Research Summary

Supporting student learning: A comparison of student discussion in museums and classrooms

Audio Recordings Reveal Student Conversations in Museums and Classrooms

Visitor Studies

The researchers who conducted this study believe that learning is a social activity and, therefore, what people talk about influences what they learn. For example, they point to past research that examined the behavior of families visiting informal learning sites such as zoos and aquariums. That research found that families that talked more about the exhibit—asking and answering questions and commenting on the exhibit—were most likely to learn. This study’s researchers focused on student discussions, both during a class visit to a museum and back in the classroom. The researchers wondered if the students’ discussions were “consistent with the kind of talk that could support learning.”

The researchers analyzed five classes of students in late primary or early secondary grades. The students were visiting either the Science Museum in London or the New York Hall of Science. The researchers selected classes to represent a range of ages and visits to different museum galleries. (The students visited galleries with different types of exhibits with varying levels of interactivity.) All of the students’ museum visits involved pre- and post-visit educational materials developed according to current best practices in museum education. The students selected topics or questions to explore during their visit, took notes and photographs during their visit, and then completed a project back in the classroom. For most students, the classroom project involved the production of a poster or PowerPoint presentation.

The teachers selected one pair of students from each class and recorded their conversations during their museum visit and during the follow-up classroom activity. The researchers instructed teachers to select students who they considered to be “average” (socially as well as academically). The researchers analyzed the overall character of the discussions, the cognitive level of the discussions, and engagement with the topic of conversation. The researchers only coded on-task conversations—in other words, those that were specifically related to the museum visit. Most of the students’ talk was on task, with an average of about 83% of the talk being related to the visit or the classroom assignment.

Previous research has named four main categories of student talk while engaged in a task:
• Disputational—students disagree.
• Parallel—students speak in turn but do not pay attention to what the other is saying.
• Cumulative—students cooperate, but do not collaboratively build knowledge.
• Exploratory—students cooperate, think critically, and respond to another student’s ideas. Exploratory talk is the most closely associated with learning.

The students in this study were most likely to engage in cumulative talk, with disputational talk being the next most frequent. Exploratory talk was rare, but it occurred more often in the informal museum setting than during the classroom activity. The researchers note that exploratory talk is rarely recorded in student conversations, unless students have received specific training in how to do it. They conclude that “given [exploratory talk’s] scarcity in most classrooms, it is promising that it occurred at all.” And they suggest that because exploratory talk was more frequent in the museum, it “leaves open the possibility that the museum setting—or perhaps even the particular activity in which they were engaged—may support such talk.”

The researchers found that most of the students’ content-related talk was superficial, but “talk suggesting deeper engagement with the content appeared more often in the museum setting than in the classroom.” The students were also more likely to be emotionally engaged in the museum than in the classroom—though both were infrequent.

The researchers conclude that the student conversations demonstrate that informal learning sites can encourage cognitive and affective engagement with the material. They suggest that educational materials to support museum visits should be moderately structured, offering students some focus during their visit and opportunities to connect the experience back to the classroom, while still allowing open exploration. They note that this research involved only a small number of students and no control group, so further research is needed to suggest what educational materials would encourage more exploratory talk among the students.

The Bottom Line

Students visiting a museum and then doing a follow-up activity in the classroom were very unlikely to engage in the exploratory talk, which is the most supportive of learning. But exploratory talk—in which students are actively engaged both cognitively and emotionally, and are critically listening to each other and building on each other’s ideas—was more likely in the museum setting than in the classroom. The researchers suggest that educational materials that support visits to informal learning sites should balance the need for student focus with the benefits of free-choice learning and exploration. They also suggest that more research would help clarify the results of this limited study.