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.

Dual Coding

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.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

What about other auditory information like music? That’s obviously not visual, but does it count as verbal? As far as I know, dual coding only refers to visual and verbal information. Music, while auditory, is not necessarily verbal. To the extent that we are talking about non-verbal music, i.e. instrumental, classical, electronic, really anything without singing or spoken word, my suspicion is that it does not interfere with verbal or visual processing. If it doesn’t interfere with verbal or visual processing, then it might be reasonable to assume that it enhances the processing because it provides another piece of information. A sort of tri coding. However, the research on whether music helps memory is somewhat mixed. For a review of how music affects studying, check out this post by Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel.


Asking visitors “how” and “why” questions about the works they are viewing is probably one of the more powerful ways docents can engage visitors and improve their learning during their visit. Not only does elaboration help the visitors form connections with their prior knowledge, which will help their understanding and memory, but it is also a way to get visitors engaged and actively involved during their visit.

One of the main points of discussion that came up with the docents was how to get visitors engaged and motivated during their visits. I was not surprised to learn that many of them had issues with getting people off their phones long enough to pay attention during the visit. Encouraging visitors to answer questions about the work they are viewing accomplishes several goals at once. It helps visitors elaborate, it attracts their attention, and it helps the docent check for understanding.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

What kinds of questions should you ask? We tend to talk about using “how” and “why” questions for elaboration, a strategy called elaborative interrogation, because they tend to get more process and application oriented responses. However, you might need to build up to those how and why questions by asking more basic and straightforward questions first to check their understanding and to build confidence. For example, when viewing a painting you might ask what colors the visitors notice in the painting first (Blue? Green? Orange? Yellow? Brown?). Then you can move on to what types of colors are present in the painting (Cool? Warm? Neutral?). Then you might ask why the artist chose those colors. Or even how you make those colors. The exact order and type of questions you use also depends on the visitors and what type of background knowledge they have about the exhibit. Younger or more inexperienced visitors might need more foundational questions before digging into how and why questions, while older or more experienced visitors might be able to jump right to how and why questions.

Concrete Examples

One of the things that I love about museums - why I insist on going to a museum every time I visit someplace new, why my favorite place while I was growing up in Indianapolis was the Children’s Museum - is that they provide concrete examples. It’s one thing to read about how big a blue whale is, but it’s another thing entirely to stand below the life-sized blue whale model at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s terrific. As a kid it made me absolutely terrified of giant sea creatures. I grew up in the land-locked midwest where the largest animal I had ever encountered was probably a horse, or maybe a cow, but most certainly a very large dog. Before standing below that giant suspended whale the concept of large sea creatures had been comfortably abstract to me. But that whale model seemed much more real than the concept of a whale. It was much more real and much, much larger than me.

While museums clearly offer concrete examples of things that you might only have heard about or read in books, they can also be an opportunity to learn about some very big, abstract concepts. Here is where an understanding of concrete examples, and how to use multiple examples, can help docents guide their visitors through their exhibits. It might seem obvious that visitors come to the museum to see concrete examples of something specific. Often that something is in the title of the exhibit - things like “medical instruments from the 1800s”, “Italian renaissance sculptures”, “Japanese woodblock prints”, or “hall of geodes”. However, what makes an item in the exhibit an example of that something may not always be obvious. Explaining how and why items in an exhibit relate to each other, or using elaborative interrogation to get the visitors to explain it during their visit, will help to make these concrete examples more effective.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay


(1) Conrad, R. (1964). Acoustic confusion in immediate memory. British Journal of Psychology, 55, 75-84.