Whodunnit?:Mysteries and Teaching Critical Thinking

I recently returned from a trip to the UK where sadly susherwood’s and my schedules were not compatible enough to arrange a meetup.  While I was gone a new reality competition started up in the US called ‘Whodunnit?’.  A cross between the game Clue and CSI, contestants on the show are ‘killed’ one by one with the remainder investigating the scene to determine how the crime was completed.  Those who come closest to understanding the details of the crime are safe from harm, and those who mess it up are in danger of becoming the next victim.

The execution of the show does not really live up to the excellent premise, but watching it made me think about the use of mysteries to teach critical thinking in the classroom.  The inductive nature of being given a series of clues and pieces of evidence and trying to piece together events is quite useful training for students, and the use of mysteries gives it a fun edge that makes the answer worth knowing.  Any class that attempts to teach critical thinking could take a break to consider a mystery, although perhaps the best place for this is an undergraduate methods course.  I’ve posted before about Zendo, another critical thinking game that works great in methods.

I thought about assigning students to watch the show, but then remembered the fundamental rule of this blog: active learning is almost always better than passive learning.  So why have them watch a show when I can have them act it out?

If you want to try this, there are a few ways to go about it.  One would be to have students play the board game Clue.  This has limited applications though since the number of players is generally quite small, maybe 6-8.  Another option would be to give the students the details and evidence from a mystery–an episode of a mystery-themed show, or a short story or novel–and have them try to solve the crime.  Mystery buffs might spot the similarities though, particularly if you use a well-known case.

The option I’m toying with for this fall is to use a commercially available murder mystery party case. These are essentially role playing games, where each player is given a character to portray and they can trade information with each other both before and after the crime is committed.  The downloadable games contain all the pieces necessary to play and depending on the game can be run for as few as eight people or as many as 80 (more if people play as teams).

I like the role playing option because it’s highly interactive and requires the students to participate in gathering the information as well as analyzing it.  They also will not necessarily know when they have all the details of the case, which is more true to actual research, and can provide some interesting insights into ‘satisficing’ in this regard. The game could be a required element of the course or done entirely as extra credit.  My recommendation would be to require no more than participation in the exercise, and then award extra credit for correctly identifying the murderer, figuring out how the murder occurred, good game play, acting, and if you want, costumes.

Just remember that if you try something like this, the debriefing process afterward is essential to help students see the connection to the skills and content at stake–otherwise it will seem at best like a fun but pointless academic exercise.

If you try something like this (or have done already) I’m eager to hear about your experiences!