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Escape Rooms for Secondary Mathematics Education: Design and Experiments

Escape Rooms for Secondary Mathematics Education: Design and Experiments 1IntroductionEscape rooms (sometimes referred to as escape games, breakout activities, and room escape games) are a popular form of live-action team game in which players search for clues in order to solve puzzles that eventually accomplish a goal (e.g. finding hidden treasure or more usually escaping from the room), all within a specified time limit (usually 60 min). The focus is on using team work skills such as communication and collaboration to logically deduce the solutions to each puzzle in the game (Nicholson, 2015).While in-person games tend not to require outside knowledge, these activities have recently been transferred into an educational setting in which students work together to, for example, develop and use curriculum content and increase their engagement with their studies (Fotaris & Mastoras, 2019).We have identified a gap in the current research, which largely focuses on those skills identified above, for using this activity as a way of teaching new content to students. The aim of this research is to identify whether an escape room activity can successfully achieve this while confirming the findings of previous researchers on engagement/general feelings towards learning mathematics and evaluating teamwork strategies.1.1Project Background and RationaleSince the emergence of these activities, numerous educators have created classroom based experiences of their own and presented key findings on engagement/motivation (Dimova, Videnovik, & Trajkovik, 2020; Lopez-Pernas, Gordillo, Barra, & Que-mada, 2019; Nicholson & Cable, 2021; Vergne, Simmons, & Bowen, 2019), puzzle design (Eukel, Frenzel, & Cernusca, 2017; Healy, 2019; Heckelmann & Bucholz, 2020; Ho, 2018; Nicholson & Cable, 2021; Voros & Sarkozi, 2017), effective team building skills presented by students during play (Clauson et al., 2019; Heckelmann & Bucholz, 2020), the role of the teacher (Eukel et al., 2017; Friedrich, Teaford, Taubenheim, Boland, & Sick, 2019; Healy, 2019; Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019; Nicholson, 2015), applying curriculum content (Clauson et al., 2019; Eukel et al., 2017; Healy, 2019; Nicholson & Cable, 2021; Voros & Sarkozi, 2017), and reflective assessment (Ho, 2018; Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019). Since the use of educational escape rooms is still a relatively new field there are a number of important gaps that should be addressed for future research.While educators have used escape rooms for students to apply curriculum content in a contextualised setting and build familiarity with new skills (with teaching coming from a debriefing activity held after play), they have not yet been tested for teaching students who have little baseline knowledge of a given subject. This style of activity allows for students who are not naturally reading/writing learners, like in a traditional classroom setting, to access material more freely, while offering a variety to everyday lessons in an exciting format.There is also limited research into the effects of puzzle based learning, with appropriate adaptations as suggested by LogoPsy (2020) and STEAMER (2020) on students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). It is possible that the escape room activity could be less stressful than an average lesson due to its small group nature and emphasis on teamwork. We also recognise that the role of the teacher (using words of encouragement, asking the rest of the team to actively listen to ideas, etc.) would play a factor in the students’ experience throughout.From an assessment design perspective, escape rooms require the use of highly desirable problem solving and effective team skills in order to complete the activity, thus achieving the learning goals. In the UK, mathematics exams are increasingly requiring students to apply knowledge in contextualised settings; therefore, building situational awareness and confidence in their abilities over time. For an escape room to be fairly used as a form of assessment, there needs to be a way of assessing team work strategies, for which there is some research into peer assessment strategies for this by Stanford university (Montoya, 2021), and for embedding the curriculum content in a standardised way.1.2Aims and ObjectivesThis project aims to develop an escape room activity capable of teaching trigonometry to students who have limited knowledge in the area. We will evaluate our game’s success as a teaching tool (through analysis of results on a post-game worksheet) and for improving students’ feelings towards studying mathematics and their perception of the applicability of content outside of an educational setting, comparisons are made from form responses provided by learners both before and after the experience. It is also our intention to confirm the findings of other researchers on increased engagement and the development/encouragement of team building skills, extending this to determine whether there is correlation between strength of team skills displayed and completion time. We will also offer suggestions as to further the areas of research that could be made that are currently missing from what is available.This research builds on the small body of knowledge developed in the last 10 years to offer a brand-new way of using the escape room within the classroom. Unlike prior research, our game is designed so that learning takes place directly from playing whereas those in the current research actively use a debrief to convey the curriculum ideas seen throughout the game. Using escape rooms as a teaching tool, allows educators to witness firsthand common misconceptions in topic areas that could then directly influence future teaching.The activity also caters to students of various learning styles (audio, visual, kinaesthetic, reading, and writing) meaning every child is able to participate without barrier on at least one puzzle, contributing to the progression of the game in their team (Fleming & Mills, 1992). This provides the opportunity for students to harvest their creativity and take ownership of their learning as they discover, without the need for prior knowledge or new mathematical content. This encourages additional skills such as decision making and perseverance – i.e. they may not understand everything to begin with, but by using team work skills, patiently testing ideas, and occasionally receiving subtle hints from the games master to keep on track, they will be able to understand enough of the content to succeed, providing an important sense of achievement and a confidence boost for the learners.Within the game, one of the puzzles is specifically designed to showcase where trigonometry can be applied in the real world, this gives students an appreciation for the importance and applicability of mathematics outside of the classroom. Since the activity is vastly different to a normal lesson and the students are discovering material for themselves, the content is likely to be more memorable, allowing students to link puzzles within the game to future lessons and exam style questions.1.3Partners1.3.1Richard Hale SchoolRichard Hale School, founded in 1617, is a boys-only secondary school (ages 11–18) in the east of England. They provide a varied and balanced curriculum for both General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A-level studies that challenges students and prepares for future study/working life (Richard Hale School, 2022).Pupils at Richard Hale were selected based on both age and ability (top two sets out of seven) to take part in our experiment.2Literature ReviewThe game design includes everything that is seen and experienced by the student while partaking in the activity this includes time limits, game structures, narratives, and puzzle design. These elements are usually linked to generate a smoother game flow, in which students can associate aspects of the story/associated puzzles with the embedded learning content.We also discuss the role of the teacher (or researcher) in the facilitation of an escape room activity. Teacher interaction can directly influence the students’ engagement and perception of their performance in the activity since they are responsible for keeping a team on target to complete the game, e.g. by issuing hints as appropriate to avoid learner’s reaching points of stress and frustration.2.1Game DesignScott Nicholson, an expert in escape rooms, suggests that there are three basic structures for any game. First, linear (sometimes called sequential) where students have to solve one puzzle at a time in order to escape the room (Nicholson, 2015). These rooms are frequently used in medical case studies such as that by Eukel et al. (2017) to demonstrate following/simulating an industry standard process and applying relevant skills in dealing with patients safely and effectively.The second type is a path-based structure, where there are multiple different linear sets of puzzles that each lead to a result. When used in combination these results usually give the final code needed to win the game (escape from the room) (Nicholson, 2015). This allows teams to split up to solve strands of the game and discuss their experience afterwards (both what they encountered and did not), or dynamically share their knowledge in-game if required to progress with a puzzle. Often the solution to a puzzle (or combination of puzzles) will result in further information or puzzles that will aid a team, as demonstrated by some of the puzzles created by Lopez-Pernas et al. (2019).The final structure is open, where nearly all puzzles are immediately available to the team and each lead to a fragment of the final solution (Nicholson, 2015). These games are less common in education due to their higher complexity from having less of a clear structure generally resulting in greater guidance from educators being required (Veldkamp, Grint, Knippels, & Joolingen, 2020). Educators could also choose their game structure (including a hybridisation of those above) to fit around the topic they wish to create the activity for. For example, a path-based structure could be most appropriate for a game teaching crime scene analysis since students are able to work on different aspects of the investigation simultaneously.The narrative of a game is the story that the students immerse themselves in order to escape/reach the final goal. Cable and Nicholson suggest that all activities within the game should fit around the story, providing a cognitive framework (constructing plausible links between puzzles, solutions, and the story) for the action, and that the student protagonists should feel as if they are influencing the final outcome as they solve each part (Nicholson & Cable, 2021). This allows a student to become immersed in the game, motivating them to play and can also be a means to associate content learned with experiences from the game (Dickey, 2006). An example narrative (which need not be complex) is taken from Healy who incorporated a wrongful imprisonment murder investigation into their entomology puzzles (one for each question – who, when, where, and how). Students had exactly 1 h before the inmate would be wrongfully executed to prove each of the questions (Healy, 2019).The use of time pressure woven into the narrative, while keeping with social escape room characteristics and providing urgency for solving the situation, can detract from the learning experience. Some theorists suggest that it can impair learning due to constraints on exploration, and thinking time, restricting how in-depth students can go with the material. This could also evoke feelings of anxiety for students with performance (performing as well as possible in comparison to other learner)/mastery (learning as much as possible through immersion) avoidance (Moore & Tenney, 2012).There is no set way to design a puzzle since this is a creative process, individual to the creator. However, standard techniques include ciphers, sequences, and searching (School Break, 2019). Theorists and escape room professionals have proposed numerous qualities that make a good and appropriate puzzle both for social escape rooms and educational ones, as well as examples of standard puzzles that could be incorporated into a game. Elumir gives 13 rules for fair puzzle design including puzzles having a single answer, no ambiguity, and clues making sense plus being clearly linked to the puzzle/its solution. These factors easily impact the engagement with the activity (negatively if puzzles/clues do not make sense, meaning progress is restricted) and understanding of the learning content (Elumir, 2018).The biggest challenge for educators creating games is to link the puzzles to the learning outcomes and not have puzzles that are purely for fun. Cable and Nicholson suggest a layering technique to organise and build (from lower order thinking skills to higher ones) the learning objectives (Nicholson & Cable, 2021). For e.g., a puzzle using atomic numbers could yield four elements of the periodic table in an incorrect order. An additional layer of this puzzle could be to require students to order in their order of discovery. This would cover multiple learning objectives (applying atomic number references and appreciating the historical background of the elements), while providing an additional challenge to students.2.2FacilitationDuring an escape room activity, the teacher has some key roles to play to ensure that gameplay runs smoothly through observations and interactions with teams as appropriate. Multiple games reviewed allow students to use hints (sometimes called clues or lifelines) provided by educators to help them progress within the game, providing immediate feedback on their prior approaches (what worked and what did not) (Veldkamp et al., 2020). Unlike social escape rooms where hints tend to be unlimited (or at the game masters discretion), numerous educational escape rooms give students a limited number of hints, sometimes also with a time penalty for using (Clauson et al., 2019), or require them to earn them through solving an additional puzzle or multichoice quiz to reinforce the learning (Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019).Time penalties are used to defer students from using hints too early, encouraging them to persevere against their learning barrier, attempting multiple ideas before recognising that they need some additional help to progress (Heckelmann & Bucholz, 2020). It also acts as a way of promoting competition amongst groups without impacting a team’s overall performance (Vergne et al., 2019). However, punishing teams for requiring assistance negatively reinforces the behaviour of questioning for learning, which has been proven by theorists to be a useful strategy for students in knowledge acquisition (Vygotsky, 1962).Another option is for the educator to intervene with guidance as they feel appropriate for a team. This has been an ongoing debate in collaborative learning since it is difficult for an educator to judge when the best time to intervene is. Providing guidance too early could hinder the quality of the collaboration and affect the attainment of the learning outcomes. Similarly, if too late, the team dynamic could already be negatively impacted due to the frustration of being stuck (Leeuwen & Janssen, 2019).Another role of the teacher is to provide a debrief to students after the activity has been completed. This allows students to honestly discuss their experiences within the game (socially learning from their peers and from feedback from teachers), for educators to answer student’s questions on specific puzzles, aspects of the story, or educational content they have come across and to reinforce the learning objectives/explain the topics if students have not encountered them before (Friedrich et al., 2019). These aspects allow the learner to develop critical thinking skills, make associations within the game to the learning objectives, as well as take ownership of their learning. This can lead to the student willingly making positive changes to their approach for future lessons (Yaacob, Asraf, Hussain, & Ismail, 2021).2.3Uses of Educational Escape RoomsThe majority of case studies reviewed stated that student engagement increased as a result of playing the educational escape room activity. These comments were often based off observations from the researcher/educator of the teams while playing, and from student opinion provided during the debrief activity (survey, small group discussion, etc.). Students were regularly found to enjoy the hands on learning activity and wanted to complete similar in the future (Dimova et al., 2020).Some studies also suggested that students became intrinsically motivated and committed to the activity (doing it not just because they had to as part of a prescribed learning activity). One quote from a student participant states that they did not want to let their team-mates down, and work to their best abilities, indicating a sense of inter-dependency amongst team members (e.g. the need to share information and evaluate ideas respectfully), and an ownership of learning (Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019). However, these claims are difficult to justify when external factors such as competition amongst teams and completion time plays a factor in a student’s experience of a game, and in the absence of numerical data (Veldkamp et al., 2020).Some games were designed to help students revise and improve their knowledge of topics covered in regular lessons. Students are able to benefit from applying their knowledge to contextualised situations and developing teamwork skills through peer based collaborative learning (Ho, 2018). One medical based study found that students who completed the escape room activity significantly improved their understanding of diabetes when comparing their pre-game (1 week before) and post-game test scores (immediately after) (Eukel et al., 2017). The prospect of playing an educational escape room may have motivated some students to study beforehand, so that their team has a competitive edge. Therefore, not all increases in understanding can be attributed directly to the game.Another game reviewed aimed to teach students new concepts (assuming students have no prior knowledge) through the game, and more majorly in the debrief where educators explain the underlying concepts linked to each puzzle, thus de-contextualising the knowledge and allowing students to make necessary associations for their learning. They further suggest that the game was the result of the student’s knowledge acquisition; however, this cannot fully be the case due to the explanations provided by teachers in the debrief before learners completing the post-game quiz. This study went on to suggest that only the knowledge directly related to the game was attained after the activity and debriefing (Voros & Sarkozi, 2017). Therefore, additional lessons would be required to provide students with a deeper understanding of game learning content.Few studies reviewed incorporated escape rooms into their formative assessment – of those studied, all focused on scoring team work and the student’s evaluation rather than the application of curriculum content. For example, Montoya at Stanford University developed a training programme and applied an adapted notation system from Sonocar for peer reviewing team work skills. Students are peer assessed (1-to-1) based on their positive behaviours within their playing team and also any changes in behaviour as a result of feedback either from another team member or teacher (L. Montoya, personal communication, July 16, 2021). This gives students a clear understanding of exemplar strategies to apply in team situations (working life) in the future, experience of providing feedback (including constructive criticism) to others in an appropriate manner, and developing their evaluation/critical thinking skills.A number of studies stated improving and practising team skills as a motivation for the study. Results generally show the educational escape room game promotes these skills through collaborative learning theories and leads to an improvement in learners. These developments are attributed to comments from educator observations and post-game reflections from students (Veldkamp et al., 2020). The reflection gave students an opportunity to honestly discuss and evaluate where they used skills such as communication and creativity well, and areas in which they feel they need to improve (Eukel et al., 2017).The STEAMER project recognises the need to adapt educational escape rooms for students with SEN. Smaller team sizes are deemed more appropriate for teams with dyspraxic or dyslexic students since this gives them greater freedom to navigate around the space, and also reduce the levels of stress that could be induced from being in large crowd environments. This allows for greater focus and a more relaxed participation in the activity (STEAMER, 2020).Another adaption that could be made is to adjust the time allowed for students (either giving longer or no specified time limit) to complete the activity since some students may have difficulty in perceiving how long they have left, and or feel stressed by the pressure it induces (LogoPsy, 2020).Finally, having options within the game materials allows the students to be able to access the material. For e.g., using dyslexic friendly fonts and simplified language or the option to listen to clues as appropriate instead, can aid accessibility and improve the affective responses from SEN participants (STEAMER, 2020).2.4Gaps in the LiteratureIn the examples that state students learned something new from the game, the debrief was extensively used to cover the topic areas in the learning objectives. This enabled students to make associations with the educational content and puzzles within the game, and to gain a greater understanding of methods and theories applicable. However, there has been no research into whether knowledge acquisition can come solely from completing an escape room activity. This study aims to test this through analysing student worksheet results immediately after completing a specially designed game on a topic area (trigonometry) on which they have limited prior knowledge.Assessment in escape rooms is currently underused since educators are primarily focused on other benefits such as improving engagement. While methods for reviewing team skills have been identified, this does not currently fit within the standard curriculum in the UK. It would be interesting to develop an escape room that successfully converts exam style questions into a game experience. Scores in a traditional written exam could be compared to that of the activity to see if there is a difference in behaviours across the two settings and any variation in results achieved.The suggestions made on inclusivity in educational escape rooms by STEAMER and LogoPsy have not yet been formally tested on SEN students. We would suggest a comparative study to see if there is a change in behaviour and noticeable difference in experience/knowledge acquisition for students with SEN with and with-out these adaptations in place in comparison to a normal teacher-centric lesson. There also needs to be further research into the role of the teacher interaction in this case, focusing on encouragement, ensuring each learner has time to articulate and discuss their ideas, and positive affirmations given throughout the activity.Escape room activities require a large amount of time and resources in preparation from the educator in order to run smoothly and yield a successful learning experience. While there are proven results on increased engagement and greater familiarity with and ability to apply knowledge of topic areas, there is still a debate whether the return of investment is great enough for a teacher.3MethodologyWe are investigating whether an escape room activity can be used to teach mathematics curriculum content (trigonometry in our case) to students who have limited prior knowledge of the area, while also confirming the results of other researchers on increased engagement and elements of exemplary team skills portrayed by students as they play.In order to create the game that students will complete, we employed an agile development process through making changes based on the feedback from a team of professional escape room enthusiast and university student beta testers (some with limited mathematical backgrounds) to ensure that all puzzles flow, make sense, are well signposted (it is clear which materials go together for each puzzle and the corresponding locks to enter solution attempts, and also clear when a puzzle is complete), achieve the intended aims, and are appropriate in language and complexity for the target audience. The game design and development process are detailed in Section 4.Students in this project were selected based on their mathematical ability (sets 1 and 2 out of 7), this is because these students were likelier to access the higher level material in the game. We will use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate the success of our activity in the defined areas.3.1Quantitative DataA pre-game diagnostic survey and post-game reflection survey are used as part of our quantitative data – the same questions were given to students in both cases so that any changes in the students’ feelings towards studying mathematics, applicability of mathematics to the real word, and familiarity with the precursor skills, terms, and methods for trigonometry before and after playing the escape room could be identified. There was an anticipated change in scores before and after the game was completed as students engaged with the new topic area and worked creatively as a team. There were also some game-specific additional questions focusing on team work performance and engagement with the activity in the reflection survey in order to help to confirm the findings of other researchers.The surveys were given to groups of 3–4 students (55 in total) during their respective time slot of 2 school lessons (1 h each) for completing the escape room activity. In each case, participants were given a minimum of 10 min to complete and review their choices. They were asked to answer truthfully and not communicate with their peers while completing to avoid bias. While the method for quantitative analysis of thoughts and feelings through the diagnostic and reflection surveys can describe the effect of using the game, it does not guarantee that the change is explicitly caused by playing the game. Since there is a short time frame between completing the diagnostic, playing the game, and finishing the reflection form, this is unlikely to be the case in our study since the experience is still fresh in the students’ minds.In addition to the thoughts and feelings comparison surveys, we also used a post-game worksheet in order to evaluate how well information from the activity was taught and retained post play. This allowed us to identify common misconceptions amongst students, indicating possible further refinements to the activity in the future, and also a firm basis for whether escape rooms are a plausible educational tool. This methodology is not standard since we chose not to offer the worksheet before the activity and compare results between tests. In justification, one of the selection criteria for students is that they have limited prior knowledge of trigonometry. This is so that we could directly link any successful learning to the escape room activity.To analyse the results of the common survey questions, we implemented a two-variable hypothesis test with a confidence interval of 95%. From this we obtained the Z-Stat and associated p-value. This meant we could statistically determine whether there was an increase or decrease in the sample population’s feelings towards mathematics generally, and of the specific topics covered within the game. We also evaluated whether student perception of the applicability of mathematics improved as a result of playing. Due to a student joining the activity late, there is one missing diagnostic form completion, hence we have eliminated this result as an anomaly. We also chose to remove the data relating to team work from a solo player as the student was unable to reflect on this aspect of the activity.In order to analyse the data, we used in-built spread-sheet tools (on Google Sheets) to calculate the required information for use in our hypothesis testing calculations (mean, standard deviation, and sample size for each dataset) using standard formulae. While the method allowed us to make informed decisions regarding the changes in perception upon completing the escape room activity, it cannot indicate the size of the effect. By further analysis into the change in average between forms we can evaluate the size of the error.To analyse the scores of the students in the worksheet activity, we have calculated the average, median, and quartiles to show the distribution and skewness of the data. We have also calculated the discrimination (how well an assessment differentiates between high and low scorers) and difficulty (how hard each question is based on the number that scored full marks on it) indexes (Pinellas School District & Florida Center for Instructional Technology, 2018) for each question to compare attainment amongst learners grouped by performance. Since the students are reasonably new to the topic areas covered in the worksheet, it was intended to be difficult to compare the difficulty and discrimination indexes as all participants chosen have a similar entry grade in mathematics.3.2Qualitative DataThroughout the students’ participation in the escape room, the researcher (and activity leader) observed behaviours and made notes on puzzle strategies, good and bad uses of team work skills such as communication, collaboration, organisation, and when any hints/guidance was given to the team. This process was repeated for all participating teams (between 3 and 4 students at a time) and explicit consent for this was obtained beforehand. Observation times varied between 45 and 75 min depending on how quickly the team completed the activity. The researcher was able to intervene with hints and guidance as appropriate (evaluated below) to ensure learning takes place and that teams did not get overly frustrated, negatively impacting their dynamic.To ensure the validity of the results, we reported both good and bad examples of team work in each group and we reflected on elements of the researcher’s input that could impact the results of either the quantitative or qualitative analysis.Hints were also useful to avoid teams getting frustrated and negatively impacting the dynamic of the team. In most cases, hints were provided in advance of teammates reaching this point. Clues were used to nudge teams in the right direction without explicitly giving anything away. The researcher also intervened after every puzzle with positive affirmations such as good job, well done, etc. to ensure teams felt successful and motivated to continue in the game. These elements were used to encourage better team building skills and ensure that the students remained engaged and enjoyed the game as this is a strong emphasis of puzzle- and game-based learning.To analyse these results, we created a table where each team was scored based on their team skills – green (1), orange (0.5), and red (0) were awarded to teams who worked consistently well, mostly well (some elements of good and bad), and mostly poorly, respectively, in a defined area (e.g. communication or collaboration). Our observations also allowed us to determine some causes of poorer team work and also elements that make it better. Each team’s total teamwork score was evaluated against their completion time to determine whether there was a direct link between the effectiveness of team work skills and escape time. To inform our decision we performed regression analysis using the in-built functions in Google Sheets, in order to estimate the degree to which the two are correlated.3.3Evaluation of MethodologyApplying a mixed quantitative and qualitative methodology allowed us to gain a greater understanding of student interactions with the game, good and bad aspects to their team skills, and evaluate any knowledge attainment caused as a direct result of playing the escape room activity. Our approach also allowed for common misconceptions to be identified, influencing potential further teaching and adaptations to our game design for future students. This procedure meant we could form a strong basis for a larger study with a greater variety of students from different genders and socioeconomic backgrounds, more indicative of a general population, into this new use of the escape room activity within the classroom.In order to gain a deeper understanding of individual student’s thoughts towards and prior understanding of both mathematics generally and the specific topic areas covered within the game, we could have conducted interviews with each student before and after the activity to qualitatively understand this. However, doing this would be difficult to allow a comparison/prove any changes in results before and after without introducing some objectivity from the researcher. We would also have struggled to do this within the time constraints of 2 h per group of up to four students.Similarly, for the worksheet aspect of our analysis, we could have conducted a similar discussion asking students to talk through their methods to a variety of GCSE style questions. This would not be appropriate since the examination requires written responses to questions with all aspects to the method given in detail. While some responses may appear correct verbally the written intention may be perceived differently – for e.g., if a student was to say “sine 30” they may write “sin(30) or 30sin” with only one application being correct. With further questioning this difference could be evaluated but detracts from the assessment of attainment purely from playing the game.For the observations of team work (qualitative data), the researcher could not have been involved with the group at all. This would have enabled us to explore the behavioural changes in students when stuck on a puzzle with no clue provided, and how this would impact the wider team dynamic. However, it is unlikely that many of the teams would be able to complete the activity and subsequently effectively learn the skills required to solve trigonometry questions with no guidance from the researcher. This is similar to a student not being allowed to ask questions to the teacher and peers in a different, more traditional setting. Researchers have highlighted the importance of students asking questions to fill gaps in and extend their knowledge of topic areas, allowing them to understand their incorrect approach, connect ideas between different topic areas, and ultimately resolve puzzlement (Chin & Osborne, 2008).In escape rooms, one of the roles of the games' master/host is to provide hints to teams so that progression is guaranteed and enjoyment of the game is maximised – one of the key emphasises in game-based learning. While our chosen observation style is not generalisable, the method can be replicated for other similar studies yielding a greater understanding of exemplary displays of teamwork amongst students.Throughout the experiment, we had to overcome a number of obstacles that affected our data collection. First, some students were given a brief overview of what trigonometry is and the concept of rearranging equations, which is required in calculating missing side lengths in right angled triangles, prior to the activity by their regular class teacher; this meant some teams were at an advantage as they had some idea of how to apply the information in advance. Thus, we cannot guarantee all learning came directly from the study. If this study were repeated, we would have requested that all class teachers give no prior details to students so that the data do not become skewed.Second, due to the lack of resources (scientific calculators), there was a small change made to the worksheet post-print – where students were asked to give their answer to a number of decimal places/significant figures, we instead asked students to only write the exact calculation they would put into their calculator. This caused confusion for some students (e.g. some wrote the rearranged ratio with no values, even if labelled on their triangle). To combat this, benefit of doubt marks were awarded so that no student was disadvantaged by the change. We should have sourced enough calculators for each group before the activity so that all aspects of the mathematical learning could be assessed.Finally, in our diagnostic and reflection forms we did not ask students to provide an identification code. This meant we were unable to track the progress of individual students before and after the activity. While there was no ethical issue with this as the inability to remove data post activity completion was made clear before consent was given, we were unable to ascertain whether there is a greater change in results between students who feel less positively towards mathematics and their pre-game abilities to that afterwards, and similarly for other subgroups of students.4Game Design and ImplementationThis section details the process from idea to finished product of the game that key stage three students played as part of our experiment to determine whether escape rooms can be used to teach a topic to those that have limited prior knowledge of it. Elements of the game design including puzzle structure (Nicholson, 2015) and the role of the teacher (Leeuwen & Janssen, 2019) were directly inspired from published literature. The researcher also reflected on their personal experience as a regular player of escape rooms – taking inspiration from interesting mechanics and puzzles they have come across.Before the game was tested on high school students, beta testers were employed to make suggestions on necessary improvements (agile development process – progressively better iterations) to make sure that the game had the possibility to achieve the intended goals. Fifteen groups of testers (with team sizes between 1 and 3) including escape room enthusiasts (a player who enjoys discussing rooms in fine detail after the experience as well as playing them. Enthusiasts are also likely to keep a log of their performance in rooms they have completed and have a list of ones they wish to play in the future) and university students of different degree programmes were employed as play testers.The testing phase included feedback on where puzzles did not make sense or were ambiguous in their solution, had accessibility issues such as font types and lacked sign-posting (includes ease of identifying relevant game materials, identifying which lock is for which puzzle, and how obvious it was when a puzzle had been completed). We also asked the beta testers for their opinion on the optimal team size of students and an appropriate time limit to give them.In our game, the role of the researcher is to act as a games master (someone who introduces the story and rules of the game, provides hints to teams as appropriate and debriefs afterwards), a typed note-taking observer for the qualitative data regarding team skills and to provide a debrief to the players post-game. This includes answering questions, allowing students to honestly reflect on the experience through a form and explaining more formally the mathematical concepts covered after the worksheet assessment had been completed.Hints could be requested by teams but were at the discretion of the games master (similar to some social escape rooms where the games master will refuse a hint request to teams who are close to, or have barely attempted, finding the correct solution to a puzzle), or the researcher could intervene as they saw appropriate. This ensured teams could progress and complete the game within the allotted time, without inducing feelings that could impact the team dynamic.Aside from the research goals previously specified, we defined three learning goals for the students who play the game in line with some of the case studies examined in the literature review (Healy, 2019); these were made clear to students before partaking in the activity:–To build familiarity with and to acquire the underlying skills for and methods of finding side lengths in right angled triangles using trigonometry.–To encourage team working skills including communication and critical thinking through exploring an active learning environment, and for students to evaluate their role within it.–To build an awareness and appreciation for applications of mathematics outside of the classroom.4.1Narrative and Game StructureBased on beta tester recommendations, teams of four students (two from each of the top two mathematics set at the test school) were chosen to partake in the game instead of two of their regularly timetabled lessons. They were not given a strict time limit to complete the game since we wanted to focus on the learning outcomes detailed above rather than add additional pressure to succeed, and this would not have fit within the storyline. However, teams were required to finish to allow sufficient time for the post-game worksheet and debriefing activities. Students were unable to see the timer while partaking in the activity. This was to encourage the students to immerse themselves in the game without worrying about how long it has taken them. We did not provide time updates throughout the activity for the same reason. The overall completion time was revealed to teams after the activity if desired. Similarly, teams could enquire about the current state of the leaderboard before (to know the time to beat; providing motivation for some students to succeed) and after completing for themselves (to see how well they performed relative to peers).The story of our game was split into three sections. The first introduced the main goal of the game (in this case to break in, rather than break out) which revolved around grandparents giving their favourite grandchild a gift hidden within the locked compartments of an old suitcase. We also included rules and useful tips for the teams in this section to give a solving framework and guidance on potential points. In the second and third parts of the story, which was unlocked by students upon completing the first three and all puzzles, respectively, allowed us to reiterate which knowledge had been acquired from which puzzle, introduce important definitions, highlight some real world applications of the topic areas, and provide additional guidance on how to rearrange the trigonometric identities discovered.Puzzles were structured around childhood memories of the protagonist, Alex, with their grandparents – going to see a football match, playing board games, and stargazing. We wanted the students to be able to relate to some of the memories within the story in order to aid with learning associations afterwards (Figure 1).Figure 1Our escape suitcase as seen by players upon opening.In this game, we have chosen an open structure for the puzzles in each half of the game, i.e. students had all the required information to solve multiple puzzles available from the beginning (Nicholson, 2015). In the first part, students have three puzzles immediately available to them to solve and once these have been completed (each of which resulted in either a 4-digit or 3-digit code for a padlock on a hasp) they unlock the chest which contains additional game materials for the final two puzzles. We chose to split the game in this way as it was appropriate to the mathematical content embedded.The first half of the game focuses on building familiarity and confidence with the concepts of solving linear equations, measuring angles, and definitions of side lengths in right angled triangles (hypotenuse, adjacent, and opposite). In the second half, students are required to apply these ideas to trigonometric calculations.If teams choose to separate to solve the puzzles, perhaps based on team strengths, then there is a risk that some students may miss the opportunity to acquire foundational and new (trigonometry) knowledge. However, teams are encouraged to, and would need to, dynamically share information on these concepts (i.e. how to apply them and why the methods work) for the trigonometry-based puzzles in the second half of the game. This means that all students have a sufficient opportunity to acquire and explain the necessary knowledge.While not in the scope of this research, we also implemented a number of the accessibility suggestions made by STEAMER (2020) and from similar appropriate suggestions from our play testers. For e.g., any puzzles or parts of the story with large amounts of text had the option to listen to the information instead (one puzzle also required students to listen to the clue). If students were struggling to open a lock due to motor skill issues, the researcher or a fellow teammate was able to intervene as appropriate.If known in advance, the researcher also checked in with students with SEN before they took part in the activity so that an understanding of student specific measures to implement could be made. This included encouraging the student throughout the activity and asking the other teammates to allow time for actively listening to their ideas. These measures ensured that all puzzlers felt comfortable in the environment and were able to enjoy the full game experience with less barriers.4.2Puzzle Example – Guess WhoPlayers are required to use logical deduction skills to find the only right-angled triangle that fits a number of statements. In the suitcase, there are four cards with yellow borders and a tray of “Guess Who” characters (triangles in this case).On the first of the yellow cards, it gives the rules of how to play the popular children’s board game Guess Who. The other three cards are double sided – on one side there is a movie poster with the name of one of the side lengths in a right angled triangle (hypotenuse, adjacent, or opposite) hidden in its title (in the case shown in Figures 2 and 3, “The Spy Adjacent to Us,” and on the other there is a memory from the story’s grandparents. Hidden within each of these memories are some words highlighted in red, which when read as a sentence reveals the definition of the mathematical term in the corresponding film title. Each card contains a question of the form “Does my triangle have this side labelled?” with an answer yes or no, indicating to students whether they should keep or discard any triangle with that side labelled.Figure 2Tray of triangles to guess.Figure 3Hidden definition puzzle.Repeating for all three cards leaves one triangle remaining which provides the code to the first lock.One of the potential issues with this puzzle is that it is possible for students to brute force the code by testing all ten possibilities. To avoid this, and to encourage students to learn the definitions through the puzzle which are crucial to the second half of the game in which trigonometric ratios are introduced, we gave a 5 min time penalty for any team who tested a code without any reason behind their choice.5Results and DiscussionThis section presents the results of our experiment while confirming and extending the results of previous studies.5.1Quantitative Results5.1.1Before and After Escape Room SurveysThe diagnostic and reflection surveys were employed to determine whether there was an increase in the following areas from playing the escape room style activity: perception of and enjoyment with learning mathematics, applicability of mathematics to the wider world, familiarity and confidence with the underlying concepts for and methods of finding side lengths using trigonometry.To test this, we performed a one-tailed, Z-stat hypothesis test on each of the statements scored out of five by the students, as defined in the methodology. In Table 1 below, each of the statement is given along with the calculated Z-stat and associated p-values (both to two significant figures) from comparing our diagnostic and reflection test results. Low p-values (<0.05) indicate a significant result (Sridharan, 2015).Table 1Hypothesis testing for pre-game diagnostic and post-game reflection survey resultsStatementZ-Statp-ValueI feel relaxed towards maths0.590.28I am good at maths0.970.17I enjoy learning maths3.30.00048I learn maths better through games4.20.000016Maths is useful for my future1.20.11I am confident in learning maths−0.860.19Maths has real world applications00.50I enjoy solving puzzles0.530.30I am confident at performing mental arithmetic1.560.059I am familiar with how to rearrange equations4.70.00057I am familiar with how to measure angles0.200.0051I am familiar with the term hypotenuse9.60I am familiar with the term adjacent5.20.00000011I am familiar with the term opposite−1.60.055I am familiar with the concept of trigonometry6.50I am confident in performing trigonometric calculations7.00I think trigonometry is useful4.70.0000013From Table 1, we can see that students’ perception towards studying mathematics generally has not significantly changed, this is reflective of the abilities of students chosen to be in the sample. Students in the top two mathematics sets already had high averages for these areas and so we did not expect a significant change, if any. For confidence with learning mathematics, the averages between surveys decreased slightly. This is likely to be because of the change in pace of solving experienced by many of the teams in the second half of the game where the puzzles rely on students taking time to understand and apply the trigonometric ratios. Since students have limited prior knowledge in this area, this acts as a barrier to their learning, causing visible frustration for some team members as observed by the researcher.The results clearly show an increase in enjoyment of learning mathematics and learning through games directly linked to the hands on, fun nature of the activity. Since the reflection survey was completed by learners immediately after the activity, these results could also be a reflection of the feeling of accomplishment upon winning.In terms of familiarity with the mathematical content within the game, this increased in all areas except confidence with mental arithmetic and familiarity with the term opposite. For mental arithmetic, the smaller, insignificant change was to be expected since this is a concept all the students are familiar with throughout school and use more regularly than the others within the game. The term opposite was given as a more cryptic clue within the game – in two out of the three Guess Who movie posters, the side term was directly embedded into the title, whereas for opposite, the movie title was an antonym of the correct one (Cowardly instead of Brave). This indicates that the majority of students did not make this connection, thus negatively affecting the familiarity averages in the reflection survey.In addition to the questions that were the same on both the diagnostic and reflection surveys, there were some additional reflective questions based on how each student felt that they enjoyed/was engaged with the activity. We also asked them to evaluate their contributions to and how well they worked as part of the team. Table 2 summarises the average scores (out of a maximum of 5, evaluated to 2 significant figures) and also highlights the range of responses (minimums and maximums given).Table 2Reflection only questions resultsStatementAverageMinMaxI enjoyed the escape room4.745I feel as if I learned something4.425I felt fully engaged in the activity4.635I enjoyed working as part of a team4.735I feel I worked well as part of a team4.535Working as a team is important for my future4.635Playing the escape room encouraged me to develop my communication skills4.325Playing the escape room encouraged me to develop my critical thinking skills4.435Playing the escape room encouraged me to develop my collaboration skills4.435Playing the escape room encouraged me to apply my ideas creatively4.535The average score for each question is between 4 and 5, indicating the sample strongly felt that the activity benefited them in the areas stated. This suggests that the game promotes engagement and developing team skills, as confirmed by other researchers. The variation in results for developing communication skills and feeling as if students had learned something are larger than the other questions. For communication, this is likely to be due to an individual’s experience with their team, for e.g., the researcher observed some team members telling others that their performance was poor or ideas were wrong in an inappropriate manner, thus impacting that student’s perception of the team’s communication skills. For feeling as if students had learned something, the variation is reflective of the results from the worksheets as explained below.5.1.2Worksheet ActivityThe worksheet, completed by students after the escape room activity and before the debrief, was used to evaluate whether students had successfully acquired knowledge directly from playing the game. Figure 4 gives a visualisation of the distribution of the total scores from each of the 55 learners in the sample.Figure 4Distribution of total scores by the sample.The mean of 62.6% indicates a good performance from the sample. However, the plot shows that the scores are highly spread out (range of 71.4%), indicating inconsistency in the student performance and therefore knowledge acquisition from the game. There is also a slight positive skew since the mean is greater than the median (the calculated skew value is 0.31 using Pearson’s formula), meaning that there are fewer students who performed better than the mean as opposed to worse than. This suggests that the game could have been more thorough in teaching the objective content.To understand which questions this claim relates to, we provide a breakdown of the sample’s performance.Questions with a higher difficulty index were found to be easier by the sample (majority of students were able to obtain full marks) and questions with a lower discrimination index meant that more higher scoring students were able to answer the question correctly than lower performing ones. Therefore, questions with mid (approximately 0.5) discrimination and difficulty indices are considered better. For e.g., the definitions of side lengths and sketch of a triangle with the adjacent/hypotenuse labelled questions meet these criteria. In these questions, a large proportion of the sample (82.5, 75.4, and 73.7% for the definitions of hypotenuse, adjacent, and opposite, respectively) obtained at least one mark (part of a definition) and the extra details required for the second mark was achieved by less students (52.6, 63.2, and 66.7% for the definitions of hypotenuse, adjacent, and opposite, respectively) – this is a discrimination point. Therefore, the game is successful in familiarising learners with key definitions, but with further revision required for ensuring all details are stated.The questions on rearranging equations and measuring angles are familiar to learners beforehand since these aspects had been covered in the scheme of work before play. Therefore, we expected and can see that a high proportion of the sample scored full marks (84.7% for rearranging equations and 86.0% for measuring angles) in this area. This is reflective of the high averages for familiarity and confidence in these areas in both the diagnostic and reflection surveys.The three trigonometry questions had low discrimination (0.02–0.23) and difficulty (0.04–0.39) indices meaning that these questions were less-accessible to lower performing students. However, since this section of the paper is new content to the learners, we expected this result. From observations made during the marking process, the trigonometry questions rose to some main misconceptions – first, some students incorrectly applied the side length definitions leading to the use of an incorrect ratio. Second, some thought that “9 cos” was equivalent to “cos(29),” for example. Third, students often thought they needed to find the missing angle within each triangle rather than a side. Finally, many students used side lengths in their trigonometric calculations instead of the given angle. These issues and others not mentioned negatively impacted the average scores for these questions. In particular, the contextualised question removed all of the scaffolds given throughout the game (such as a diagram to fill in) without slowly removing them as suggested by the research. This meant that only one student achieved full marks in the question, and reflects the low average score (0.93 out of 4).Even though some students were able to successfully learn the new content from this activity, further tweaks to the game design are necessary to achieve wider spread success.5.2Qualitative ResultsThroughout the game, the researcher made observations on good and bad examples of various team work skills displayed by the students, in order to ascertain whether there was a correlation between completion time and effectiveness of teamwork. We also wanted to confirm the findings of previous researchers who have stated that the activity encourages building these skills.Table 3 displays the subjective scores (as observed by the researcher) for each team in a number of different areas, sorted by their total score. A score of 1 (highlighted green) in a category indicates the team displayed exemplar behaviours in this area with minimal grievances. A score of 0.5 (highlighted orange) suggests the team exhibited mostly good qualities but with isolated moments of negativity. A score of 0 (highlighted red) indicates the team mostly performed poorly in this area, e.g. degraded the effort and ideas of fellow teammates. For e.g., in the communication category, good behaviours include the use of positive affirmations, actively listening to and giving credit for all ideas and evaluating their success politely, and appropriate body language. Negative behaviours include talking over each other, disregarding the opinion and ideas of others and enclosed body language.Table 3Observations ResultsFrom Table 3, we can identify that scores in particular categories such as patience, supportiveness, listening, and communication are often linked. Individuals within teams that got frustrated when met with a solving barrier (like the team who took 72:21 to complete the activity), were observed to exhibit poorer communication skills in these moments (e.g. blaming another member of the team for a puzzle solving failure) and the rest of the team did not offer affirmations/support to help their teammate overcome this. Leadership scores appear independent of others since teams can define good strategies for solving (e.g. working all together, divide and conquer/splitting based on known mathematical strengths) without impacting/being impacted by the other qualities.Figure 5 shows the total team work score for each group against their completion time (sorted in ascending order). The correlation coefficient of 0.0883 suggests that there is no correlation between completion time and team work score. This is due to the variety of personalities observed within each team, for e.g., some teams scored poorly on an area that was largely influenced by one member of the team (spoke poorly to team mates, ignored ideas, etc.) whereas the others worked well together, thus still achieving the goal in a good time. While not explicitly measured, completion times are also affected by factors such as speed of identifying the correct solving method and amount of guidance given to the team (number of hints and strength of them), further explaining the lack of correlation.Figure 5Plot of completion time and team work score.6Summary and Future WorkThis study aimed to determine whether an escape room style activity could effectively teach new content to students who had limited prior knowledge in the area (trigonometry in our case) through evaluating learner performance in a post-game worksheet covering the same mathematical content as the game. We saw partial success in knowledge acquisition as a result of playing the game – the majority of students could define and correctly label a right-angled triangle with the side names hypotenuse, opposite, and adjacent. Due to prior familiarity, students performed well on the revision style questions solving equations and measuring acute angles. As a result of misconceptions arising from the game design, few students were able to access and score highly on the trigonometry questions. This means further lessons to explore the concept would be required. Below we suggest tweaks to the game design for further study into an escape room’s teaching capabilities.Second, through comparative surveys taken before and after the activity, we aimed to assess whether students’ perception of studying mathematics, applicability of concepts to the real world, and familiarity with the specific topics covered within the game changed as a result of playing. We found that there was a statistically significant increase in the familiarity with new topics including side length definitions in a right-angled triangle and defining/using the concept of trigonometry. From the reflection only questions, the majority stated that they enjoyed the activity, felt as if they had learned something and that the game encouraged them to develop their team skills. However, this did not always link to knowledge acquisition as shown through the worksheet analysis, or strong team skills displayed as detailed by the researcher’s observations.Finally, we wanted to assess whether there was a correlation between completion time and effectiveness of team work. Through observations made by the researcher, students were subjectively scored on their team work in categories including communication, leadership, and patience. We discovered that the scores given in some aspects such as communication and supportiveness were linked in some cases where frustrations with learning was met. We found there was no correlation between completion time and team work score given, sometimes due to the poor behaviours (e.g. bad choice of language, blaming others in the team for failures, etc.) of individuals impacting the team score, even if the rest were able to work well together and solve quickly. We also recognised that the completion time is impacted by a number of external factors including timing and number of hints given, explaining the lack of correlation.6.1Game Design ChangesSince student attainment of the new trigonometry concepts was lower than expected, we suggest some changes to the structure and puzzles within the game based on the misconceptions identified when marking the worksheet. These changes would warrant an additional study into an escape room’s teaching potential. Some students confused the terms given angle and right angle, despite there being a clue in which it was possible to deduce which was which. Therefore, we would introduce greater clarity on this term, e.g. having a sample right-angled triangle with the given angle and right angle labelled, to ensure all students are able to access and understand the definitions used throughout the game.To encourage all students to work together to discuss ideas for and share knowledge of using the trigonometric ratios, the second half of the game would have had a linear progression with puzzles showcasing a greater breakdown of the steps required to solve a trigonometric equation. To make learners aware of calculations requiring the sine/cosine/tangent of a given angle, we would have had a shorter, additional puzzle in which students needed to identify the trigonometric function’s value from a given angle. This would have ensured that students understood that the functions use angles and give an appreciation for how this is calculated, before discovering and being allowed to use a calculator to find these values in future puzzles. Next we would have a matching based puzzle so students can recognise which ratio is appropriate in a number of different cases, i.e. choosing the ratio that includes the side which they know the value of and the side they wish to find the length of. Finally, we could have had one of the two original second half puzzles for students to complete as a final task. This requires students to use the skills built throughout the game. Students would be allowed to look back on other game materials to help solve and the activity leader could guide towards those that are particularly applicable if required.While these changes would likely have had a greater impact on student attainment, they would also cause the length of the game to increase significantly. This would mean most teams would be unable to complete the activity, the surveys, the worksheet, and have a teacher-led debrief within the 2 h assigned to each sample group. In the game’s present form, we would suggest it is better suited as a revision/knowledge check tool after a formal lesson, as stated by previous researchers (Clauson et al., 2019; Eukel et al., 2017; Healy, 2019)6.2Future WorkWith further tweaks to the game design, as discussed above, we would suggest a repeat of this study with a more diverse and larger sample (multiple genders, nationalities, and abilities with mathematics) so that generalisations can be made to a wider population regarding the activity’s success in teaching new content. This would, therefore, allow for comparisons in attainment and engagement across different population compartments. We could also compare the various groups’ results from playing an escape room to that of a standard teacher-centric lesson using a similar worksheet style activity. By introducing a third survey to be completed around 1 month after the activity, we could ascertain whether students’ perception and familiarity with the topic areas had changed in the long term. This data could, of course, be impacted if the content is covered in timetabled sessions before the questionnaire is completed.Further avenues for investigation include building an escape room that can be used as a form of standardised assessment or job interview, extending the current literature into assessing teamwork. While this detracts from the fun nature of the activity, it could reduce the intensity of and high feelings of stress involved with standard desk-based examinations. The design would likely need to incorporate levels matching the associated learning objectives so that students can obtain a grade at the end. There would also need to be a procedure in place to either evaluate individual contributions within a team, or for the game to be playable solo within a reasonable time frame.Another path of research would be into the return of investment for an educator in building such an activity. These activities take considerable time and resources to make, with varying degrees of payoff depending on the research focus. While companies such as BreakoutEDU eliminate this issue, this is not always an affordable option for an educator with multiple classes to cater for. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Open Education Studies de Gruyter

Escape Rooms for Secondary Mathematics Education: Design and Experiments

Open Education Studies , Volume 5 (1): 1 – Jan 1, 2023

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Publisher
de Gruyter
Copyright
© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter
ISSN
2544-7831
DOI
10.1515/edu-2022-0194
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Abstract

1IntroductionEscape rooms (sometimes referred to as escape games, breakout activities, and room escape games) are a popular form of live-action team game in which players search for clues in order to solve puzzles that eventually accomplish a goal (e.g. finding hidden treasure or more usually escaping from the room), all within a specified time limit (usually 60 min). The focus is on using team work skills such as communication and collaboration to logically deduce the solutions to each puzzle in the game (Nicholson, 2015).While in-person games tend not to require outside knowledge, these activities have recently been transferred into an educational setting in which students work together to, for example, develop and use curriculum content and increase their engagement with their studies (Fotaris & Mastoras, 2019).We have identified a gap in the current research, which largely focuses on those skills identified above, for using this activity as a way of teaching new content to students. The aim of this research is to identify whether an escape room activity can successfully achieve this while confirming the findings of previous researchers on engagement/general feelings towards learning mathematics and evaluating teamwork strategies.1.1Project Background and RationaleSince the emergence of these activities, numerous educators have created classroom based experiences of their own and presented key findings on engagement/motivation (Dimova, Videnovik, & Trajkovik, 2020; Lopez-Pernas, Gordillo, Barra, & Que-mada, 2019; Nicholson & Cable, 2021; Vergne, Simmons, & Bowen, 2019), puzzle design (Eukel, Frenzel, & Cernusca, 2017; Healy, 2019; Heckelmann & Bucholz, 2020; Ho, 2018; Nicholson & Cable, 2021; Voros & Sarkozi, 2017), effective team building skills presented by students during play (Clauson et al., 2019; Heckelmann & Bucholz, 2020), the role of the teacher (Eukel et al., 2017; Friedrich, Teaford, Taubenheim, Boland, & Sick, 2019; Healy, 2019; Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019; Nicholson, 2015), applying curriculum content (Clauson et al., 2019; Eukel et al., 2017; Healy, 2019; Nicholson & Cable, 2021; Voros & Sarkozi, 2017), and reflective assessment (Ho, 2018; Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019). Since the use of educational escape rooms is still a relatively new field there are a number of important gaps that should be addressed for future research.While educators have used escape rooms for students to apply curriculum content in a contextualised setting and build familiarity with new skills (with teaching coming from a debriefing activity held after play), they have not yet been tested for teaching students who have little baseline knowledge of a given subject. This style of activity allows for students who are not naturally reading/writing learners, like in a traditional classroom setting, to access material more freely, while offering a variety to everyday lessons in an exciting format.There is also limited research into the effects of puzzle based learning, with appropriate adaptations as suggested by LogoPsy (2020) and STEAMER (2020) on students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). It is possible that the escape room activity could be less stressful than an average lesson due to its small group nature and emphasis on teamwork. We also recognise that the role of the teacher (using words of encouragement, asking the rest of the team to actively listen to ideas, etc.) would play a factor in the students’ experience throughout.From an assessment design perspective, escape rooms require the use of highly desirable problem solving and effective team skills in order to complete the activity, thus achieving the learning goals. In the UK, mathematics exams are increasingly requiring students to apply knowledge in contextualised settings; therefore, building situational awareness and confidence in their abilities over time. For an escape room to be fairly used as a form of assessment, there needs to be a way of assessing team work strategies, for which there is some research into peer assessment strategies for this by Stanford university (Montoya, 2021), and for embedding the curriculum content in a standardised way.1.2Aims and ObjectivesThis project aims to develop an escape room activity capable of teaching trigonometry to students who have limited knowledge in the area. We will evaluate our game’s success as a teaching tool (through analysis of results on a post-game worksheet) and for improving students’ feelings towards studying mathematics and their perception of the applicability of content outside of an educational setting, comparisons are made from form responses provided by learners both before and after the experience. It is also our intention to confirm the findings of other researchers on increased engagement and the development/encouragement of team building skills, extending this to determine whether there is correlation between strength of team skills displayed and completion time. We will also offer suggestions as to further the areas of research that could be made that are currently missing from what is available.This research builds on the small body of knowledge developed in the last 10 years to offer a brand-new way of using the escape room within the classroom. Unlike prior research, our game is designed so that learning takes place directly from playing whereas those in the current research actively use a debrief to convey the curriculum ideas seen throughout the game. Using escape rooms as a teaching tool, allows educators to witness firsthand common misconceptions in topic areas that could then directly influence future teaching.The activity also caters to students of various learning styles (audio, visual, kinaesthetic, reading, and writing) meaning every child is able to participate without barrier on at least one puzzle, contributing to the progression of the game in their team (Fleming & Mills, 1992). This provides the opportunity for students to harvest their creativity and take ownership of their learning as they discover, without the need for prior knowledge or new mathematical content. This encourages additional skills such as decision making and perseverance – i.e. they may not understand everything to begin with, but by using team work skills, patiently testing ideas, and occasionally receiving subtle hints from the games master to keep on track, they will be able to understand enough of the content to succeed, providing an important sense of achievement and a confidence boost for the learners.Within the game, one of the puzzles is specifically designed to showcase where trigonometry can be applied in the real world, this gives students an appreciation for the importance and applicability of mathematics outside of the classroom. Since the activity is vastly different to a normal lesson and the students are discovering material for themselves, the content is likely to be more memorable, allowing students to link puzzles within the game to future lessons and exam style questions.1.3Partners1.3.1Richard Hale SchoolRichard Hale School, founded in 1617, is a boys-only secondary school (ages 11–18) in the east of England. They provide a varied and balanced curriculum for both General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A-level studies that challenges students and prepares for future study/working life (Richard Hale School, 2022).Pupils at Richard Hale were selected based on both age and ability (top two sets out of seven) to take part in our experiment.2Literature ReviewThe game design includes everything that is seen and experienced by the student while partaking in the activity this includes time limits, game structures, narratives, and puzzle design. These elements are usually linked to generate a smoother game flow, in which students can associate aspects of the story/associated puzzles with the embedded learning content.We also discuss the role of the teacher (or researcher) in the facilitation of an escape room activity. Teacher interaction can directly influence the students’ engagement and perception of their performance in the activity since they are responsible for keeping a team on target to complete the game, e.g. by issuing hints as appropriate to avoid learner’s reaching points of stress and frustration.2.1Game DesignScott Nicholson, an expert in escape rooms, suggests that there are three basic structures for any game. First, linear (sometimes called sequential) where students have to solve one puzzle at a time in order to escape the room (Nicholson, 2015). These rooms are frequently used in medical case studies such as that by Eukel et al. (2017) to demonstrate following/simulating an industry standard process and applying relevant skills in dealing with patients safely and effectively.The second type is a path-based structure, where there are multiple different linear sets of puzzles that each lead to a result. When used in combination these results usually give the final code needed to win the game (escape from the room) (Nicholson, 2015). This allows teams to split up to solve strands of the game and discuss their experience afterwards (both what they encountered and did not), or dynamically share their knowledge in-game if required to progress with a puzzle. Often the solution to a puzzle (or combination of puzzles) will result in further information or puzzles that will aid a team, as demonstrated by some of the puzzles created by Lopez-Pernas et al. (2019).The final structure is open, where nearly all puzzles are immediately available to the team and each lead to a fragment of the final solution (Nicholson, 2015). These games are less common in education due to their higher complexity from having less of a clear structure generally resulting in greater guidance from educators being required (Veldkamp, Grint, Knippels, & Joolingen, 2020). Educators could also choose their game structure (including a hybridisation of those above) to fit around the topic they wish to create the activity for. For example, a path-based structure could be most appropriate for a game teaching crime scene analysis since students are able to work on different aspects of the investigation simultaneously.The narrative of a game is the story that the students immerse themselves in order to escape/reach the final goal. Cable and Nicholson suggest that all activities within the game should fit around the story, providing a cognitive framework (constructing plausible links between puzzles, solutions, and the story) for the action, and that the student protagonists should feel as if they are influencing the final outcome as they solve each part (Nicholson & Cable, 2021). This allows a student to become immersed in the game, motivating them to play and can also be a means to associate content learned with experiences from the game (Dickey, 2006). An example narrative (which need not be complex) is taken from Healy who incorporated a wrongful imprisonment murder investigation into their entomology puzzles (one for each question – who, when, where, and how). Students had exactly 1 h before the inmate would be wrongfully executed to prove each of the questions (Healy, 2019).The use of time pressure woven into the narrative, while keeping with social escape room characteristics and providing urgency for solving the situation, can detract from the learning experience. Some theorists suggest that it can impair learning due to constraints on exploration, and thinking time, restricting how in-depth students can go with the material. This could also evoke feelings of anxiety for students with performance (performing as well as possible in comparison to other learner)/mastery (learning as much as possible through immersion) avoidance (Moore & Tenney, 2012).There is no set way to design a puzzle since this is a creative process, individual to the creator. However, standard techniques include ciphers, sequences, and searching (School Break, 2019). Theorists and escape room professionals have proposed numerous qualities that make a good and appropriate puzzle both for social escape rooms and educational ones, as well as examples of standard puzzles that could be incorporated into a game. Elumir gives 13 rules for fair puzzle design including puzzles having a single answer, no ambiguity, and clues making sense plus being clearly linked to the puzzle/its solution. These factors easily impact the engagement with the activity (negatively if puzzles/clues do not make sense, meaning progress is restricted) and understanding of the learning content (Elumir, 2018).The biggest challenge for educators creating games is to link the puzzles to the learning outcomes and not have puzzles that are purely for fun. Cable and Nicholson suggest a layering technique to organise and build (from lower order thinking skills to higher ones) the learning objectives (Nicholson & Cable, 2021). For e.g., a puzzle using atomic numbers could yield four elements of the periodic table in an incorrect order. An additional layer of this puzzle could be to require students to order in their order of discovery. This would cover multiple learning objectives (applying atomic number references and appreciating the historical background of the elements), while providing an additional challenge to students.2.2FacilitationDuring an escape room activity, the teacher has some key roles to play to ensure that gameplay runs smoothly through observations and interactions with teams as appropriate. Multiple games reviewed allow students to use hints (sometimes called clues or lifelines) provided by educators to help them progress within the game, providing immediate feedback on their prior approaches (what worked and what did not) (Veldkamp et al., 2020). Unlike social escape rooms where hints tend to be unlimited (or at the game masters discretion), numerous educational escape rooms give students a limited number of hints, sometimes also with a time penalty for using (Clauson et al., 2019), or require them to earn them through solving an additional puzzle or multichoice quiz to reinforce the learning (Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019).Time penalties are used to defer students from using hints too early, encouraging them to persevere against their learning barrier, attempting multiple ideas before recognising that they need some additional help to progress (Heckelmann & Bucholz, 2020). It also acts as a way of promoting competition amongst groups without impacting a team’s overall performance (Vergne et al., 2019). However, punishing teams for requiring assistance negatively reinforces the behaviour of questioning for learning, which has been proven by theorists to be a useful strategy for students in knowledge acquisition (Vygotsky, 1962).Another option is for the educator to intervene with guidance as they feel appropriate for a team. This has been an ongoing debate in collaborative learning since it is difficult for an educator to judge when the best time to intervene is. Providing guidance too early could hinder the quality of the collaboration and affect the attainment of the learning outcomes. Similarly, if too late, the team dynamic could already be negatively impacted due to the frustration of being stuck (Leeuwen & Janssen, 2019).Another role of the teacher is to provide a debrief to students after the activity has been completed. This allows students to honestly discuss their experiences within the game (socially learning from their peers and from feedback from teachers), for educators to answer student’s questions on specific puzzles, aspects of the story, or educational content they have come across and to reinforce the learning objectives/explain the topics if students have not encountered them before (Friedrich et al., 2019). These aspects allow the learner to develop critical thinking skills, make associations within the game to the learning objectives, as well as take ownership of their learning. This can lead to the student willingly making positive changes to their approach for future lessons (Yaacob, Asraf, Hussain, & Ismail, 2021).2.3Uses of Educational Escape RoomsThe majority of case studies reviewed stated that student engagement increased as a result of playing the educational escape room activity. These comments were often based off observations from the researcher/educator of the teams while playing, and from student opinion provided during the debrief activity (survey, small group discussion, etc.). Students were regularly found to enjoy the hands on learning activity and wanted to complete similar in the future (Dimova et al., 2020).Some studies also suggested that students became intrinsically motivated and committed to the activity (doing it not just because they had to as part of a prescribed learning activity). One quote from a student participant states that they did not want to let their team-mates down, and work to their best abilities, indicating a sense of inter-dependency amongst team members (e.g. the need to share information and evaluate ideas respectfully), and an ownership of learning (Lopez-Pernas et al., 2019). However, these claims are difficult to justify when external factors such as competition amongst teams and completion time plays a factor in a student’s experience of a game, and in the absence of numerical data (Veldkamp et al., 2020).Some games were designed to help students revise and improve their knowledge of topics covered in regular lessons. Students are able to benefit from applying their knowledge to contextualised situations and developing teamwork skills through peer based collaborative learning (Ho, 2018). One medical based study found that students who completed the escape room activity significantly improved their understanding of diabetes when comparing their pre-game (1 week before) and post-game test scores (immediately after) (Eukel et al., 2017). The prospect of playing an educational escape room may have motivated some students to study beforehand, so that their team has a competitive edge. Therefore, not all increases in understanding can be attributed directly to the game.Another game reviewed aimed to teach students new concepts (assuming students have no prior knowledge) through the game, and more majorly in the debrief where educators explain the underlying concepts linked to each puzzle, thus de-contextualising the knowledge and allowing students to make necessary associations for their learning. They further suggest that the game was the result of the student’s knowledge acquisition; however, this cannot fully be the case due to the explanations provided by teachers in the debrief before learners completing the post-game quiz. This study went on to suggest that only the knowledge directly related to the game was attained after the activity and debriefing (Voros & Sarkozi, 2017). Therefore, additional lessons would be required to provide students with a deeper understanding of game learning content.Few studies reviewed incorporated escape rooms into their formative assessment – of those studied, all focused on scoring team work and the student’s evaluation rather than the application of curriculum content. For example, Montoya at Stanford University developed a training programme and applied an adapted notation system from Sonocar for peer reviewing team work skills. Students are peer assessed (1-to-1) based on their positive behaviours within their playing team and also any changes in behaviour as a result of feedback either from another team member or teacher (L. Montoya, personal communication, July 16, 2021). This gives students a clear understanding of exemplar strategies to apply in team situations (working life) in the future, experience of providing feedback (including constructive criticism) to others in an appropriate manner, and developing their evaluation/critical thinking skills.A number of studies stated improving and practising team skills as a motivation for the study. Results generally show the educational escape room game promotes these skills through collaborative learning theories and leads to an improvement in learners. These developments are attributed to comments from educator observations and post-game reflections from students (Veldkamp et al., 2020). The reflection gave students an opportunity to honestly discuss and evaluate where they used skills such as communication and creativity well, and areas in which they feel they need to improve (Eukel et al., 2017).The STEAMER project recognises the need to adapt educational escape rooms for students with SEN. Smaller team sizes are deemed more appropriate for teams with dyspraxic or dyslexic students since this gives them greater freedom to navigate around the space, and also reduce the levels of stress that could be induced from being in large crowd environments. This allows for greater focus and a more relaxed participation in the activity (STEAMER, 2020).Another adaption that could be made is to adjust the time allowed for students (either giving longer or no specified time limit) to complete the activity since some students may have difficulty in perceiving how long they have left, and or feel stressed by the pressure it induces (LogoPsy, 2020).Finally, having options within the game materials allows the students to be able to access the material. For e.g., using dyslexic friendly fonts and simplified language or the option to listen to clues as appropriate instead, can aid accessibility and improve the affective responses from SEN participants (STEAMER, 2020).2.4Gaps in the LiteratureIn the examples that state students learned something new from the game, the debrief was extensively used to cover the topic areas in the learning objectives. This enabled students to make associations with the educational content and puzzles within the game, and to gain a greater understanding of methods and theories applicable. However, there has been no research into whether knowledge acquisition can come solely from completing an escape room activity. This study aims to test this through analysing student worksheet results immediately after completing a specially designed game on a topic area (trigonometry) on which they have limited prior knowledge.Assessment in escape rooms is currently underused since educators are primarily focused on other benefits such as improving engagement. While methods for reviewing team skills have been identified, this does not currently fit within the standard curriculum in the UK. It would be interesting to develop an escape room that successfully converts exam style questions into a game experience. Scores in a traditional written exam could be compared to that of the activity to see if there is a difference in behaviours across the two settings and any variation in results achieved.The suggestions made on inclusivity in educational escape rooms by STEAMER and LogoPsy have not yet been formally tested on SEN students. We would suggest a comparative study to see if there is a change in behaviour and noticeable difference in experience/knowledge acquisition for students with SEN with and with-out these adaptations in place in comparison to a normal teacher-centric lesson. There also needs to be further research into the role of the teacher interaction in this case, focusing on encouragement, ensuring each learner has time to articulate and discuss their ideas, and positive affirmations given throughout the activity.Escape room activities require a large amount of time and resources in preparation from the educator in order to run smoothly and yield a successful learning experience. While there are proven results on increased engagement and greater familiarity with and ability to apply knowledge of topic areas, there is still a debate whether the return of investment is great enough for a teacher.3MethodologyWe are investigating whether an escape room activity can be used to teach mathematics curriculum content (trigonometry in our case) to students who have limited prior knowledge of the area, while also confirming the results of other researchers on increased engagement and elements of exemplary team skills portrayed by students as they play.In order to create the game that students will complete, we employed an agile development process through making changes based on the feedback from a team of professional escape room enthusiast and university student beta testers (some with limited mathematical backgrounds) to ensure that all puzzles flow, make sense, are well signposted (it is clear which materials go together for each puzzle and the corresponding locks to enter solution attempts, and also clear when a puzzle is complete), achieve the intended aims, and are appropriate in language and complexity for the target audience. The game design and development process are detailed in Section 4.Students in this project were selected based on their mathematical ability (sets 1 and 2 out of 7), this is because these students were likelier to access the higher level material in the game. We will use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate the success of our activity in the defined areas.3.1Quantitative DataA pre-game diagnostic survey and post-game reflection survey are used as part of our quantitative data – the same questions were given to students in both cases so that any changes in the students’ feelings towards studying mathematics, applicability of mathematics to the real word, and familiarity with the precursor skills, terms, and methods for trigonometry before and after playing the escape room could be identified. There was an anticipated change in scores before and after the game was completed as students engaged with the new topic area and worked creatively as a team. There were also some game-specific additional questions focusing on team work performance and engagement with the activity in the reflection survey in order to help to confirm the findings of other researchers.The surveys were given to groups of 3–4 students (55 in total) during their respective time slot of 2 school lessons (1 h each) for completing the escape room activity. In each case, participants were given a minimum of 10 min to complete and review their choices. They were asked to answer truthfully and not communicate with their peers while completing to avoid bias. While the method for quantitative analysis of thoughts and feelings through the diagnostic and reflection surveys can describe the effect of using the game, it does not guarantee that the change is explicitly caused by playing the game. Since there is a short time frame between completing the diagnostic, playing the game, and finishing the reflection form, this is unlikely to be the case in our study since the experience is still fresh in the students’ minds.In addition to the thoughts and feelings comparison surveys, we also used a post-game worksheet in order to evaluate how well information from the activity was taught and retained post play. This allowed us to identify common misconceptions amongst students, indicating possible further refinements to the activity in the future, and also a firm basis for whether escape rooms are a plausible educational tool. This methodology is not standard since we chose not to offer the worksheet before the activity and compare results between tests. In justification, one of the selection criteria for students is that they have limited prior knowledge of trigonometry. This is so that we could directly link any successful learning to the escape room activity.To analyse the results of the common survey questions, we implemented a two-variable hypothesis test with a confidence interval of 95%. From this we obtained the Z-Stat and associated p-value. This meant we could statistically determine whether there was an increase or decrease in the sample population’s feelings towards mathematics generally, and of the specific topics covered within the game. We also evaluated whether student perception of the applicability of mathematics improved as a result of playing. Due to a student joining the activity late, there is one missing diagnostic form completion, hence we have eliminated this result as an anomaly. We also chose to remove the data relating to team work from a solo player as the student was unable to reflect on this aspect of the activity.In order to analyse the data, we used in-built spread-sheet tools (on Google Sheets) to calculate the required information for use in our hypothesis testing calculations (mean, standard deviation, and sample size for each dataset) using standard formulae. While the method allowed us to make informed decisions regarding the changes in perception upon completing the escape room activity, it cannot indicate the size of the effect. By further analysis into the change in average between forms we can evaluate the size of the error.To analyse the scores of the students in the worksheet activity, we have calculated the average, median, and quartiles to show the distribution and skewness of the data. We have also calculated the discrimination (how well an assessment differentiates between high and low scorers) and difficulty (how hard each question is based on the number that scored full marks on it) indexes (Pinellas School District & Florida Center for Instructional Technology, 2018) for each question to compare attainment amongst learners grouped by performance. Since the students are reasonably new to the topic areas covered in the worksheet, it was intended to be difficult to compare the difficulty and discrimination indexes as all participants chosen have a similar entry grade in mathematics.3.2Qualitative DataThroughout the students’ participation in the escape room, the researcher (and activity leader) observed behaviours and made notes on puzzle strategies, good and bad uses of team work skills such as communication, collaboration, organisation, and when any hints/guidance was given to the team. This process was repeated for all participating teams (between 3 and 4 students at a time) and explicit consent for this was obtained beforehand. Observation times varied between 45 and 75 min depending on how quickly the team completed the activity. The researcher was able to intervene with hints and guidance as appropriate (evaluated below) to ensure learning takes place and that teams did not get overly frustrated, negatively impacting their dynamic.To ensure the validity of the results, we reported both good and bad examples of team work in each group and we reflected on elements of the researcher’s input that could impact the results of either the quantitative or qualitative analysis.Hints were also useful to avoid teams getting frustrated and negatively impacting the dynamic of the team. In most cases, hints were provided in advance of teammates reaching this point. Clues were used to nudge teams in the right direction without explicitly giving anything away. The researcher also intervened after every puzzle with positive affirmations such as good job, well done, etc. to ensure teams felt successful and motivated to continue in the game. These elements were used to encourage better team building skills and ensure that the students remained engaged and enjoyed the game as this is a strong emphasis of puzzle- and game-based learning.To analyse these results, we created a table where each team was scored based on their team skills – green (1), orange (0.5), and red (0) were awarded to teams who worked consistently well, mostly well (some elements of good and bad), and mostly poorly, respectively, in a defined area (e.g. communication or collaboration). Our observations also allowed us to determine some causes of poorer team work and also elements that make it better. Each team’s total teamwork score was evaluated against their completion time to determine whether there was a direct link between the effectiveness of team work skills and escape time. To inform our decision we performed regression analysis using the in-built functions in Google Sheets, in order to estimate the degree to which the two are correlated.3.3Evaluation of MethodologyApplying a mixed quantitative and qualitative methodology allowed us to gain a greater understanding of student interactions with the game, good and bad aspects to their team skills, and evaluate any knowledge attainment caused as a direct result of playing the escape room activity. Our approach also allowed for common misconceptions to be identified, influencing potential further teaching and adaptations to our game design for future students. This procedure meant we could form a strong basis for a larger study with a greater variety of students from different genders and socioeconomic backgrounds, more indicative of a general population, into this new use of the escape room activity within the classroom.In order to gain a deeper understanding of individual student’s thoughts towards and prior understanding of both mathematics generally and the specific topic areas covered within the game, we could have conducted interviews with each student before and after the activity to qualitatively understand this. However, doing this would be difficult to allow a comparison/prove any changes in results before and after without introducing some objectivity from the researcher. We would also have struggled to do this within the time constraints of 2 h per group of up to four students.Similarly, for the worksheet aspect of our analysis, we could have conducted a similar discussion asking students to talk through their methods to a variety of GCSE style questions. This would not be appropriate since the examination requires written responses to questions with all aspects to the method given in detail. While some responses may appear correct verbally the written intention may be perceived differently – for e.g., if a student was to say “sine 30” they may write “sin(30) or 30sin” with only one application being correct. With further questioning this difference could be evaluated but detracts from the assessment of attainment purely from playing the game.For the observations of team work (qualitative data), the researcher could not have been involved with the group at all. This would have enabled us to explore the behavioural changes in students when stuck on a puzzle with no clue provided, and how this would impact the wider team dynamic. However, it is unlikely that many of the teams would be able to complete the activity and subsequently effectively learn the skills required to solve trigonometry questions with no guidance from the researcher. This is similar to a student not being allowed to ask questions to the teacher and peers in a different, more traditional setting. Researchers have highlighted the importance of students asking questions to fill gaps in and extend their knowledge of topic areas, allowing them to understand their incorrect approach, connect ideas between different topic areas, and ultimately resolve puzzlement (Chin & Osborne, 2008).In escape rooms, one of the roles of the games' master/host is to provide hints to teams so that progression is guaranteed and enjoyment of the game is maximised – one of the key emphasises in game-based learning. While our chosen observation style is not generalisable, the method can be replicated for other similar studies yielding a greater understanding of exemplary displays of teamwork amongst students.Throughout the experiment, we had to overcome a number of obstacles that affected our data collection. First, some students were given a brief overview of what trigonometry is and the concept of rearranging equations, which is required in calculating missing side lengths in right angled triangles, prior to the activity by their regular class teacher; this meant some teams were at an advantage as they had some idea of how to apply the information in advance. Thus, we cannot guarantee all learning came directly from the study. If this study were repeated, we would have requested that all class teachers give no prior details to students so that the data do not become skewed.Second, due to the lack of resources (scientific calculators), there was a small change made to the worksheet post-print – where students were asked to give their answer to a number of decimal places/significant figures, we instead asked students to only write the exact calculation they would put into their calculator. This caused confusion for some students (e.g. some wrote the rearranged ratio with no values, even if labelled on their triangle). To combat this, benefit of doubt marks were awarded so that no student was disadvantaged by the change. We should have sourced enough calculators for each group before the activity so that all aspects of the mathematical learning could be assessed.Finally, in our diagnostic and reflection forms we did not ask students to provide an identification code. This meant we were unable to track the progress of individual students before and after the activity. While there was no ethical issue with this as the inability to remove data post activity completion was made clear before consent was given, we were unable to ascertain whether there is a greater change in results between students who feel less positively towards mathematics and their pre-game abilities to that afterwards, and similarly for other subgroups of students.4Game Design and ImplementationThis section details the process from idea to finished product of the game that key stage three students played as part of our experiment to determine whether escape rooms can be used to teach a topic to those that have limited prior knowledge of it. Elements of the game design including puzzle structure (Nicholson, 2015) and the role of the teacher (Leeuwen & Janssen, 2019) were directly inspired from published literature. The researcher also reflected on their personal experience as a regular player of escape rooms – taking inspiration from interesting mechanics and puzzles they have come across.Before the game was tested on high school students, beta testers were employed to make suggestions on necessary improvements (agile development process – progressively better iterations) to make sure that the game had the possibility to achieve the intended goals. Fifteen groups of testers (with team sizes between 1 and 3) including escape room enthusiasts (a player who enjoys discussing rooms in fine detail after the experience as well as playing them. Enthusiasts are also likely to keep a log of their performance in rooms they have completed and have a list of ones they wish to play in the future) and university students of different degree programmes were employed as play testers.The testing phase included feedback on where puzzles did not make sense or were ambiguous in their solution, had accessibility issues such as font types and lacked sign-posting (includes ease of identifying relevant game materials, identifying which lock is for which puzzle, and how obvious it was when a puzzle had been completed). We also asked the beta testers for their opinion on the optimal team size of students and an appropriate time limit to give them.In our game, the role of the researcher is to act as a games master (someone who introduces the story and rules of the game, provides hints to teams as appropriate and debriefs afterwards), a typed note-taking observer for the qualitative data regarding team skills and to provide a debrief to the players post-game. This includes answering questions, allowing students to honestly reflect on the experience through a form and explaining more formally the mathematical concepts covered after the worksheet assessment had been completed.Hints could be requested by teams but were at the discretion of the games master (similar to some social escape rooms where the games master will refuse a hint request to teams who are close to, or have barely attempted, finding the correct solution to a puzzle), or the researcher could intervene as they saw appropriate. This ensured teams could progress and complete the game within the allotted time, without inducing feelings that could impact the team dynamic.Aside from the research goals previously specified, we defined three learning goals for the students who play the game in line with some of the case studies examined in the literature review (Healy, 2019); these were made clear to students before partaking in the activity:–To build familiarity with and to acquire the underlying skills for and methods of finding side lengths in right angled triangles using trigonometry.–To encourage team working skills including communication and critical thinking through exploring an active learning environment, and for students to evaluate their role within it.–To build an awareness and appreciation for applications of mathematics outside of the classroom.4.1Narrative and Game StructureBased on beta tester recommendations, teams of four students (two from each of the top two mathematics set at the test school) were chosen to partake in the game instead of two of their regularly timetabled lessons. They were not given a strict time limit to complete the game since we wanted to focus on the learning outcomes detailed above rather than add additional pressure to succeed, and this would not have fit within the storyline. However, teams were required to finish to allow sufficient time for the post-game worksheet and debriefing activities. Students were unable to see the timer while partaking in the activity. This was to encourage the students to immerse themselves in the game without worrying about how long it has taken them. We did not provide time updates throughout the activity for the same reason. The overall completion time was revealed to teams after the activity if desired. Similarly, teams could enquire about the current state of the leaderboard before (to know the time to beat; providing motivation for some students to succeed) and after completing for themselves (to see how well they performed relative to peers).The story of our game was split into three sections. The first introduced the main goal of the game (in this case to break in, rather than break out) which revolved around grandparents giving their favourite grandchild a gift hidden within the locked compartments of an old suitcase. We also included rules and useful tips for the teams in this section to give a solving framework and guidance on potential points. In the second and third parts of the story, which was unlocked by students upon completing the first three and all puzzles, respectively, allowed us to reiterate which knowledge had been acquired from which puzzle, introduce important definitions, highlight some real world applications of the topic areas, and provide additional guidance on how to rearrange the trigonometric identities discovered.Puzzles were structured around childhood memories of the protagonist, Alex, with their grandparents – going to see a football match, playing board games, and stargazing. We wanted the students to be able to relate to some of the memories within the story in order to aid with learning associations afterwards (Figure 1).Figure 1Our escape suitcase as seen by players upon opening.In this game, we have chosen an open structure for the puzzles in each half of the game, i.e. students had all the required information to solve multiple puzzles available from the beginning (Nicholson, 2015). In the first part, students have three puzzles immediately available to them to solve and once these have been completed (each of which resulted in either a 4-digit or 3-digit code for a padlock on a hasp) they unlock the chest which contains additional game materials for the final two puzzles. We chose to split the game in this way as it was appropriate to the mathematical content embedded.The first half of the game focuses on building familiarity and confidence with the concepts of solving linear equations, measuring angles, and definitions of side lengths in right angled triangles (hypotenuse, adjacent, and opposite). In the second half, students are required to apply these ideas to trigonometric calculations.If teams choose to separate to solve the puzzles, perhaps based on team strengths, then there is a risk that some students may miss the opportunity to acquire foundational and new (trigonometry) knowledge. However, teams are encouraged to, and would need to, dynamically share information on these concepts (i.e. how to apply them and why the methods work) for the trigonometry-based puzzles in the second half of the game. This means that all students have a sufficient opportunity to acquire and explain the necessary knowledge.While not in the scope of this research, we also implemented a number of the accessibility suggestions made by STEAMER (2020) and from similar appropriate suggestions from our play testers. For e.g., any puzzles or parts of the story with large amounts of text had the option to listen to the information instead (one puzzle also required students to listen to the clue). If students were struggling to open a lock due to motor skill issues, the researcher or a fellow teammate was able to intervene as appropriate.If known in advance, the researcher also checked in with students with SEN before they took part in the activity so that an understanding of student specific measures to implement could be made. This included encouraging the student throughout the activity and asking the other teammates to allow time for actively listening to their ideas. These measures ensured that all puzzlers felt comfortable in the environment and were able to enjoy the full game experience with less barriers.4.2Puzzle Example – Guess WhoPlayers are required to use logical deduction skills to find the only right-angled triangle that fits a number of statements. In the suitcase, there are four cards with yellow borders and a tray of “Guess Who” characters (triangles in this case).On the first of the yellow cards, it gives the rules of how to play the popular children’s board game Guess Who. The other three cards are double sided – on one side there is a movie poster with the name of one of the side lengths in a right angled triangle (hypotenuse, adjacent, or opposite) hidden in its title (in the case shown in Figures 2 and 3, “The Spy Adjacent to Us,” and on the other there is a memory from the story’s grandparents. Hidden within each of these memories are some words highlighted in red, which when read as a sentence reveals the definition of the mathematical term in the corresponding film title. Each card contains a question of the form “Does my triangle have this side labelled?” with an answer yes or no, indicating to students whether they should keep or discard any triangle with that side labelled.Figure 2Tray of triangles to guess.Figure 3Hidden definition puzzle.Repeating for all three cards leaves one triangle remaining which provides the code to the first lock.One of the potential issues with this puzzle is that it is possible for students to brute force the code by testing all ten possibilities. To avoid this, and to encourage students to learn the definitions through the puzzle which are crucial to the second half of the game in which trigonometric ratios are introduced, we gave a 5 min time penalty for any team who tested a code without any reason behind their choice.5Results and DiscussionThis section presents the results of our experiment while confirming and extending the results of previous studies.5.1Quantitative Results5.1.1Before and After Escape Room SurveysThe diagnostic and reflection surveys were employed to determine whether there was an increase in the following areas from playing the escape room style activity: perception of and enjoyment with learning mathematics, applicability of mathematics to the wider world, familiarity and confidence with the underlying concepts for and methods of finding side lengths using trigonometry.To test this, we performed a one-tailed, Z-stat hypothesis test on each of the statements scored out of five by the students, as defined in the methodology. In Table 1 below, each of the statement is given along with the calculated Z-stat and associated p-values (both to two significant figures) from comparing our diagnostic and reflection test results. Low p-values (<0.05) indicate a significant result (Sridharan, 2015).Table 1Hypothesis testing for pre-game diagnostic and post-game reflection survey resultsStatementZ-Statp-ValueI feel relaxed towards maths0.590.28I am good at maths0.970.17I enjoy learning maths3.30.00048I learn maths better through games4.20.000016Maths is useful for my future1.20.11I am confident in learning maths−0.860.19Maths has real world applications00.50I enjoy solving puzzles0.530.30I am confident at performing mental arithmetic1.560.059I am familiar with how to rearrange equations4.70.00057I am familiar with how to measure angles0.200.0051I am familiar with the term hypotenuse9.60I am familiar with the term adjacent5.20.00000011I am familiar with the term opposite−1.60.055I am familiar with the concept of trigonometry6.50I am confident in performing trigonometric calculations7.00I think trigonometry is useful4.70.0000013From Table 1, we can see that students’ perception towards studying mathematics generally has not significantly changed, this is reflective of the abilities of students chosen to be in the sample. Students in the top two mathematics sets already had high averages for these areas and so we did not expect a significant change, if any. For confidence with learning mathematics, the averages between surveys decreased slightly. This is likely to be because of the change in pace of solving experienced by many of the teams in the second half of the game where the puzzles rely on students taking time to understand and apply the trigonometric ratios. Since students have limited prior knowledge in this area, this acts as a barrier to their learning, causing visible frustration for some team members as observed by the researcher.The results clearly show an increase in enjoyment of learning mathematics and learning through games directly linked to the hands on, fun nature of the activity. Since the reflection survey was completed by learners immediately after the activity, these results could also be a reflection of the feeling of accomplishment upon winning.In terms of familiarity with the mathematical content within the game, this increased in all areas except confidence with mental arithmetic and familiarity with the term opposite. For mental arithmetic, the smaller, insignificant change was to be expected since this is a concept all the students are familiar with throughout school and use more regularly than the others within the game. The term opposite was given as a more cryptic clue within the game – in two out of the three Guess Who movie posters, the side term was directly embedded into the title, whereas for opposite, the movie title was an antonym of the correct one (Cowardly instead of Brave). This indicates that the majority of students did not make this connection, thus negatively affecting the familiarity averages in the reflection survey.In addition to the questions that were the same on both the diagnostic and reflection surveys, there were some additional reflective questions based on how each student felt that they enjoyed/was engaged with the activity. We also asked them to evaluate their contributions to and how well they worked as part of the team. Table 2 summarises the average scores (out of a maximum of 5, evaluated to 2 significant figures) and also highlights the range of responses (minimums and maximums given).Table 2Reflection only questions resultsStatementAverageMinMaxI enjoyed the escape room4.745I feel as if I learned something4.425I felt fully engaged in the activity4.635I enjoyed working as part of a team4.735I feel I worked well as part of a team4.535Working as a team is important for my future4.635Playing the escape room encouraged me to develop my communication skills4.325Playing the escape room encouraged me to develop my critical thinking skills4.435Playing the escape room encouraged me to develop my collaboration skills4.435Playing the escape room encouraged me to apply my ideas creatively4.535The average score for each question is between 4 and 5, indicating the sample strongly felt that the activity benefited them in the areas stated. This suggests that the game promotes engagement and developing team skills, as confirmed by other researchers. The variation in results for developing communication skills and feeling as if students had learned something are larger than the other questions. For communication, this is likely to be due to an individual’s experience with their team, for e.g., the researcher observed some team members telling others that their performance was poor or ideas were wrong in an inappropriate manner, thus impacting that student’s perception of the team’s communication skills. For feeling as if students had learned something, the variation is reflective of the results from the worksheets as explained below.5.1.2Worksheet ActivityThe worksheet, completed by students after the escape room activity and before the debrief, was used to evaluate whether students had successfully acquired knowledge directly from playing the game. Figure 4 gives a visualisation of the distribution of the total scores from each of the 55 learners in the sample.Figure 4Distribution of total scores by the sample.The mean of 62.6% indicates a good performance from the sample. However, the plot shows that the scores are highly spread out (range of 71.4%), indicating inconsistency in the student performance and therefore knowledge acquisition from the game. There is also a slight positive skew since the mean is greater than the median (the calculated skew value is 0.31 using Pearson’s formula), meaning that there are fewer students who performed better than the mean as opposed to worse than. This suggests that the game could have been more thorough in teaching the objective content.To understand which questions this claim relates to, we provide a breakdown of the sample’s performance.Questions with a higher difficulty index were found to be easier by the sample (majority of students were able to obtain full marks) and questions with a lower discrimination index meant that more higher scoring students were able to answer the question correctly than lower performing ones. Therefore, questions with mid (approximately 0.5) discrimination and difficulty indices are considered better. For e.g., the definitions of side lengths and sketch of a triangle with the adjacent/hypotenuse labelled questions meet these criteria. In these questions, a large proportion of the sample (82.5, 75.4, and 73.7% for the definitions of hypotenuse, adjacent, and opposite, respectively) obtained at least one mark (part of a definition) and the extra details required for the second mark was achieved by less students (52.6, 63.2, and 66.7% for the definitions of hypotenuse, adjacent, and opposite, respectively) – this is a discrimination point. Therefore, the game is successful in familiarising learners with key definitions, but with further revision required for ensuring all details are stated.The questions on rearranging equations and measuring angles are familiar to learners beforehand since these aspects had been covered in the scheme of work before play. Therefore, we expected and can see that a high proportion of the sample scored full marks (84.7% for rearranging equations and 86.0% for measuring angles) in this area. This is reflective of the high averages for familiarity and confidence in these areas in both the diagnostic and reflection surveys.The three trigonometry questions had low discrimination (0.02–0.23) and difficulty (0.04–0.39) indices meaning that these questions were less-accessible to lower performing students. However, since this section of the paper is new content to the learners, we expected this result. From observations made during the marking process, the trigonometry questions rose to some main misconceptions – first, some students incorrectly applied the side length definitions leading to the use of an incorrect ratio. Second, some thought that “9 cos” was equivalent to “cos(29),” for example. Third, students often thought they needed to find the missing angle within each triangle rather than a side. Finally, many students used side lengths in their trigonometric calculations instead of the given angle. These issues and others not mentioned negatively impacted the average scores for these questions. In particular, the contextualised question removed all of the scaffolds given throughout the game (such as a diagram to fill in) without slowly removing them as suggested by the research. This meant that only one student achieved full marks in the question, and reflects the low average score (0.93 out of 4).Even though some students were able to successfully learn the new content from this activity, further tweaks to the game design are necessary to achieve wider spread success.5.2Qualitative ResultsThroughout the game, the researcher made observations on good and bad examples of various team work skills displayed by the students, in order to ascertain whether there was a correlation between completion time and effectiveness of teamwork. We also wanted to confirm the findings of previous researchers who have stated that the activity encourages building these skills.Table 3 displays the subjective scores (as observed by the researcher) for each team in a number of different areas, sorted by their total score. A score of 1 (highlighted green) in a category indicates the team displayed exemplar behaviours in this area with minimal grievances. A score of 0.5 (highlighted orange) suggests the team exhibited mostly good qualities but with isolated moments of negativity. A score of 0 (highlighted red) indicates the team mostly performed poorly in this area, e.g. degraded the effort and ideas of fellow teammates. For e.g., in the communication category, good behaviours include the use of positive affirmations, actively listening to and giving credit for all ideas and evaluating their success politely, and appropriate body language. Negative behaviours include talking over each other, disregarding the opinion and ideas of others and enclosed body language.Table 3Observations ResultsFrom Table 3, we can identify that scores in particular categories such as patience, supportiveness, listening, and communication are often linked. Individuals within teams that got frustrated when met with a solving barrier (like the team who took 72:21 to complete the activity), were observed to exhibit poorer communication skills in these moments (e.g. blaming another member of the team for a puzzle solving failure) and the rest of the team did not offer affirmations/support to help their teammate overcome this. Leadership scores appear independent of others since teams can define good strategies for solving (e.g. working all together, divide and conquer/splitting based on known mathematical strengths) without impacting/being impacted by the other qualities.Figure 5 shows the total team work score for each group against their completion time (sorted in ascending order). The correlation coefficient of 0.0883 suggests that there is no correlation between completion time and team work score. This is due to the variety of personalities observed within each team, for e.g., some teams scored poorly on an area that was largely influenced by one member of the team (spoke poorly to team mates, ignored ideas, etc.) whereas the others worked well together, thus still achieving the goal in a good time. While not explicitly measured, completion times are also affected by factors such as speed of identifying the correct solving method and amount of guidance given to the team (number of hints and strength of them), further explaining the lack of correlation.Figure 5Plot of completion time and team work score.6Summary and Future WorkThis study aimed to determine whether an escape room style activity could effectively teach new content to students who had limited prior knowledge in the area (trigonometry in our case) through evaluating learner performance in a post-game worksheet covering the same mathematical content as the game. We saw partial success in knowledge acquisition as a result of playing the game – the majority of students could define and correctly label a right-angled triangle with the side names hypotenuse, opposite, and adjacent. Due to prior familiarity, students performed well on the revision style questions solving equations and measuring acute angles. As a result of misconceptions arising from the game design, few students were able to access and score highly on the trigonometry questions. This means further lessons to explore the concept would be required. Below we suggest tweaks to the game design for further study into an escape room’s teaching capabilities.Second, through comparative surveys taken before and after the activity, we aimed to assess whether students’ perception of studying mathematics, applicability of concepts to the real world, and familiarity with the specific topics covered within the game changed as a result of playing. We found that there was a statistically significant increase in the familiarity with new topics including side length definitions in a right-angled triangle and defining/using the concept of trigonometry. From the reflection only questions, the majority stated that they enjoyed the activity, felt as if they had learned something and that the game encouraged them to develop their team skills. However, this did not always link to knowledge acquisition as shown through the worksheet analysis, or strong team skills displayed as detailed by the researcher’s observations.Finally, we wanted to assess whether there was a correlation between completion time and effectiveness of team work. Through observations made by the researcher, students were subjectively scored on their team work in categories including communication, leadership, and patience. We discovered that the scores given in some aspects such as communication and supportiveness were linked in some cases where frustrations with learning was met. We found there was no correlation between completion time and team work score given, sometimes due to the poor behaviours (e.g. bad choice of language, blaming others in the team for failures, etc.) of individuals impacting the team score, even if the rest were able to work well together and solve quickly. We also recognised that the completion time is impacted by a number of external factors including timing and number of hints given, explaining the lack of correlation.6.1Game Design ChangesSince student attainment of the new trigonometry concepts was lower than expected, we suggest some changes to the structure and puzzles within the game based on the misconceptions identified when marking the worksheet. These changes would warrant an additional study into an escape room’s teaching potential. Some students confused the terms given angle and right angle, despite there being a clue in which it was possible to deduce which was which. Therefore, we would introduce greater clarity on this term, e.g. having a sample right-angled triangle with the given angle and right angle labelled, to ensure all students are able to access and understand the definitions used throughout the game.To encourage all students to work together to discuss ideas for and share knowledge of using the trigonometric ratios, the second half of the game would have had a linear progression with puzzles showcasing a greater breakdown of the steps required to solve a trigonometric equation. To make learners aware of calculations requiring the sine/cosine/tangent of a given angle, we would have had a shorter, additional puzzle in which students needed to identify the trigonometric function’s value from a given angle. This would have ensured that students understood that the functions use angles and give an appreciation for how this is calculated, before discovering and being allowed to use a calculator to find these values in future puzzles. Next we would have a matching based puzzle so students can recognise which ratio is appropriate in a number of different cases, i.e. choosing the ratio that includes the side which they know the value of and the side they wish to find the length of. Finally, we could have had one of the two original second half puzzles for students to complete as a final task. This requires students to use the skills built throughout the game. Students would be allowed to look back on other game materials to help solve and the activity leader could guide towards those that are particularly applicable if required.While these changes would likely have had a greater impact on student attainment, they would also cause the length of the game to increase significantly. This would mean most teams would be unable to complete the activity, the surveys, the worksheet, and have a teacher-led debrief within the 2 h assigned to each sample group. In the game’s present form, we would suggest it is better suited as a revision/knowledge check tool after a formal lesson, as stated by previous researchers (Clauson et al., 2019; Eukel et al., 2017; Healy, 2019)6.2Future WorkWith further tweaks to the game design, as discussed above, we would suggest a repeat of this study with a more diverse and larger sample (multiple genders, nationalities, and abilities with mathematics) so that generalisations can be made to a wider population regarding the activity’s success in teaching new content. This would, therefore, allow for comparisons in attainment and engagement across different population compartments. We could also compare the various groups’ results from playing an escape room to that of a standard teacher-centric lesson using a similar worksheet style activity. By introducing a third survey to be completed around 1 month after the activity, we could ascertain whether students’ perception and familiarity with the topic areas had changed in the long term. This data could, of course, be impacted if the content is covered in timetabled sessions before the questionnaire is completed.Further avenues for investigation include building an escape room that can be used as a form of standardised assessment or job interview, extending the current literature into assessing teamwork. While this detracts from the fun nature of the activity, it could reduce the intensity of and high feelings of stress involved with standard desk-based examinations. The design would likely need to incorporate levels matching the associated learning objectives so that students can obtain a grade at the end. There would also need to be a procedure in place to either evaluate individual contributions within a team, or for the game to be playable solo within a reasonable time frame.Another path of research would be into the return of investment for an educator in building such an activity. These activities take considerable time and resources to make, with varying degrees of payoff depending on the research focus. While companies such as BreakoutEDU eliminate this issue, this is not always an affordable option for an educator with multiple classes to cater for.

Journal

Open Education Studiesde Gruyter

Published: Jan 1, 2023

Keywords: escape rooms; active-learning techniques; trigonometry; teaching; problem solving; puzzle based learning

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