Research Summary

The effect of tour type on visitors’ perceived cognitive load and learning

Audio Tours Prove More Mentally Demanding than Guided Tours

Journal of Interpretation Research
2012

Museums and other sites of informal learning that once relied exclusively on guided tours have increasingly developed digital media (e.g., audio tours) to make interpretive experiences accessible to more visitors. Previous research suggests that media-based tour platforms may split the user’s attention, however, because the user must attend to both the content of the tour and the manipulation of the tour device. The author of this study sought to measure whether the type of tour a visitor took affected either the perceived difficulty of the learning experience or the participant’s ability to transfer their learning after the tour.

The research was conducted at the Winnipeg Exchange District, a Canadian historical site “celebrating the manufacturing and trade history of the Canadian prairies.” Since summer 2008, the nonprofit group that offers guided tours of the Exchange has added “MP3 self-guided pre-recorded audio tours using iPod Touch devices” as an alternative interpretive option. Because the content in both guided and audio tours is the same, “this tour program presented a unique opportunity to compare guided and audio tour participants’ experiences.”

Between July and September of 2008, 151 individuals agreed to participate in the study (95 taking the guided tour, 56 taking an audio tour). After the tour, participants completed a self-administered questionnaire, asking about demographic information, personal characteristics, tour experience, and cognitive load (measured by asking how difficult the learning experience was and how much effort participants expended to understand tour materials).

The author found that “audio tour participants perceived greater cognitive load than guided tour participants”—that is, participants who used the iPod Touch devices for their tours reported putting in more mental effort and experiencing greater mental difficulty than did those participants who took a guided tour. “This was expected considering the attention needed to operate the mobile device, which guided tour participants do not have to attend to.” However, tour type (audio versus guided) had no impact on learning transfer, and learning transfer was not affected by cognitive load.

The author calls for further research to “expand on this work by (1) examining factors mediating the relation between cognitive load and learning, (2) employing a mix of measures for the independent and dependent variables, and (3) examining a range of free-choice learning environments.”

The Bottom Line

According to this paper’s author, “This study represents the first published work to measure cognitive load in an interpretation setting to better understand how interpretation tools impact learning.” The research revealed that self-guided audio tours do not affect learning transfer, but they do require greater cognitive effort than do traditional guided tours. The author urges those designing interpretive tools to consider “the overall visitor experience and satisfaction with that experience.”