A few years ago, I was a chaperone for our school’s senior class trip, and though escape rooms were a relatively new concept at that the time, we thought it might be something our students would enjoy (as well as the chaperones). We split up into groups with the chaperones being by ourselves. My group comprising two English teachers, two history teachers (one of which was my husband), a Spanish teacher, and a math teacher thought we had a good chance of escaping before time ran out.
And then the door to the room opened, and we faced an Edgar Allan Poe mystery. You could say it was this Poe-loving ELA teacher’s dream. We solved challenging logic puzzles about Poe’s famous stories; worked together (through a locked door at one point); discovered hidden clues in a haunted painting, an old telephone, a writer’s desk, a fireplace I got volunteered to climb in (literally); and we barely escaped just in time!
I was hooked! My critical thinking hasn’t been challenged in such a fun, authentic. I just had to figure out how to bring his experience to my students in my classroom. That’s when I started researching educational escape rooms for my students. It took a lot of trial and error, but now, I have the tools to bring this innovative, engaging strategy to my students. And now you can have those tools too.
What Is an Escape Room?
In an educational context, an escape room, also called a breakout room, is a series of tasks that students must complete in order to escape or breakout of your classroom or a scenario you create for your classroom. To complete the tasks and break out, students are challenged to complete logic puzzles, make connections to your content, and work together. These activities are highly engaging because students must do all of this before time runs out.
In its simplest form, an escape room is a series of tasks to be completed by the end of the period. So, if you can create learning tasks (which I already know you can), you can create an escape room! Let’s walk step-by-step through my design process.
Step 1: Start with Standards
The first and most important step is to start with standards and objectives. This curriculum development model is called backwards design, and I think it works really well for this activity.
Think about what standards you want your students to show growth or master through the tasks you’ll create in this escape room. With this curriculum design approach, you’ll start with the objective, then determine an effective measure to determine student growth or mastery (in our case this is the escape room), and then you’ll develop the learning tasks to meet those needs. Not only does this provide you with a sound justification for the activity in case your administration is interested, but it will also help guide what tasks you’ll create for the classroom.
Here’s an example: During my narrative reading unit, I identified these the standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Then, I wrote my learning objectives based on that standard: During an in-class escape room activity, students will analyze the narrative elements that contribute to the structure and meaning of the work by successfully completing four narrative elements tasks.
Step 2: Create Learning Tasks
Now that we have learning objectives, it’s time to identify what learning tasks that you’ll use as evidence for growth or mastery of the objective. Here are some suggestions for the objective discussed earlier: narrative close reading, narrative elements vocabulary practice, plot diagramming, stimulus based multiple choice practice, and literary device identification.
Step 3: Create a Scenario
Now, you’re ready to write your escape room. One of my favorite parts of this creative process is coming up with a scenario for the escape room. This is a step that you can really get creative. Are you reading a book or preparing content for a specific unit? Can you link the scenario to the uni somehow? Use your content as your inspiration. Here are some example that you can adapt to any curriculum:
- Escape the classroom before…
- Solve the mystery of…
- Help a character by…
- Stage a heist of…
- Discover the secret to…
Step 4: Add Puzzles
Now, as I’ve already said, you could stop with your task creation and scenario. But if you really want to challenge your students, especially if you’re working with high schoolers who need more challenge, you can add puzzles to the learning tasks.
The clue from each task’s puzzle will lead them to the next task and puzzle. I call this a sequential escape room. This means that after they complete one task they’ll figure out a clue that will give them a location in the classroom.
There are so many puzzle types, but here is a list of the ones I use most frequently with good results:
- Crossword puzzle: You can use http://puzzlemaker.discoveryeducation.com/ to create and download an image of your own crossword puzzle. Then, you can bold certain boxes that will spell out a location for the next puzzle. You can use the same double word puzzle for a matching task or fill in the blank task.
- Passage clues: You could also embed clues in a passage by bolding certain words or locations.
- Multiple choice code: One of my favorite types of puzzles is a multiple choice code. For this puzzle, students complete a series of multiple-choice questions. You can mix up the letters of the options to make them spell out a word.
Step 5: Add Ciphers
To make puzzles even more challenging, you can add one more layer of critical thinking by using a cipher to uncover the clue or location. This means that when students get their code, the letters won’t mean anything until they use the cipher to uncover the word. A cipher is a secret way of writing code and there are several that work really well for secondary students:
Step 6: Add Props
You can add props to make these location clues even easier to set up. For example, you can set the mood of the escape room theme by decorating your classroom. These decorations can then become clue locations or distractions to keep students on their toes. For example, for a Shakespeare themed escape room I could use a cauldron to represent Macbeth and a skull for Hamlet. If you’d like the set the mood, you can add ambient sounds. I enjoy searching YouTube and projecting the video on my flat screen TV while students are working.
Tips and Tricks
Make a puzzle map for yourself to keep the clues and their answers organized. Then, after making enough copies for every group, use labeled envelops or folders to hold your puzzles. This will help students identify clues, and it prevents them from finding clues out of order.
Set the Rules
Of course, we want students to be immersed in the scenario, but they have to know the rules before your begin. (They did this for us before we entered the room at the Poe escape room I mentioned earlier.) For example, I always give students a list of rules that explain how they can be disqualified. For example, you should always stipulate that blocking, intentionally confusing, or helping another group will disqualify the team from receiving points or whatever reward you’ve determined.
They will see each other as they make they way around the room, but to prevent skipping, I stipulate that they have to complete each task in order to get credit. If you tell them to focus on their own group’s success, they will usually come through. In addition, to keep them engaged, I usually dictate that they need to get through at least half of the escape room for credit—let’s say task 3—and any group who finishes before the bell gets bonus points.
Using a timer, like the ones from classroom timer, can also help create urgency and hence keep students who might be likely to dilly dally on task. But, what if students are trying and can’t seem to get it? My answer is simple: help them. Your escape room should be challenging, so they’ll need your help throughout. You can give them as little or as much help as you think they need or deserve.
Create a Conclusion
Finally, at the end of my escape rooms, students will find both a certificate of achievement and a reflection page. The reflection page is a great way to keep students occupied if they finish early. It’s also a good justification for a grade even if the group didn’t finish the escape room.
Save Time When You Can
Starting from scratch is a big undertaking. While it can be a lot of fun to challenge your own logic and creativity during the design process, the fact of the matter is it takes a lot of time. If you want to save yourself time, check out my print-and-go or assign-and-go escape rooms. What’s great about using one of my pre-made escape rooms is that I’ve created them to be on-level for high school students. One of the biggest challenges is determining the level of difficulty for grades 9-12. We want it to be a challenge but still realistic.
- Poetry Escape Room
- Literary Analysis Escape Room
- Edgar Allan Poe Escape Room
- British Literature Escape Room
- Language and Composition Escape Room
Remember that at its simplest form an escape room is a group of tasks that students must complete before the end of a specified time. Therefore, you can always keep it simple. When you’re ready to add complexity, you can always come back to this blog post!
- While I create my escape rooms for high schoolers grades 9 through 12, I highly recommend Emily Aierstok’s escape rooms for middle level. You can find her escape rooms here.
- This peer-reviewed article provides compelling published research about the educational benefit of escape rooms: Sherry, M. & Crawford, K. (2019) Embracing wonder and curiosity: Transforming teacher practice through escape room design, Childhood Education, 95(2), 68-75. DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2019.1593764
- This article from the Atlantic gives a great narrative on educators who use escape rooms in their classrooms.