Whodunnit? Part 2: Murder Mystery in the Classroom

Back in July I mentioned that I was toying with the idea of using a murder mystery party as a classroom tool.  Today I did just that in my methods class as a nice use of the half-week before Thanksgiving.

Essentially I bought and then adapted a commercially available murder mystery and ran it during a 1h20 session of class.  I assigned each student a role a month in advance, giving them a basic character sheet, some information about the world we were in (it was fairy tale themed), and instructions on what would happen on the day of the event.  The only thing required was willing participation, but I awarded extra credit for those who showed up in costume, threw themselves into the performance, or correctly guessed the murderer.  At the event itself (which I held in our usual classroom, but played music through the computer and brought in some baked goods) I gave them each a nametag, a list of initial objectives (questions to ask other characters and information to impart), some play money to use for bribing information out of others, and another copy of their character sheet.  They had 30 minutes to achieve their initial objectives before the actual murder occurred; then they received a second set of objectives and information and had another 30 minutes to try to figure out who committed the crime, why, and how.  The last 20 minutes I reserved for accusations, explanations, and debrief.

In terms of the event, everything went very smoothly and the students all appeared to enjoy themselves.  I played the victim so they could all focus on solving the crime, but I think that many of them got a bit too caught up in playing their roles and paid less attention to the evidence that I had gathered for them.  None of the students managed to guess the murderer, although several correctly identified the motive and/or the means.  Quite a few of them based their accusations solely on ‘shady’ behavior by a given character; some students admitted to never looking at the physical evidence despite my posting it prominently on the board and suggesting they do so.  I almost considered posting copies of the evidence online and tasking them with thinking everything through a bit more and not revealing the solution until next week, but decided against it mainly because I could not trust that the student playing the murdered would be able to keep quiet for a week, and had no opportunity to ask without raising suspicion. In retrospect, I should have done so.

The debrief phase did involve me tying the exercise back to methods–the whole point was that this was an exercise in analyzing evidence and drawing conclusions, and as students explained their reasoning I pushed them to discuss the evidence and how it influenced (or in several cases played no role in) their deliberations.  But as with most simulations, there simply was not enough time to really dig into this enough to satisfy me.

The Pros:

–the students had a blast, and anytime you can associate methods with ‘fun’ is a win

–the exercise really does have excellent ties to the overall course lessons and learning outcomes.

The cons:

–the exercise definitely needs more time.  Everyone managed to achieve their objectives, but there was little time available for students to really think through the information and evidence, and the debriefing was more abbreviated than I would have liked.

–this was also somewhat time consuming for me.  Although the mystery I bought contained everything necessary to run the event, I need to make a number of adaptations.  This may be particular to this mystery and/or company, but there were several mistakes in the mystery (conflicting information about where one character was living, for example) and the murder was pretty much impossible to solve as written.  I know this because I did a dry run with some friends (mostly faculty from various departments at my university) and got a lot of useful feedback on it.  I therefore had to re-write all of the objectives for each of the 15 characters, both to correct for the inaccurate information and to add information so that every player had enough to go on to be able to have a possibility of solving the crime.  That, as you can imagine, took some time, as did putting together the pre-game envelopes for each student.  All told, it took probably 3-4 hours of prep time for me in the last two days–not including the original character assignment or any time spent doing the prep for the dry run.

I still think this exercise has a lot of potential, so I plan to do it again but with some adjustments.  I would still do the roleplay in a single class session, but give them the evidence and the ability to continue questioning each other online over several days.  Then each of them will have to turn in a 1 page report stating their case, due at the next class (say Thursday for role play, Tuesday for paper + solution and debrief).

I also may experiment with smaller versions of this–ditch the roleplaying and just lay out the facts of the case and evidence for them and set them to solving the crime, rather than participating in it.  I think it will still be fun, but will keep the session more focused on the lessons at hand.