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The Second Draft - Volume 33, No. 1

Escape the Ordinary: How to Close Out Your Semester with a Challenging "Escape Room" Competition DOWNLOAD PDF

  • Joy E. Herr-Cardillo
    Associate Professor of Legal Writing & Assistant Clinical Professor of Law
    University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law

[Author’s Name[1]

Increasingly, law school educators are using game-based learning to foster teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, and improved communication in students. Escape rooms, which have become popular among the general public in recent years, offer a unique opportunity to engage students with a challenging, yet fun, learning experience. For the uninitiated, an “escape room” is a live game where teams of two to twelve players are “locked” in a room or suite of rooms and have to work together to discover clues, solve puzzles, and complete tasks to accomplish a specific goal in a limited amount of time. When the goal is achieved, the players have “escaped.”[2]

At the University of Arizona College of Law, our annual escape room for 1L students serves as a dual-learning experience because it also satisfies a major project requirement for the program’s upper-level teaching assistants. These Writing Fellows are responsible designing the escape room and creating the various puzzles (based on the 1L legal writing curriculum) that have to be solved for a team to “escape.” They also take turns serving as “game masters” who oversee the room and provide competing teams official hints if necessary.

The competition takes place at the end of the fall semester, in one of the law school’s moot courtrooms, which provides the setting for the “back story.” We divide the 1L class into teams of four to six students, and over a three day period, each team has one hour to “escape” the room by using the skills the students learned over the semester. The teams are given a specific goal that they must complete to “escape” the room. To accomplish that goal, the team must complete a series of puzzles and tasks. The team that escapes in the least amount of time wins the competition and there are prizes for the first, second, and third-place finishers. But because everyone who competes “wins” on some level, all of the competitors are invited the celebratory lunch.


Using games in the classroom can be an effective strategy for fostering problem solving, motivation, and teamwork[3]—all skills that our students need to be successful lawyers.[4] Indeed, “gamification” has become increasingly popular at all levels of education.[5] It is particularly effective with millennial and Gen Z students, many of whom grew up playing video and online games.[6] The benefits of game-based activities go beyond making class more fun for everyone; they also include physiological and psychological benefits. For example, students engaged in games experience increased norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine in the brain, which not only creates good feelings but make students more receptive to learning.[7] Likewise, games in the classroom can induce what psychologists call “flow”–an immersion in the experience that leads to a heightened state of creativity and performance.[8]

An escape room includes all of the essential elements of a successful game and provides students with immediate feedback.[9] Escape rooms have been used effectively in other areas of higher education. For example, they have been used to instruct nursing and medical students.[10] They have also been used effectively as part of a career preparedness course for undergrads.[11]

If you are interested in taking advantage of all of these “gamification” benefits and helping your students learn these key skills that law schools struggle to teach, consider trading in your traditional end-of-semester review for an escape room. It is not as hard as it sounds, and this article takes you through the process, in 10 relatively easy steps!


At Arizona, we were inspired to undertake this project after several of us participated in a local escape room with some of our students as part of a fundraiser. At this escape room, we found ourselves in an imaginary jewel thief’s private office and had to solve puzzles and decipher clues to find the plane ticket, cash, and key we needed to “escape.” We had so much fun, that afterwards we almost immediately began thinking about how we might incorporate an escape room concept into our teaching. Several of us had recently decided to begin using team-based learning in our classrooms, and we liked the idea of having the teams compete against each other in an end-of-semester activity. Initially, the idea was to create it for two of the five writing classes, which would keep it manageable. But as we started talking about the idea, it became clear that all five professors teaching in the 1L class wanted in, so we decided “the more the merrier.” In some ways, that level of commitment meant there was no turning back—we put in on the schedule and made it official![12]

One of the things that made the project feasible was our decision to share the responsibility with our Writing Fellows. Each Legal Writing class has several upper-level students who earn academic credit for their work as teaching assistants. In past years, their responsibilities included creating an end-of-semester presentation and an in-class activity designed to teach a Legal Writing particular skill or technique. We suggested, and the Writing Fellows enthusiastically agreed, to have the Escape Room satisfy the project requirement. We supervised the project and established deadlines and benchmarks to ensure that plans were progressing, but they had the responsibility of developing a backstory, designing the flow of the room, and creating clues based on the 1L legal writing curriculum.

We found it effective to designate three of the fifteen teaching assistants responsible for the project to serve as the “Creative Team.” The Creative Team took the lead on designing the Escape Room and coordinating the various tasks with the other Writing Fellows. Serving as a member of the Creative Team was strictly voluntary, as the students who did so did not receive any additional class credit; however, they could record the time spent on designing the escape rooms on their individual timesheets so that it counted toward their out-of-class hours requirement. All of the Writing Fellows were responsible for creating the actual clues and puzzles. We assigned each section two clues (for a total of 10 clues) on specific topics from the curriculum to ensure that all of the major skills were covered. Finally, each Writing Fellow was required to supervise four “escapes,” while paired with another teaching assistant.


To improve the immersive experience for the participants, it is important for escape room to have a theatrical feel. We used the law school moot court appellate courtroom because it not only has a “make believe” feeling but is self-contained, so teams could complete the exercise undisturbed by outside distractions. The Creative Team created a backstory consistent with the venue and had fun taking full advantage of their creative license! The first year we did an Escape Room, it involved a physical altercation between two writing professors that erupted when one of them placed a period outside quotation marks in an email. The assaulted professor sued, but the civil trial was interrupted midstream when a fellow professor who witnessed the assault was conflicted about testifying and attempted to flee the jurisdiction. In 2019, it involved the unexpected discovery of gold ore under the law school and a resulting legal challenge to the University’s title to the land. (Half of the fun of the backstory is that it can completely strain credibility!)


Once you have the backstory, the next step is to identify the three to four things that competitors have to find in order to “escape.” Our first year, the “keys” were: 1) the witness’s destination; 2) the flight number; and 3) the code to unlock phone so that they could call the airport to stop the plane. In 2019, the students had to find all four pages of a missing Will devising the land to the University. It really can be anything. You just need to make sure to spread the keys throughout the room so that the students have to solve all of the clues or complete all of the puzzles in order to “escape.”

Using games in the classroom can be an effective strategy for fostering problem solving, motivation, and teamwork—all skills that our students need to be successful lawyers.


Ebay is your friend! One of the most enjoyable parts is letting your imagination run while collecting locks, objects with secret compartments, black-light flashlights, and invisible ink. These items usually can be purchased for very little money (and are reusable in the future), but it is also possible to use things from around the house or office. For example, computers and phones with passwords/codes can unlock clues. The first year, we even hid a Bluebook clue in an old Chapstick tube! The internet is a great resource for escape room ideas.

Moreover, given the limited time-frame of the escape room project, it isn’t a major imposition to press borrowed items into service. Both years I have lent the project an old laptop that I brought from home. After the students, prompted by an “angry” post-it note, organized the unnumbered and scrambled pages of an Office Memorandum into the correct order, highlighted letters revealed the password for the laptop sitting right next to it.[13]Then when they unlocked the laptop, they discovered their next task: an editing exercise that required the students to insert multiple application sections beneath their corresponding rule and explanation sections. Once the students matched the sections correctly, the correct order of the application inserts revealed yet another lock combination.


Fortunately, our Creative Team had some experience with escape rooms and knew to create levels or “rooms” within the courtroom when designing the flow. We ended up with four distinct “rooms” separated by modest barriers (a plastic chain gate with a lock) that teams had to “open” in order to solve the clues and collect the “keys” to escape. Each room had two to three clues that had to be solved.[14] Because our goal was educational, we required each team to solve all of the clues in each room before they could move to the next room. Figuring out lock combinations without doing the underlying legal writing skills work was not rewarded!

Once the areas were defined, the Creative Team arranged the clues. They designated two to three clues for each room and then notified the Writing Fellows responsible for writing each clue what it needed to unlock or solve for. For example, to get out of the first room, we had a letter lock with the permanent combination of ARYHR. We had the team responsible for a CREAC clue to draft a single-issue legal discussion made up of sentences where the first letter of each sentence spelled ARYHR. We cut those sentences into strips, put the strips in an envelope, and tucked the envelope into the pocket of a jacket hung on the back of a chair. When the students found the envelope, they quickly realized what they needed to do with the sentence strips. Once the students arranged the sentences into CREAC order, they were able to deduce the combination. Some of the other clue/lock combinations we used included a Bluebook rule that the students had to identify to unlock a four-number lock, and two Redbook sections that, when combined, unlocked the phone. The Writing Fellows were very creative in devising the clues and puzzles that would reveal their assigned code.


It is important to include plenty of decoys among the clues. This can be an important way to flesh out your backstory, as well as a creative outlet. For our backstory of the interrupted trial, we created fictitious exhibit notebooks and deposition transcripts that we scattered among the clues on the counsel tables. For the gallery area, we had fake reporters’ notebooks and press credentials. We even repurposed a fake rock with a secret compartment that we had originally intended to house a clue. Not wanting it to “go to waste,” we made it a paperweight on the judge’s bench. Students would inevitably pick it up and get excited when they discovered the secret compartment. We would watch with baited breath as they opened it up only to find a rolled-up slip of paper tucked inside that said, appropriately, “Psych!”


We recruited several former students to beta test the Escape Room a couple of days before the 1L competition was scheduled to start. We were able to identify problems and fine-tune some of the clues. But more than anything, it gave us confidence that it would work!


Plan for the unexpected. Put together a “first aid” kit of tape, batteries, markers, and extra copies of your clues. Think of everything that could go wrong and develop a backup plan! For us, one of those things meant that my aging home laptop might be slow to wake up and add unearned minutes to a team’s score. The room was designed so that once the students solved for the passcode and unlocked the computer, it opened to a screenshot of a Westlaw search result that revealed the flight number (buried in a fictitious case annotation). To be safe, I made a hard copy of the screenshot ready to pull out if a team had the passcode but could not wake the computer. We never had to use it, but just knowing we had it made a big difference.


Another key to success was creating clear instructions for the Writing Fellows who served as the game masters. We had two fellows for each session, and both stayed in the room with the team. One of the Writing Fellows would begin by welcoming the students, reading them the backstory, and going over the official rules.[15] The second fellow would serve as the official room before they moved on. And, both of the Writing Fellows had the list of official “hints” for each clue if a team made an official hint request. Teams were only penalized with additional minutes if they formally requested a hint. Because the Writing Fellows and I were in the room, if a team was struggling or stuck, we had unofficial “nudges” that we would employ at our discretion. For example, one of the clues required students to identify the Bluebook rule that governed an incorrect citation. The rule’s three digits would unlock a briefcase sitting on the floor next to the table with the clue on it. If the students read the email asking them to correct the citation and then correctly identified the rule, but weren’t sure what to do with the information, one of the Writing Fellows or I would casually wander over and give the briefcase a not-so-subtle kick.

Once a team “escaped” or the hour was up, the Writing Fellows were responsible for resetting the  room for the next session. We prepared a checklist for them to make sure the room was fully reset. We scheduled the sessions one hour and fifteen minutes apart, so there was always time to put things back together before the next team. That also gave us plenty of time to take team pictures![16]


Now that everything is in place, it is time to start the competition! I will never forget the night before the launch of our first Escape Room. I was suddenly filled with panic! This had been my brainchild and suddenly I felt as though I’d talked everyone into it. Over the next three days, all of our 1L students would be going through the Escape Room. What if all of our plans fell short? What if it was too hard and no one finished it? What if the whole event was a spectacular failure? I braced myself for whatever was ahead.

As it turned out, it was incredibly successful! In 2018, we saw 29 teams with a total 129 law students “escape.” In 2019, it was 33 teams and a total of 134 students. Both years, we ended the semester with a celebratory lunch where we awarded prizes to the winners and laughed at videos of some of the more memorable challenges. I’m pretty sure it achieved all or most of our educational goals; I know it created a memorable experience for our students. In fact, as this year’s Writing Fellows planned for the 2019 Escape Room, they not only relived some of their 1L memories from 2018, they drew on them for inspiration. And, as this year’s lunch was winding down, several 1Ls talked about applying to be a Writing Fellow next year so they could help plan the next Escape Room.

[1] A litigator for thirty-three years, Joy Herr-Cardillo has taught legal writing at Arizona Law for eighteen years and has been on the clinical-tenure track since 2017. She teaches 1L legal writing, supervises the Writing-Fellow program, and coaches Arizona’s Environmental Moot Court team.   

[2] Escape rooms, inspired by video games, were first introduced in Japan around 2010, and have spread throughout the world. The first escape room in the United States opened in San Francisco in 2012. Now, more than 2300 can be found throughout the U.S. See Lisa Spira, 5 Year US Escape Room Industry Report (August 2019)(August 8, 2019), Room Escape Artist,; see also Sally French, The Unbelievably Lucrative Business of Escape Rooms, Marketwatch (July 21, 2015, 11:28 AM),; Carly Mallenbaum, Why Escape Rooms Have a Lock on the U.S., Usa Today (May 7, 2018, 1:33 PM), escape-rooms-trend-us/468181002/.

[3] Karen Schrier, Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, And Make Change (2016); Lauren Vitale, Incentive Games and Group Work in the Law School Classroom, 22 Law Tchr. 22 (2015).

[4] See Marjorie M. Shultz & Sheldon Zedeck, Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: Broadening the Basis for Law School Admissions Decisions, 36 Law & Soc. Inquiry, J. Of The Am. B. Found., 620, 661 (2011).

[5] Craig Miller, The Gamification of Education, 40 Dev. Bus. Simulation & ExperientialLearninG 196, 196 (2013).

[6] Renee Nicole Allen & Alicia R. Jackson, Contemporary Teaching Strategies: Effectively Engaging Millennials Across the Curriculum, 95 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 1, 28 (2017); Elizabeth A. Cameron & Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, Beyond Millennials: Engaging Generation Z in Business Law Classes, 34 J. LegalStud. Educ. 317, 323 (2017).

[7] Miller, supra note 5, at 197.

[8] Id.

[9] See id. at 196. According to Miller, the five essentials of a game are: “(1) rules, (2) variable quantifiable outcomes, (3) valued outcomes, (4) player attachment to outcomes and (5) effort.”

[10] Vickie Adams et al., Can You Escape? Creating an Escape Room to Facilitate Active Learning, 34 J. for Nurses Prof. Dev. E1-E5 (2018); Anna Eva Kinio et al., Break out of the Classroom: The Use of Escape Rooms as an Alternative Teaching Strategy in Surgical Education, 76 J. Surgical Educ.134- 139 (2019); Christine Wu et al., Promoting Leadership and Teamwork Development Through Escape Rooms, 52 Med. Educ. 561-562 (2018).

[11] Dillon R. Waggoner et al., Using an Escape Room as Gameful Training with Students, NACE J. (2019). Vicki

[12] This project would never have come to fruition without the enthusiastic support of our Legal Writing Director, Susie Salmon. From the first “hey, I was thinking” email to the closing celebration, she was fully on board and encouraging at every turn.

[13] I simply created a new user account and set the password for that account to the one that the students selected.

This project would never have come to fruition without the enthusiastic support of our Legal Writing Director, Susie Salmon. From the first “hey, I was thinking” email to the closing celebration, she was fully on board and encouraging at every turn.

[14] Here is the clue distribution we used:

"Room 1” :

American Legal System --*Destination

CREAC and explaining the law

“Room 2”

Redbook --*Phone code

Hierarchy of Authority

Issue, Brief Answer and SOF

“Room 3”

Application of Law to Facts


“Room 4”

Organization of Office Memo

Effective Editing

Legal Research--*Find the flight … and make the call! (Redbook answer from Room 2 unlocks phone)

[15] In addition to telling the students the backstory and the

specific “keys” they needed to find in order to escape the room,

the Writing Fellows read each team the following rules:

  • Each team will have one hour to escape; the team that

            takes the shortest time wins.

  • You may ask for up to 3 hints. If you use a hint, 5 minutes

            (per hint) will be added to the end of your time.

  • We will tell you the number of clues you need per room.
  • You cannot advance from a room until you have

            discovered/solved all of the clues in that room.

  • You may use things discovered in prior

            rooms as you move from room to room.

  • Some general escape room tips:
  • Make sure you scope out what you are

            searching and solving for in each room.

  • It’s okay to split into smaller groups.
  • Carefully read all directions and clues.

[16] We had a “step and repeat” with the law school logo set up just

outside the Escape Room, and a variety of “We escaped!” “We stopped

the Plane!” or “We Saved the Law School!” placards that team members

could brandish and pose with in photos to celebrate their success.