age visitors to reflect on the processes of science, politics, and personal beliefs, and they achieve this by personalizing the subject matter, evoking emotion, and stimulating debate by presenting material from multiple perspectives.
Designed environments also provide opportunities for visitors to reflect on their own learning processes, although this has been less frequently studied than other inquiry-related actions. Randol (2005) found that visitors using eight interactive exhibits at science museums frequently made some kind of self-reflective comment, typically with a focus on the way they were using the particular exhibit they were engaged with. Specifically, he reported that over 70 percent of the groups observed made at least one statement regarding the group’s progress toward their goal (e.g., “Okay, just two more”) or a comment regarding possible problems in procedures (e.g., “Wait, wait—they have to start at the same time”).
By contrast, Allen (2002), in her recorded conversations with pairs of visitors at an exhibition on frogs, reported much lower frequencies of self-reflective comments. She distinguished among three subcategories of such talk. (1) Metacognitive comments, in which visitors talked about their own state of current or previous knowledge, were heard at 9 percent of the elements visitors engaged with. Of the 66 elements in the exhibition (exhibits or other components), the element that most frequently evoked metacognitive comments was Mealtime, a compilation of video clips of frogs catching and eating their food. Visitors reflected on their surprise at the variety and nature of what frogs ate: “I never would have believed …” or “I didn’t realize they got them with their tongue.” (2) Comments about exhibit use were heard at 16 percent of the stops, for example: “You have to start from here, and then jump as far as you can.” (3) Evaluative comments, in which visitors judged their performance or actions, were heard at 8 percent of the exhibit stops. The element that evoked most comments in the latter two categories was Croak Like a Frog, an audio-based multimedia exhibit in which visitors could listen to a variety of prerecorded frog calls and record their own imitations. Visitors’ comments included: “You have to do it before the red line disappears or it doesn’t record,” and “This was right, except I made it too long.” Allen proposed that several exhibit features probably accounted for the high frequency of evaluative talk: high overall appeal of the exhibit, a challenging interface to problem-solve, and computer-generated graphs that supported visitors’ efforts to visually compare their vocalizations with the standard frog calls.
A large body of evidence also shows that visitors are able to reflect on their own learning if asked. Many exit interviews used in summative evaluations of exhibitions ask visitors whether there was anything that they had not