Escape rooms are becoming more and more popular in higher education. Participants solve a series of problems—each correct solution unlocking a clue or item to the next—while racing against the clock (or other teams). Knowing that this type of gamified learning format could potentially excite students during an unexciting time, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School explored ways to make this happen virtually via Zoom. Luckily for us, we had plenty of rooms to escape from: breakout rooms!
Creating an “escape the breakout room” lesson did not take long and involved an instructional designer and a faculty member. Instead of physically breaking students off into small groups, instructors can use Zoom breakout rooms as the rooms learners are “locked into” and from which they must escape through teamwork and by correctly solving the problems. While in their breakout rooms, students used Canvas to view and solve the problems.
Here are the main steps for creating an online breakout room, illustrated by one we created at Goizueta.
- List the learning outcomes and skills you want students to gain from this experience. For example, for a digital and social media marketing course, the outcome was to analyze, identify, and give recommendations for client ad and web performance.
- Determine the format. Will it be fully online, hybrid, or in person? We used a fully online experience, but you can adapt these steps for any format.
- Identify the tools you will use in addition to Zoom to provide students with the scenario and content. This is an important step because it will determine how the problems or puzzles are presented to the students. We used Canvas, but whatever learning management system you use needs to be able to force students to go through the scenario along a prescribed path and answer questions in order before moving on. Google Forms could also work.
- Finally, define what it means to “win” and decide upon an incentive. In our lesson, we offered gift cards for food delivery because they related to the marketing lesson’s theme. Students also received participation points for the class grade. The winning team completed the problems correctly and returned to the main room in the shortest amount of time.
- Develop two to three problems that support your learning objectives, or more depending on how much class time you want to use and the complexity of the problems. These problems will become the challenges that the students will work through. You’ll need a narrative, common thread, story, or theme to tie everything together. Use a case or lesson you’re familiar with or come up with a new one. Feel free to get creative! For example, as part of the digital and social media marketing class, we created a fictitious online publishing company that was looking to hire a new web analytics consulting team. Students were put into the position of a consulting team being interviewed for the job. As part of their interview, they were asked to analyze, identify, and give recommendations for client ad and web performance (our learning outcome). All three challenges were tied to this theme and outcome.
- Link the problems or challenges. How will the answer from one problem lead into the next or assist in solving the next problem? Here is an example again from our marketing class. In one of the challenges, they had to analyze data and research online to determine the answer. Once they answered correctly, the next challenge (page) opened and that correct answer became the focus of the story in the next challenge they were asked to solve.
- Start with the problem or challenge outline you developed in the previous step, and then build a prototype in your LMS or tool of choice. Using the quiz page for your problems is recommended because it auto-grades immediately, though you can use any type of page that best supports your challenge. Design your problems with no (or as little as possible) manual grading so that students can advance through the pages without your assistance. Any manual grading or reviewing can really slow up the experience.
- Set up “module requirements.” Remember, the challenges must be locked and completed in sequential order, so you’ll need a feature or tool that requires students to complete items as you define them. For example, to move from challenge one to challenge two, teams must answer the first challenge with 100% accuracy. Once they correctly answer, the next challenge will be visible to them. Challenges should only be visible one at a time so they cannot work ahead.
- We built our experience as a module straight into the Canvas course site and it remained unpublished and hidden until the live launch of the escape experience. Students should not be able to view anything prior to the live launch.
Test and revise
- Once you have built your prototype, test, test, test! Find the sticking points and make adjustments.
- Prepare a script that outlines the Zoom settings, the order of events, and who is doing what. Who is introducing the experience? Creating the breakout rooms? How will you split the students into teams? Who will stay in the main room and provide student support? Who will keep time and broadcast messages to students? Have extra support if possible (a TA, an instructional designer, etc.).
- For example, our Zoom settings included enabling screensharing, random automatic assignment to breakout rooms, groups of five or less, the ability to return to the main room, and the breakout room timer set to a specified time limit. We designed our experience to last 30 minutes as there were only three levels.
- Reconvene as a class. Discuss the experience, go through the problems, and announce the winners.
- Collect feedback. Ask students to complete a short survey and stay after class to hear directly from them. Some of our survey questions: Did you feel that the escape the breakout room lesson helped you apply course content in a meaningful way? What did you like best about the experience? Was there anything you didn’t like? What could be done to make this activity more meaningful to you?
The results from our “escape the breakout room” experience were overwhelmingly positive, though they included a few lessons. The parts that worked well were the partnership between faculty and instructional designer, having the ability to offer prize incentives for students, the Canvas module requirements, and, of course, the Zoom breakout rooms. For future lessons in this format, I can recommend the following:
- Test the experience one to two more times than you think necessary by running through the lesson with an instructional designer, TA, or trusted colleague. Treat it like you were running an actual live session. Check question wording for clarity. Expect glitches and hiccups. Have a game plan for when things don’t go as expected.
- The script is critical for the day of launch. It takes a lot of energy to balance all the moving parts and track along with students. Be sure to have assistance if possible.
- The longer into the semester you wait, the more skills you can include in the design.
- Design at least three levels and assign no more than five students to a team.
The irony of escaping the breakout room was not lost on anyone. This fresh take on using Zoom promoted problem solving, communication, and team building, and it asked students to apply course content in an exciting new way. Try it out!
Stephanie Parisi, MSID, is the associate director of instructional design at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.