Poster: Murder Mystery Challenge!

Our non-traditional, super-fun poster setup. Left: me; right: Marta Bladek

Our non-traditional, super-fun poster setup. Photo by Maura Smale (thanks!).

Poster presented with my colleague Marta Bladek on January 21, 2014 at the CUNY Games Festival, held at the Graduate Center.

Supplemental materials

Edited to add: Updated 2014 game (What changed?)
Clues packet (PDF, 2 MB)
Clues & answers packet (PDF, 2 MB)

Original 2013 game
Handout (PDF, 1 MB)
Clues & answers printout (PDF, 8 MB)
Murder Mystery Challenge online — try it yourself! (You can be team #0.)

Handout text

In October 2013, the Lloyd Sealy Library partnered with Student Academic Success Programs (SASP) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to create and coordinate a Murder Mystery Challenge designed to walk first-year students through basic research tasks.

Learning goals

  • Team-based learning
    • Game-based assignment facilitates active learning Strengthen relationships with other first-years in their cohort
  • Basic college research skills
    • Find a book in the catalog by title
    • Find a book by call number in the stacks
    • Find articles in New York Times Historical Archives and EBSCO Academic Search Complete
    • Use APA citation style
  • Familiarity with the library
    • Location, staff, resources, and study spaces

The Challenge

Murder Mystery Challenge promotional posterThe Challenge followed a murder case narrative based on a real 1921 crime. Students used historical resources and were exposed to some of our digitized Special Collections materials.

Students competed in teams to complete tasks like searching in online newspaper archives, finding a book in the stacks, and citing a scholarly source properly. Facilitating active team learning by coordinating with the existing Peer Mentor social structure contributed to the game’s popularity: teams were guided by enthusiastic Peer Mentors who were assigned by SASP and trained by librarians. The teams were therefore self-sufficient and did not require librarian supervision.

The Challenge took place in the library but was almost fully online using a Google Drive multi-page form. We chose to use a web form because it required fairly little overhead and provided to-the-second stats. More importantly, college-level research takes place primarily online, and the library supports building strong digital literacy skills. [EDIT: In Fall 2014, we changed gameplay to be almost entirely paper-based, due to student feedback strongly advocating for a group activity that did not involve the team looking over one person’s shoulder at the computer screen.]


Over 75 first-years participated—twice the number expected.

The three teams to finish accurately and most quickly won prizes provided by SASP, including lunch in the Faculty Dining Room, New York Times tote bags, and $20 Amazon gift cards.

In feedback, 100% of surveyed students noted that they learned at least one of the basic research skills listed in our goals.

Many students noted that it was difficult or less fun to complete a Challenge that was mostly online. It’s more enjoyable to find a book in the stacks as a group than to cluster around one laptop.

About half of the students thought the activity as a whole was ‘fairly to very fun’; this ratio reflects both the complications of teaching routine library skills in a game and the excitement of investigating a historical crime with a group of friends.

Try it yourself!

You can run through the Murder Mystery Challenge online (2013) yourself! You can just be Team #0 — no one is checking the responses to this form at this time.

You can also print out the clues packet (PDF), updated for fall 2014.

The Murder Mystery Challenge’s materials, along with a full write-up, are online on the CUNY Commons at my blog post, The Murder Mystery Challenge: a pilot project with an impressive turnout. [EDIT: We updated this game for Fall 2014. Read about how we used student feedback to make a better game.]


Robin Camille Davis, Emerging Technologies & Distance Services Librarian
Marta Bladek, Freshman & Instruction Services Librarian

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