A guest blog by Julie Hall, Birmingham City University. This blog forms part of our Strategic Interventions in Health Education Disciplines (SIHED) legacy work.
Currently one in two people in the UK are expected to develop cancer at some point in their lives and, after surgery, radiotherapy is generally considered to be the most effective treatment for cancer. Despite this, therapeutic radiography, the only health profession that is exclusively concerned with radiotherapy treatment, remains a relatively unknown career option. This obviously affects recruitment but can also affect retention as new students may not fully appreciate exactly what the role of the therapeutic radiographer entails before they join us. We, the Birmingham City University (BCU) Radiotherapy programme, are a relatively small course with an intake of around 32 students per year. Despite this we are the main provider of radiotherapy training for a large area including the West Midlands and beyond.
Given this situation a small team of academic staff within the BCU department of radiography were very excited to be involved in a project funded by the SIHED Challenge Fund Programme. The project team included Lisa Pharaoh-Stokes (lead), Dai Rees who provided the escape room development expertise and me (all senior lecturers in the department of radiography). We wanted to investigate whether retention of radiotherapy students could be improved by using a programme of escape room events designed to develop communication, team working and non-technical skills.
We particularly wanted students to develop trust in each other, enabling them to speak to and request help from others when needed, as well as engage more with their peers and with academic staff. Building their confidence, initiative, and problem-solving skills to prepare them for the clinical team approach to radiotherapy treatment, and in communicating with wider clinical team members and patients were also goals. The expectation was that student retention would be positively enhanced through increased, self-created student team support and improved communication across the student group and ‘belonging’ to their chosen programme of study and profession. This is very important for our students are diverse in age, race, culture, and gender.
Over the period of the project retention did improve, but due to low numbers of students within our cohorts it would be problematic to state that this was due to the escape rooms alone. It was very clear however that communication, team working, and leadership were all effectively developed through the escape room events. Our students found the first escape room activity to be an excellent ice breaker as they had only known each other for a few weeks and it placed them into a situation where they had to talk to each other and work together effectively. Many of our students are commuter students who struggle to meet socially outside of the university/working day and these activities have provided a platform for learning and socialising at the same time. Over the period of the project improvements in communication and team working have brought radiotherapy students together and encouraged a group identity. The pandemic presented us with some problems, but we continue to use escape room activities as part of our approach to teaching communication, team working and leadership skills with our first and second-year students. We are still considering the inclusion of escape room activities as part of our recruitment/selection process, but the pandemic has put this on hold.
Escape rooms are now being used by many other health courses within our faculty and, although they were initially developed for student use, staff groups have also adopted them. We have even participated in escape rooms online as a staff team building/diversity activity during the pandemic.
The project could not have happened without the support of our head of department, Helen White, other members of the radiography department who helped to run and embed escape rooms into their modules, the clinical staff who helped with development and the students who provided us with valuable feedback. It is unlikely that the project in its current form would have taken place without SIHED funding which allowed us to broaden the scope of our use of escape rooms within the radiotherapy course and beyond. The last word should be one of thanks to all who collaborated on the project.