Learning in a Museum

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Learning in a Museum

By Althea Need Kaminske

This past week I had the opportunity, along with Megan Sumeracki, to talk with docents about how they can use the science of learning in their work. As educators, docents face an interesting set of challenges when teaching visitors about their collections. Namely that they have a limited amount of time with visitors. Not only do they have a short amount of time with visitors, that time is typically during a single visit. As beneficial as retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving are – it’s difficult to really see the benefits of those within the span of a single afternoon. So we focused on ways they can make the most out of the time they have with visitors by using dual coding, elaboration, and concrete examples. Since we have already talked about each of these strategies a great deal at the Learning Scientists (check out Megan’s recent blog on dual coding), I will briefly summarize how each of these are relevant in a museum setting and highlight some of the conversations we had around each of these strategies.

By their nature, many museum exhibits already combine both visual and verbal information for visitors. However, an understanding of dual coding can help museums in making existing texts, explanations, and visuals more effective. Allowing visitors time to read important texts before describing the exhibit, including labels or accompanying text to visual displays, and integrating images into lengthy passages to aid in understanding are all ways to take advantage of dual coding.

One of the questions we received after our talk was to clarify what we mean by visual and verbal as opposed to visual and auditory. This question gets at how we process information in different modalities. Dual coding means that it is easier for us to process and remember information that is presented both visually and verbally. It’s fairly obvious what counts as visual information – paintings, photographs, moving pictures, etc. However, the verbal component is less straightforward because texts and writings are clearly verbal, but they are presented visually. Of course, verbal information can also be presented auditorily in form of someone speaking or an audio clip of some sort. So which is it? Is verbal information visual or auditory? The answer has to do with how we process verbal information, not how it is presented.

Whether we read a text, talk out loud, or quietly think to ourselves, we are using an inner voice to help us process the verbal information (1). It’s hard to read a text and listen to someone else talk over the text because both reading and listening to verbal information require us to use our inner voice. So while a text or a piece of writing may be visual, we process it more like auditory information in our mind. For a more in depth explanation of how we process information see my previous post on working memory.