Research Summary

Boosting Metacognition in Science Museums: Simple Exhibit Label Designs to Enhance Learning

Question-asking in Exhibit Labels to Encourage Metacognition

Visitor Studies

Metacognition, or awareness of one’s thought processes, is associated with increased creative thinking and problem solving. These are important skills for addressing environmental issues overall and are particularly important when addressing largescale, systemic challenges, such as climate change. One way that educators can help learners develop and reflect on metacognition is through inquiry learning, which emphasizes question-asking rather than answer-giving.

Numerous researchers have studied the influence of inquiry learning on metacognition in formal educational settings, but fewer have done so in informal settings. Yet many environmental education programs and experiences occur in informal settings, such as museums, parks, and aquariums. To examine inquiry-based learning’s role in developing metacognition in informal learning environments, researchers created inquiry-based flip labels for several exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The exhibits addressed a variety of social-science topics, such as unconsciously shared knowledge, facial expressions, and gender roles, so the study results would be applicable to the broader social science field. The labels focused on asking questions to enhance interactive exhibits, which prior research has found to increase metacognition in formal education. The researchers made three kinds of labels: labels with no question (the control), labels with an exhibit-specific question, and labels with an exhibit-specific as well as a real-world question. The researchers randomly selected pairs of participants from the total population of museum visitors. The study included 59 pairs of participants, most of whom were teenagers or college-educated young adults in male-female pairs. The researchers asked participants to interact with the exhibits initially; then read the labels; then continue engaging with the exhibit as they normally would. The researchers recorded and transcribed the visitors’ conversations and coded the transcripts, searching for signs of metacognitive talk. The researchers analyzed the interview data to study the proportion of time the participants engaged in metacognitive talk at each exhibit.

The researchers found that including an exhibit-specific question in the flip labels led to an increase in metacognitive talk. Although adding the real-world questions did not further increase metacognitive talk, those questions maintained the elevated levels of metacognitive talk initially spurred by the exhibit-specific questions. The results suggest that inquiry-based flip labels for museum exhibits can substantially increase visitors’ metacognitive activity.

The Bottom Line

Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is an important aspect of addressing larger-scale issues, such as those evident in the environmental sphere. As a large proportion of environmental education occurs in informal learning settings, such as museums, parks, and aquariums, it is important for educators and practitioners to understand the ways in which such settings might support metacognitive skills and reflection. One way to enhance metacognition in informal settings is to focus on question-asking rather than question-answering. In an informal setting, such as a museum, this might look like inquiry-based labels that ask exhibit-specific questions to spark reflection. Also including related real-world questions can help maintain and extend the metacognitive thinking over time.