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VSA Week: Cheryl Kessler on Visitor Studies Evaluation Methods

My name is Cheryl Kessler and I am an independent consultant doing visitor studies. I conduct program and exhibit evaluations in museums and libraries to understand what and how visitors/users learn from their experiences, what they might do with that information, and how new information is integrated with existing knowledge. My Visitor Studies Week blog is about some of my favorite methods.

Visitor studies utilize a number of familiar evaluation and research methodologies. I lean toward and enjoy qualitative methods such as focus groups, drawings, Personal Meaning Mapping, and timing and tracking. Recently, I have been conducting telephone focus groups, which have disadvantages but get the job done when working from a distance with limited travel funds. I have used drawings with elementary school children to document immediate impact, using a rubric created collaboratively with the program coordinator to score vocabulary and concept learning. Personal Meaning Mapping (PMM) is a concept-map-like methodology developed by John F. Falk, et al. (1998) to assess individual learning in informal settings across four dimensions: Extent, Breadth, Depth and Mastery. Originally designed for summative evaluation, PMM is very adaptable for prototyping, topic and label testing. Timing and tracking, the ultimate in observation in my opinion, is useful for understanding how the public uses or attends to entire exhibitions or individual exhibits within a larger exhibition. I have done timing and tracking studies for formative and summative evaluations in a natural history museum, reflective tracking in a front-end study of living history sites; and as part of strategic planning for reinterpretation of a historic cultural space to understand visitor pathways and engagement.

Rad Resources: Some favorite and time-tested resources include:

  • Krueger, R.A., and Casey, M. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research (3rd edition), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000.
  • Yalowitz, S., and Bronnekant, K. Timing and Tracking: Unlocking Visitor Behavior. Visitor Studies, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2009, pages 47 – 64
  • Serrell, B. Paying Attention: Visitors and Museum Exhibitions, Washington: American Association of Museums, 1998.
  • Falk, J. H., Moussouri, T., & Coulson, D. (1998). The effect of visitors’ agendas on museum learning. Curator, 41(2), 107 – 120. A Google search for “personal meaning mapping” results in a number of studies using this methodology.
  • Informalscience.org a repository of research and evaluation reports, searchable by institution, methods, author, etc.
  • Institute for Learning Innovation has conducted many studies using all of these methods for over 20 years. Most studies are unpublished but may be available by request.
  • Science Museum of Minnesota, Research and Evaluation, The Big Back Yard Study Series (2006) includes a nice timing and tracking report.

This contribution is from the aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. We are pleased to welcome colleagues from the Visitor Studies Association – many of whom are also members of AEA – as guest contributors this week. Look for contributions preceded by “VSA Week” here and on AEA’s weekly headlines and resources list.

2 thoughts on “VSA Week: Cheryl Kessler on Visitor Studies Evaluation Methods”

  1. Hi Shelia –

    Here is a published source where you can find more details on PMM.

    Researching Visual Arts Education in Museums and Galleries: An International Reader. Edited by Maria Xanthoudaki, Les Tickle, Veronica Sekules, 2003; pg. 22-25.

    You may also want to John Falk, now at Oregon State University, or the Institute for Learning Innovation if the above reference doesn’t provide the information you seek.

    All the best,

  2. Cheryl, I am very interested in Personal Meaning Mapping and I can find lists of publications and presentations on it, but can’t actually put my hands on a document that explains in detail this methodology and how it can be used. Can you help?

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