Poster: Escape the Library Challenge!

Murder Mystery Challenge promotional poster(formerly known as the Murder Mystery Challenge)

This project was featured in a poster presented with my colleague Marta Bladek on January 21, 2014 at the CUNY Games Festival, held at the Graduate Center. We also presented this project on June 4, 2015 at City College of New York for the annual CCNY Libraries’ Professional Development Day.

This post has been revised multiple times in since 2014 to reflect updates to the game.

About the game

In fall of 2013 and 2014, the Lloyd Sealy Library first 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. The game has been repeated yearly for first-years and transfer students.


2016–7 game
Run the Murder Mystery Challenge in your own library! Revise, refine, and reuse this Word doc for a student activity at your institution. It is offered under a CC BY-NC-SA license (attribute the game to me; don’t sell it; if you revise the game and share it, use the same license).
Editable Escape the Library! clues + answers (.docx, 2MB) (preview as PDF)
Clues for #3 (example) (PDF, 12MB)

2015 game
Run the Murder Mystery Challenge in your own library! This version is especially suited for other CUNY libraries. It is offered under a CC BY-NC-SA license.
Editable Murder Mystery Challenge, clues only (.docx, 2MB) (preview as PDF)
+ Clue (needed for clue #4) (PDF, 800KB)
Editable Murder Mystery Challenge, answer key (.docx, 2MB)

2014 game (What changed?)
John Jay Clues packet (PDF, 2 MB)
John Jay Clues & answers packet (PDF, 2 MB)

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

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 archives and EBSCOhost Academic Search Complete
    • Use APA citation style
  • Familiarity with the library
    • Location, staff, resources, and study spaces

The Challenge

The 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 signed up in teams for an hour-long time slot in the Library during the designated two-week period. Teams competed 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 (sophomores) who were assigned by SASP and trained by librarians. The teams were therefore self-sufficient and did not require librarian supervision.

Originally in 2013, 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 at the time because it required fairly little overhead and provided to-the-second stats. Moreover, college-level research takes place primarily online, and the library supports building strong digital literacy skills. But in Fall 2014, we changed gameplay to be almost entirely paper-based (with online research tasks), 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.

The goal is to be as accurate as possible; each clue is scored according to a points rubric. (Originally, in 2013, the three teams to finish accurately and most quickly won, but speed shouldn’t have been a factor.) Winning teams received prizes provided by SASP, including lunch in the Faculty Dining Room, New York Times tote bags, and $20 Amazon gift cards.


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

Marta & me presenting the poster about the game in January 2014. Photo by Maura Smale (thanks!).

In 2013, over 75 first-years participated in teams of 4-5, over twice the number expected. In 2014, we decreased the size of teams to 2-3 for a better learning experience, and 45 first-year students participated.

In feedback for both years, 100% of surveyed students noted that they learned at least one of the basic research skills listed in our goals. The majority of students rated the game as being “fun” to “very fun,” and most found the clues to be fairly easy (with Peer Mentor instruction and hints included in the clues). In fact, many students wished the Challenge were more difficult and longer (!). See more student feedback in my blog post about updating the Murder Mystery Challenge.

Try it at your library!

Starting in 2015, I’m offering an Editable Murder Mystery Challenge Word doc for anyone to revise and reuse at their library! (Preview as PDF.) You’ll have to change the resources to ones that your students can access through your library, and you will have to rewrite the instructions and hints to pertain to your library’s webpage. This editable version was revised to be easy for CUNY libraries to reuse, but all are welcome to tweak, revise, and change up as much of the Challenge as desired. If you use it at your institution, please let me know — I’m very interested to see how the game can change and work for other student populations, and I’d be glad to hear what does and doesn’t work.

You can also run through the Murder Mystery Challenge online (2013) yourself. Just be Team #0 — no one is checking the responses to this form at this time. Keep in mind that this challenge is geared toward John Jay students.

A fuller write-up is also online on the CUNY Commons at my blog post, The Murder Mystery Challenge: a pilot project with an impressive turnout. In Fall 2014, we updated the Challenge using 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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