Assessing visitor engagement in science centers

By Lisa Sindorf - November 2014


Barriault, C., & Pearson, D. (2010). Assessing exhibits for learning in science centers: A practical tool. Visitor Studies, 13(1), 90–106.

Many have argued that visitors’ engagement with museum exhibits is important because it leads to learning outcomes (e.g., Falk & Dierking, 2000; Renninger, 2010). For example, some have argued that engaged learners may be having experiences that they can later connect to other learning (Rennie, Feher, Dierking, & Falk, 2003). Others (e.g., National Research Council, 2009) note that interest in STEM ideas or phenomena is an integral part of—not just a precursor to—learning in STEM; in this conceptualization, engagement at an exhibit is a proxy for interest.

Researchers have developed various frameworks and metrics to assess the effects of learners’ experiences in such informal environments as museums and science centers. Observing learners’ engagement is relatively easy and unobtrusive (e.g., Humphrey & Gutwill, 2005). Building on prior work on museum visitors’ engagement, Barriault and Pearson propose a framework that can be used to assess visitors’ engagement and learning across a wide variety of museum exhibits.

Research Design 

At Science North, a science center in Sudbury, Canada, Barriault and Pearson created a framework to analyze visitor engagement and learning at exhibits (Barriault, 1999). For more than 10 years, they have used this framework to examine visitor behaviors (either live or video recorded) and to assess visitors’ level of engagement with a diverse range of exhibits. This broad application of the framework suggests that it is robust and practical enough to use across a variety of experiences. In this paper, the researchers describe the framework, which identifies three different levels of visitor engagement with exhibits in a science center. They then discuss the application of the framework in depth.

The authors propose seven observable behaviors and three levels of engagement.

Initiation behaviors are a way for visitors to “test the waters” of an experience. Visitors may:

  1. participate in an activity, or
  2. watch others doing it.

Transition behaviors happen as visitors become more comfortable and motivated. Visitors may:

  1. repeat the activity a few times as they become more engaged, or
  2. show positive emotions.

Breakthrough behaviors suggest that visitors are deeply engaged. Visitors may:

  1. refer to past experiences,
  2. seek and share information, or
  3. test variables or make comparisons.

The paper offers examples of each learning behavior.

This observational framework can be used to help inform and evaluate changes made to exhibits. For example, evaluators can quantify behaviors to create a profile showing what percentage of visitors are more or less engaged with an exhibit. The authors describe how at Science North, researchers found that visitors at “The Sprint Track” exhibit were not exhibiting as many breakthrough behaviors as expected. At this exhibit, visitors were intended to sprint a short distance and then try again, modifying their running strategies to improve their time. The exhibit included features to help visitors modify their running strategies, such as a video coach, but few visitors used these features.

As a result, museum staff redesigned the exhibit to more strongly encourage visitors to try the suggested strategies. For example, the monitor with the video coach was moved to a new position. Researchers then repeated their observations and found that the number of breakthrough behaviors increased—that is, more visitors modified their running strategies. This finding suggested that the new design was effective in improving visitors’ engagement.

Theoretical Basis 

This paper draws on constructivist and sociocultural theories of learning, with specific attention to the links between learning and interest. Hidi and Renninger (2006) argue that interest is not static, but rather can be developed over time. Developing learners’ interest in a topic may influence their learning about that topic. A strong interest may lead to more sustained attention to a topic or more willingness to ask questions about it. Because of the connection between personal relevance and learning, visitors’ engagement is seen as an important component of the effect of museum experiences.

The paper also draws on the model theorized by Rennie and Johnston (2004), who argue that museum visitors learn best when the museum experiences are relevant to their interests and prior knowledge. Van Schijndel, Franse, & Raijmakers (2010) created a similar framework to observe and assess levels of engagement in very young children at interactive science exhibits.

Implications for Practice 

This paper’s framework for observing and categorizing engagement behaviors may be a valuable addition to practitioners’ suite of exhibit evaluation tools. The framework’s indicators are broad enough to apply to a variety of exhibits or activities. Museum staff can use the framework to inform changes to an experience and then assess the impact of those changes, without having to develop a custom evaluation plan. Further, the framework can be used to compare learners’ engagement across several different kinds of exhibits.

Consistent use of the framework can support an integrated and systemic culture of evaluation. In the case of Science North, the framework has been used to create a common language and a culture of observation and reflection around exhibit design and visitor learning.


Barriault, C. (1999). The science centre learning experience: A visitor-based framework. The Informal Learning Review, 35(1), 14–16.

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the making of meaning. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111–127.

Humphrey, T., & Gutwill, J. P., (2005). Fostering active prolonged engagement: The art of creating APE exhibits. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Rennie, L. J., Feher, E., Dierking, L. D., & Falk, J. H. (2003). Toward an agenda for advancing research on science learning in out-of-school settings. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(2), 112–120.

Rennie, L. J., & Johnston, D. J. (2004). The nature of learning and its implications for research on learning from museums. Science Education, 88 (Supplement 1), S5–S16.

Renninger, K. A. (2010). Working with and cultivating interest, self-efficacy and self-regulation. In D. Preiss & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Innovations in educational psychology: Perspectives on learning, teaching and human development (pp. 158–195). New York, NY: Springer.

Van Schijndel, T. J. P., Franse, R. K., Raijmakers, M. E. J. (2010). The exploratory behaviour scale: Assessing young visitors’ hands-on behaviour in science museums. Science Education, 94(5), 794–809.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). A four-phase model of interest: An ISE research brief discussing Hidi & Renninger’s, "The four-phase model of interest development."
  • Matson, C. (2014). Developing a practice-based theory of long-term interest: An ISE research brief discussing Azevedo, “Lines of practice: A practice-centered theory of interest relationships.”