An escape room trains future doctors in cooperation and problem-solving

Maria Sirén developed an escape room that teaches the basics of examining patients with back pain. She encourages everyone to gamify university teaching. “I have not received such positive feedback from students on any other teaching I have provided.”

The teaching facility at the Physiatry Outpatient Clinic on Nordenskiöldinkatu has a handful of tables with chairs, a couple of skeletons and a video projector. However, the room also hides a whole host of puzzles and surprises.

Instead of endless slideshows, this space is reserved for an escape room. As the result of the game, students will determine the symptoms and medical history as well as the general status of a patient.

The escape room was developed by Maria Sirén, a clinical instructor in physiatry. How and why did she arrive at such a form of teaching?

“It was partly a coincidence. A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic had emptied the clinic, and I was a little bored. I thought I could make some changes to teaching.”

Sirén had noticed that the preliminary assignment in the back-related instruction in physiatry did not really work, as only some students completed the task as expected.

“I thought I could actually do something genuinely fun with it. I came up with an idea to try out whether an escape room could be used to better test whether students had done their homework. And even if they hadn’t, they would in any case get an introduction to the actual teaching, as the game takes places right at the beginning of our back-related instruction in physiatry.”

Simple solutions are possible

The implementation of the escape room is simple: Sirén has drawn up a variety of tips and code-solving problems on pieces of paper and cards scattered across the room. Some are visible; others can be found by following the tips.

There is also a small treasure chest, but you would be hard-pressed to identify other references to commercial escape rooms in the room. Students solve the problems in groups of seven or eight. One session lasts roughly 20 minutes. Every year, a total of 20 student groups play the game.

As they arrive in the escape room, they have already completed studies in orthopaedics, traumatology, physiatry, hand surgery, and plastic surgery as well as oral and maxillofacial surgery. The escape room is a good way to test accumulated skills.

“It usually turns out that students don’t remember everything. However, they tend to reach the correct solutions by working together,” Sirén says.

Students have been enthusiastic about the game.

“I have not received such positive feedback from students on any other teaching I have provided. And starting the instruction off with this only increases students’ overall motivation,” adds Sirén.

Support from a colleague pays off

For the time being, the lower back pain–themed escape room is the only one of its kind at the Faculty of Medicine. Escape rooms are not the only option for gamification, but if you are interested in implementing one, Sirén advises involving a colleague in brainstorming the game.

“As you can also find content and ideas on the internet, you don’t have to come up with everything yourself. And you shouldn’t set yourself the goal of creating an experience similar to commercial escape rooms. You can do a lot with relatively sparse and inexpensive materials,” Sirén says.

According to Sirén, escape rooms are particularly well suited to teaching medicine, since doctors often work in teams, and the job requires problem-solving skills.

At the same time, she would not exclude any field from gamification. Instead, she encourages university teachers of all fields to experiment.

“In modern teaching methods, gamification is heavily used as an activating technique. It inspires students and brings variety to teaching. You should definitely include it in teaching in one form or another,” Sirén says encouragingly.

For the teacher herself, designing the escape room has been fun. Sirén believes the best part is seeing student groups working and solving the problems of the game together.

“It brings joy to them too. Emotions associated with assignments and learning may result in stronger imprints.”