“By listening to what people say, researchers can find out what learners know and understand, what emotions have been evoked by an experience, and what gaps in learning may remain.”

environment with notoriously poor acoustics. Transcribing the conversations, the next step in the process, is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

The most demanding part of such a study by far, however, is interpreting what the conversations mean. Sue Allen, a researcher at the Exploratorium, points out that not only is the museum environment dense and complex, but also many variables can influence what visitors say and don’t say. For example, visitors come from different backgrounds and bring to the visit a range of experiences and varying levels of interest in science, along with diverse attitudes, expectations, group dynamics, and even energy and comfort levels. In addition, aspects of the physical space (lighting and ambient noise, for example), as well as issues related to the design of the exhibit—height, coloration, physical accessibility, interface, display style, label content, and tone—must be taken into account.

Despite these challenges, Allen and other researchers have been able to identify features of conversation that reveal specific kinds of learning. These studies provide insight into participants’ thinking and ideas about how informal experiences can be designed to facilitate learning with and from others.

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