the educational purpose of the room, the crucial learning may happen after learners have exited the room. This is the ‘debriefing room’.

The debriefing room could be a neighbouring room/space or can even be in the same room. It is the content and the role of educators that matters more than the space. In the debriefing room, the educator can talk with the team about their experience in many ways: what they have learned or understood, what changes this experience made to them, what their role was on the team, what surprised them, what specific subject material they learned, what would they change, etc.

The debrief acts as feedback on the game from the teacher/game master as well as an explanation of how to solve the puzzles. The key part of the debrief process is to facilitate the players into providing feedback on the experience. The debrief process can provide valuable insight into things such as team-dynamics, communication, and different ways players approach problems. The teacher/game-master directs the discussions and asks the students how this can help them moving forward with their studies.
In the end, the teachers will have a meeting to assess the strengths and limitations of the educational experience. They will use the rubrics completed by students to have their point of view..

As a result of our studies of pedagogical scientific literature, we can draw the following conclusions:

  • Game-based learning techniques and escape room projects are one of the most current and preferred methods of teaching STEAM subjects;
  • “Escape room” are very suitable and are directly dependent on the requirements of modern students for diversifying the process of mastering complex STEM disciplines;
  • “Escape rooms” are also part of the constructivist classroom, Problem-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning and develop the following important skills in students:
    • awareness (active listening);
    • development of strategies (planning);
    • stress management;
    • change management;
    • criticality and creativity;
    • productive collaboration in a group (team);
    • self-assessment skills;
    • learning skills (laws, theories, concepts);
    • time management;
    • leadership skills;
    • the ability to put yourself in the place of the other (empathy);
    • making a decision;
    • problem-solving

Escape rooms, on the other hand, can help develop problem-solving competencies such as:

  • ability to understand the nature of the problem;
  • ability to understand the causes, consequences, and wider impact of the problem;
  • ability to see the problem systematically;
  • ability to deal with the problem systematically;
  • the ability to use intuition;
  • ability to structure the problem;
  • the ability to avoid oversimplification and maintain focus;
  • the ability to ask questions that would bring us to the heart of the problem;
  • ability to adequately evaluate

The organization of the Escape room is an Inquiry-Based Learning, which is at the heart of all curricula in Europe.

So now that we know how to integrate Escape Rooms into the school curricula, we need to take a look at how we can use the students’ previous knowledge best into the escape room and how to augment the impact of the skills and knowledge developed during the Escape Room itself. In order words; how do we maximize the pedagogical benefits of the Escape Room?

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Why Escape Rooms are useful for STEAM education

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How to capitalize on previous knowledge of the students and how to valorise the skills and knowledge developed during the Escape Room