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7 Tips for Improving Student Engagement Using Breakout EDU

This professor puts edtech students in charge of decision making and revisions as they create digital breakout games fueled by their ideas and passions.

“I started out as your normal gaming kid playing Atari,” says Matthew Farber, EdD. But it was during his early years as a public school seventh-grade social studies teacher that his eyes were opened to the power of game-based learning. In 2009, he was introduced to iCivics, a nonprofit site founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to enhance students’ civic education through the use of digital games and tools. “This platform is all about harnessing student voice and driving engagement,” says Farber. “Specifically, it was designed to teach a dispositional behavior to increase the student’s likelihood to become an active participant in our democracy.”

The site had another effect: It changed the trajectory of Farber’s career, inspiring him to pursue a master’s degree in educational technology and then a doctorate in edtech leadership. Today, as an assistant professor in the Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy program in the School of Teacher Education at the University of Northern Colorado, Farber is equally interested in teaching a dispositional behavior to his students—not surprisingly, through the use of video games.

He also practices what he preaches, having worked with the nonprofit Games for Change (see sidebar) and as an Edutopia blogger, a Certified BrainPOP Educator, and a member of the iCivics Educator Network. He has also written two books, Game-Based Learning in Action and Gamify Your Classroom, and has coauthored and coedited others, including The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines” and Game Jam Guide.

Challenge: A penchant for passive learning

At first glance, Farber’s biggest challenge was one that you might not expect: getting students to feel empowered. He felt that some of his students had little experience being “in charge” of anything, including their own education. As a result, they seemed content to absorb material from a lecturer rather than thinking and doing for themselves.

Following the philosophy of the iCivics site that sparked his own interest in edtech, Farber hopes to increase students’ likelihood of taking the reins of their learning and their lives. He wants to empower students to find their voice, share their ideas, and engage more fully—and then bring the same style of active, hands-on learning into the classes that they teach. This, he asserts, is the key to building skills that will help them thrive in today’s classroom, which demands creativity, confidence, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Further, Farber sees that the potential of educational technology is not being fully realized. “I go to a lot of conferences and hear how students are going to use technology X to learn skill Y. That’s rarely the case,” says Farber. “Computers don’t teach students. As edtech visionary Seymour Papert famously recommended, students should be teaching the computer. We learn by making, by building and programming.”

Innovation: Showing students how to break out of traditional roles

In several of Farber’s courses—including graduate-level classes in the Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy program (master’s and doctorate levels) and ET 340 Integration of Technology into Content and Pedagogy (an undergraduate course for preservice teachers)—he employs a lesson centered on digital breakout games. Much like the popular “escape rooms” that have popped up in recent years, digital breakout games require the computer user (aka learner) to solve clues and puzzles in order to unlock digital padlocks, leading them closer to the game’s completion. In edtech, these breakout games enable educators in any subject to quiz students on vocabulary, key facts, and other course-relevant information, but in a way that is more engaging than traditional flashcards or oral in-class reviews.

“For example, one of my students created a breakout game using plastic boxes and several locks,” says Farber. “To play, a group works together cooperatively to solve a series of interesting puzzles.”

At the heart of his pedagogy, however, is the idea of ingraining a growth mindset in his students. In order to be truly creative and critical thinkers, they need to understand that there can sometimes be no right or wrong answer with technology. In fact, using and adapting technology requires students to ask endless questions and brainstorm countless answers, many of which may be equally effective solutions to the challenge at hand.

“If I want knowledge, I can look it up or ask Alexa or Siri,” explains Farber. “The skills of what to do with that knowledge involve creating systems—which is what games are—to build proficiency and the skills that are valued in the 21st century. If something goes wrong [in a game or in life], you make an adjustment. You fix it. If you want to work at Google, that’s what is required.”


Course: ET 340 Integration of Technology into Content and Pedagogy
Frequency: Two 1-hour meetings per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 20
Course description: Explore theories/frameworks that support integration of technology in teaching and learning. Apply practices to promote seamless integration of technology that adds significant value to students’ learning of elementary curriculum.
In his words: “It’s about integrating technology into the classroom. It’s never using technology for technology’s sake but as a tool to drive learning. To have teachers get their students to be creating media, not just consuming media. The computer is not the teacher. The student should be teaching the computer.”

See examples of Professor Farber’s teaching materials

See materials

Lesson: Digital Breakout Games

Farber thinks that this lesson exemplifies how he likes to teach educational technology: namely, by having students work together to create something unique while sharing a fun experience, and then reflect on what they have learned. For other educators who want to carry out this lesson, called Level up Learning with Breakout EDU Digital, Farber offers these suggestions:

Hand over the helm

“I have to condition some students that they have choice,” says Farber. “They aren’t used to the ‘learn by making’ approach. They are more used to the ‘learn and then get tested’ model, where they are not as actively as involved.” Therefore, Farber says his first order of business is to explain to students that his focus is going to be on what they can teach him, not the other way around.

Cultivate a growth mindset

Breakout games, which center on the idea of try-and-fail attempts to break locks, are the digital embodiment of the growth mindset, which allows that we can learn from our foibles. “[This means talking to students about the importance of] playing a game not just to win, but to be in a playful place, to learn from your mistakes,” he says.

Get into the game yourself

Next, Farber recommends that you, as the educator, play a digital game or two with a friend or a child—and, after you feel you have mastered it, have your students do the same exercise. All of you need to know what it is like to play in the digital space before you can dive into creating digital games, he explains. For that very reason, the first activity in this lesson is for students to go on the Breakout EDU site to play a sample educational video game.

Afterward, Farber’s students go on the Discussion section of the gamification site Classcraft to post their reactions to the sample game. (He calls this “gamifying the gamification unit.”) Putting yourself in the gamer’s seat, he says, builds empathy for the end user, which is vital for designing games that truly serve their purpose.

Games for Change

Farber believes that serious games teach and inform us about serious, real-world topics. For that reason, he has been involved with Games for Change, a nonprofit that “empowers game creators and social innovators to drive real-world change using games that help people to learn, improve their communities, and contribute to make the world a better place,” according to the group’s “Who We Are” section of their website. He has served as one of their bloggers, and in 2016, he led a HIVE Digital Media Learning Fund project, along with Games for Change, to facilitate and document a series of social-impact student game jams. He also has served as a juror and panelist for their annual Games for Change Festival, which has been referred to as the social-impact game world’s equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival.

Send students on a quest for free treasures

Farber emphasizes that students do not need to buy anything expensive to have creative success. He provides plenty of suggestions of free game-creation platforms, such as those offered on Classcraft, Breakout EDU, and Google’s Digital Breakout Template. Farber also sends students on a quest for additional free resources and sample games that use Google Form templates, such as Tom’s Digital Breakouts site.

With multiple options for platforms they could use to build their games, students have had no issues with completing this lesson, as minimal technology experience is needed. “You’re not coding or programming,” he says. “Also, college students these days know technology well; they are tech savvy. And BreakoutEDU.com, the platform hosting the game creation, is already popular in some college classrooms.”

Empower students to follow their passion

Farber does not micromanage students but empowers them to make as many decisions as possible on their own. He does provide examples of games he admires, which can help students wrap their heads around the assignment while getting an idea of the vast number of possibilities available. His favorite part of class is when he sees students passionate about the topic of their game. One student created a game based on her favorite children’s book If You Give a Pig a Party. Another based a game on her home country of Peru. One even created a game based on the novel Dracula.

Require a period of reflection

This lesson concludes with a class debrief, which occurs after students have presented their games, everyone has played them, and students have given and received feedback. Students will then use the feedback to improve their games and, in some cases, resubmit them. Farber wants to see their minds at work on revisions and improvements.

Farber reminds students that they will always be in an infinity loop of sorts—making, building, and reflecting, then repeating the cycle again and again. Ideally, there will be an ethic of constant improvement, with each iteration being “better” than the last.

Find a new way to grade

Farber suggests creating a rubric with grade-percentage breakdowns based on new ways of evaluating. He asserts that students should never be graded on the basis of having a finely polished game. Instead, students turn in a prototype. He grades them on:

  • Creating a narrative with a compelling hook
  • Generating clues that relate clearly to the goals of the lesson that the game supports
  • Offering a variety of levels of challenge and scaffolding skills
  • Providing hints where appropriate
  • Participating and putting forth effort in class
  • Designing a game that is functional

Farber’s motto for this lesson is “Creativity comes first, technology second.” Farber is looking for passion and imagination behind the games, since the more students apply those two traits, the better the games will likely be—and the better the games, the more they will help students retain what they are learning.


For more about Farber’s work with breakout games, read his blogs:

Taking Advantage of the Power of Play
Using Quests in Project-Based Learning
4 Steps to Promote Real-World Practice with Quests

Also check out this NPR piece about Farber’s work:

Using Digital Games—and Empathy—as Teaching Tools

Farber was pleased that his department was so supportive of this lesson. He feels that his approach and this lesson represent the future, and the university knows that.

“The push for active learning is so strong that you’d be hard pressed to find a university that holds to the ‘stand up and lecture every class’ old-school approach,” he says.

The best outcome is not a grade but, instead, an end product to show and share. Students can use the game they make as part of their portfolio during job interviews, whether they want to be scholars/educators, professional developers, program developers, and/or consultants.

Student feedback

Farber has taught this best lesson in his class since fall 2017, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Student evaluations have singled out how much they learned by doing. Even so, several commented that they like it because the teacher becomes the student.

Fun and games aside, Farber knows he is training students for careers that will serve them—and our technology-focused world. He feels good about the positive comments, but what is his real hope? That one day, he will get an email from a student who writes, “Thanks for helping me get this cool, innovative teaching job.”