Research Summary

Do zoo visitors come to learn? An internationally comparative, mixed-methods study

Understanding Expectations of Zoo Visitors

Environmental Education Research
2015

Having prior knowledge of learner expectations can help educators design experiences in ways that meet visitors’ needs. In the case of zoos, however, little is known about the intentions and expectations that visitors bring with them to a zoo visit; in other words, most educators know little about what visitors hope to learn and what experiences they expect to have. Therefore, this paper’s authors investigated the relationship between zoo visitors’ learning expectations and zoo staff members’ perceptions of visitor learning agendas.

To that end, the authors explored three areas. First, the authors asked questions related to visitors’ expectations. Specifically, they asked: Do zoo staff believe their visitors come with the expectation of learning? Relatedly, do visitors actually come to zoos with such expectations? Second, the authors investigated questions about learning agendas, specifically asking: What do staff members believe their visitors come to learn, and what methods do staff members use to evaluate visitors’ motivations and learning agendas? Third, the authors compared the topics about which zoo visitors wanted to learn with the topics zoo staff believe are of interest to their visitors. The authors used interviews and surveys to address those questions.

The first phase of the study included a 62-item online questionnaire, which asked staff from 593 zoos in 72 countries to report on how they design, implement, and evaluate their formal and informal education programs. The questionnaires were completed by 172 zoos representing 48 countries, totaling a 29% response rate. Zoo employees, particularly education staff, completed these questionnaires, which asked employees what they thought visitors wanted to learn during their zoo experience. The study’s second phase focused on nine individual zoo case studies, which included observations of and interviews with visitors and zoo educational staff. The case studies consisted of 28 staff member interviews across the nine sites, and 60 visitor interviews per site, for a total of 540 visitor interviews. The researchers asked zoo educational staff: “Do you think that general visitors come to your zoo with an expectation or hope of learning?” Concurrently, the researchers asked the visitors about their primary motivation for visiting the zoo, what they hoped to learn, the importance of zoo activities, animal visibility and signage, their educational needs, and the day’s highlights. The researchers analyzed the quantitative data to see if there were any significant differences between staff and visitor responses; the qualitative data were coded into response themes, focusing on trends and patterns.

Through the online questionnaire, the researchers found that 75% of zoo staff believed their visitors come to learn. By contrast, during the in-person zoo staff interviews, only 39% of the zoo staff members indicated that they believed their visitors came to the zoo to learn. From the in-person zoo visitor interviews, interestingly, the researchers found that the majority (72%) of visitors indicated that learning or discovery were among their main motivations for visiting the zoo. The online responses regarding visitor learning by the zoo staff members were similar to the in-person responses of the actual zoo visitors. The results, however, indicate a mismatch in the zoo staff perceptions expressed through the online questionnaires and in-person interviews. In two cases, the same staff members responded differently on the questionnaires than they did in person. The authors suggest that this difference in responses may be due to the tendency to provide more conservative responses in person than on an online survey, which may feel less personal. The authors suggest the “true” response may lie somewhere between the two.

The study found that of the 72% of visitors who indicated that they came to the zoos to learn, the largest proportion of them went specifically to see animals. Those visitors described their interest using terms such as seeing “new,” “unusual,” “exotic,” or “live” animals. According to the zoo surveys, 90% of zoo staff members reported that their visitors’ top learning goals were animal biology and ecology, which the authors suggest may reflect similar, or at least compatible, learning priorities. Although the authors categorized 25% of the visitors as having an indeterminable learning agenda, only 3% of visitors reported that they did not have any kind of learning agenda at all.

When considering the evaluation methods that zoos use to assess their visitors’ learning preferences, the authors found that, on average, more than half of the zoos (58%) used primarily informal measures, such as casual feedback, observations, and anecdotes. On average, 41% of zoos used primarily formal strategies such as questionnaires, surveys, and interviews. Only approximately 15% of the zoos used both informal and formal measures.

The authors concluded that, based on the zoo questionnaires and the visitor interviews, the zoos seem to have an accurate understanding of their visitors’ learning agendas. The authors further conclude that the zoos would benefit from using formal evaluation methods for enhanced accuracy when assessing their visitors’ needs and learning agendas.

The Bottom Line

Zoos provide an important context for raising awareness of and motivating action related to environmental issues. By analyzing visitor and staff perceptions of what visitors hope to gain from zoos, the researchers expanded on current understandings of learning-related expectations of visitors and staff. The findings indicate that, not only do most zoo visitors come with a learning agenda, but they also prefer to see and learn about animals. As such, zoo learning experiences focused on the animals on display and ensuring that visitors are all able to see the animals would engage visitors and also support their learning agendas. Addressing visitor goals, expectations, and experiences when designing exhibits and developing interpretation will help zoos better support conservation and sustainability efforts.