“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
What are your goals for your personal interpretation programs? Do you want your attendees to share a laugh, learn something new, or change their behaviour? Different goals will require somewhat different techniques. If you haven’t chosen a target goal, how will you know if you are successful?
Research into the outcomes and effectiveness of interpretation can help anyone involved in interpretation to design, plan, and evaluate interpretive programs. Using Alberta Parks as a case study, over the past five years our research team at the University of Alberta examined the short- and long-term outcomes for participants in interpretive programs, if those outcomes were consistent with staff priorities and park policy documents, and which factors influenced the outcomes.
There are many potential goals for visitors who attend personal interpretation programs, and there are many ways to categorize them. After looking over past studies and interviews with park staff, we used six potential goals for interpretation: satisfaction, learning, attitude change, behaviour change, connections to place, and positive memories.
First, what are the visitor outcomes for your interpretation programs? Based on responses from 1672 campers at 11 parks, we found that program attendees rated their entire camping experience slightly higher for satisfaction, much higher for learning, and moderately higher for attitude change and behaviour change (e.g., feeding animals, picking up litter, and attending programs again) than non-attendees. There were no differences between groups for connections to place and positive memories. After a year had passed, attendees rated satisfaction, learning, and positive memories higher than non-attendees, but attitude change, behaviour change, and connections to place were not different.
Second, how do visitor outcomes from interpretation compare to priorities of park staff and policy documents? Based on 86 interviews, staff with Alberta Parks rated positive memories, satisfaction, and connections to place as more important than the outcomes of behaviour change, attitude change, and learning. We found some differences in priorities by staff category, but there was consistency in most outcome priorities among staff categories. This is important because an alignment of goals among employees in an organization leads to greater performance overall.
hese outcome priorities of park staff were slightly different from the priorities for interpretation listed in park legislation, policies, and management plans. The legislation and policies for Alberta parks encouraged visitors to learn about, appreciate, and care for the natural and cultural heritage. In turn, the management plans focused primarily on learning, and secondarily on satisfaction, attitude change, and behaviour change. There is little mention of positive memories or connections to place. This difference in priorities between planning documents and parks staff, especially for the outcomes of positive memories and connections to place, indicate some goal misalignment, and the potential for lower agency performance.
Third, which factors influenced the outcomes for attendees of interpretation programs? We evaluated 135 programs, interviewed interpreters, and surveyed program attendees. We then tested for associations between interpretive outcomes rated by attendees and two sets of characteristics: interpreter characteristics (e.g., priorities, excitement) and program characteristics (e.g., audience size, program length). When interpreters prioritized learning, there was an associated increase in perceived learning by attendees (but this correlation was not evident for the other outcomes and matching priorities). The interpreters’ excitement levels were positively correlated with attendee intentions to visit other parks. Program organization and connections made within the program were positively correlated with increased knowledge gain. Program connections were also positively correlated with satisfaction and intentions to visit the same park. Audience size was positively correlated with satisfaction, visiting the same park, and attending another interpretive program. Longer programs were negatively correlated with the outcomes of positive memories and intentions to visit different parks. We are conducting more analyses in this area.
Which types of programs were rated higher on these potential outcomes? For satisfaction, outdoor theatres rated higher than family programs or bus tours. For learning, outdoor theatres and guided walks rated higher than family programs. For intentions to attend another program, outdoor theatres and family programs rated higher than bus tours. For intentions to visit the same park outdoor theatres and family programs rated higher than guided walks and bus tours. For other goals, there were no significant associations.
How can interpreters and park agencies use these results? We learned which outcomes resulted from interpretive programs and how those outcomes changed over time. The ‘low hanging fruits’ of interpretation are satisfaction and learning, but long-term conservation is driven by behaviour change, which is harder to achieve. Second, the priorities for interpretation outcomes were consistent among staff, but staff priorities were somewhat different from priorities in park planning documents. Ensuring those goals are consistent can promote better performance. Last, several program and interpreter characteristics are associated with various interpretation outcomes. There are no cookie-cutter approaches, but don't be like Alice. Choose a target outcome and employ suitable interpretive programs and approaches to achieve that outcome.
In conclusion, using research results can help you improve your interpretive jobs. Research can assist your hiring practices, program planning processes, training, and marketing. Surprisingly, a separate result in our studies found that interpreters ranked research (along with legislation, plans, and policies) low among the resources that help them make decisions about the content and strategies for their interpretation programs. Instead, interpreters ranked their supervisors, past experiences, fellow interpreters much higher. These results are similar to another recent study on declining use of evidence-based decision-making among park managers. On the one hand, even though these peer-based sources are anecdotal, they allow for 2-way feedback, address local context, and are current. On the other hand, even though research-based evidence has limitations (time, cost, capacity, local applications), it reduces bias, increases accountability, and provides statistically tested and comparable information. A healthy mixture of both types of sources can guide effective planning and improve your interpretive programs.
Glen Hvenegaard is a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose. His conducts research on interpretation, parks, birds, and ecotourism. He is a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas and is co-editor of Tourism and Visitor Management in Protected Areas: Guidelines for Sustainability.
email@example.com; and https://apps.ualberta.ca/directory/person/gth