Research Summary

The effect of visitor motivation on the success of environmental education at the Toronto Zoo

Visitor Motivation and Education Outcomes at the Zoo

Environmental Education Research

Over the past few decades, zoos have become important venues for conservation-focused environmental education. In particular, zoos offer an opportunity to reach adults who may not otherwise be exposed to, or have an interest in, environmental education. One of the defining qualities of zoos as educational settings is that they offer opportunities for free-choice learning, meaning the learner has a great degree of autonomy and individual control with regard to his or her involvement with the various educational elements, such as signage accompanying exhibits or informal talks by zoo staff. Given that learning at the zoo is self-motivated, this paper’s authors investigated the variety of visitor motivations at the Toronto Zoo. Furthermore, they investigated whether these different visitor motivations affect the relative success of education efforts.

To understand these motivations, the researchers used the Identity-Related Motivation framework that was developed by Falk (2006) through previous studies in free-choice settings, including museums. This framework posits that museum—or in this case, zoo—visitors’ motivations can usually be categorized in one of five of the following ways:
• Explorers: curiosity-driven and seek to learn more about whatever they might encounter at the institution
• Facilitators: focus primarily on enabling the experience and learning of others in their accompanying social group
• Professional/hobbyists: feel a closer tie between the institution’s content and their professional or hobbyist passions
• Experience seekers: mainly derive satisfaction from action of visiting an important site
• Spiritual pilgrims: primarily seek a contemplative and/or restorative experience

These categories are based on what the visitor self-reports as his or her reason for pursuing any given visit and may change from one visit to the next.

To conduct their study, the authors also needed to determine what outcomes constitute successful conservation-oriented environmental education (COEE) and how to measure them. Based on their review of the literature, the authors describe the main goal of COEE as having an effect on habitat and species conservation (e.g., lowering the extinction rate); however, this goal is not feasible to measure directly. Instead, what researchers often regard as the key outcome of COEE is behavior change, as long-term changes in conservation behavior will, theoretically, have a positive effect on conservation on a broader scale. Given that long-term behavior change is also challenging to measure, the authors use three factors in this study as predictors of environmental behavior change: (1) learned environmental issues (knowledge); (2) learned pro-environmental actions (skills); and (3) intention to perform pro-environmental behaviors (behavioral intention).

A 20-item survey and structured interviews were used to collect data. The survey was designed to ascertain each visitor’s motivation for coming to the zoo. Any participant who scored more than 14 points for a specific motivation category—such as facilitator, explorer, or spiritual pilgrim—was classified as belonging to that group. While each participant was completing the survey, the data collector noted demographic data, such as age group, gender, number of people in the group, and the presence (or absence) of children within the group.

Data were collected during June and July 2012 at the Toronto Zoo, equating to over 49 total hours of sampling. The random sample included 296 participants; of these, 116 were selected to participate in a follow-up interview based on having a single dominant motivation. Only visitors who looked over 18 years old were approached to take part in the study. Just over half (56%) of participants were female; 34% of participants were young adults aged 18–29, 59% were adults aged 30–64, and 6% were over 65 years old.

For participants whose questionnaire showed them as belonging to a single motivation group, researchers conducted interviews to collect additional information. Specifically, interviewers gathered data on visitor satisfaction and the knowledge, skills, and behavioral intentions that resulted from the visit. To measure knowledge gain, participants were asked to describe specific environmental issues about which they had learned following their trip through the zoo. The number of issues they could recall was tallied. For each issue described, participants were asked about ways they learned to address this issue, if any (skills). To measure behavioral intention, participants were asked whether, as a result of their zoo visit, they were more, less, or just as likely to perform each of the Toronto Zoo’s eight target behavioral actions (such as donating personal resources to conservation initiatives).

The results of the survey showed the most common motivation for coming to the zoo was as a facilitator (30%). The next most common motivation group was spiritual pilgrims (10%), followed by experience seekers (4%), explorers (4%), and professionals/hobbyists (1%). This distribution of dominant motivations was significantly different from what was found in a similar study conducted at two zoos in the United States, which suggests that the zoo visit motivations might be significantly different from one zoo to the next. More than half of participants (51%) did not fall into any particular motivation group. The authors note that the model was originally developed at a museum, and that it may be worthwhile conducting further research to create a model for zoo visitor motivations, specifically.

In terms of the effectiveness of education at the zoo, 52% of interview participants were able to report a specific issue they had learned during their visit. Half of those who reported learning about an issue (26% of all participants) were able to describe at least one pro-environmental action or skill relating to the issue they had learned that day. No significant correlation was found between motivation for coming to the zoo, and the amount of knowledge or skills gained, in part because of the small number of participants found in three of the motivation groups, thus making statistics unviable. The data suggests, however, that spiritual pilgrims and experience seekers had greater knowledge gains than facilitators (based on 70% confidence intervals). This could be because facilitators are more likely to be attending to others, rather than focused on their own learning. Facilitators tended to be accompanied by more children than other types of visitors, which could also distract them from their own learning.

The results regarding behavioral intentions revealed no significant correlation between the overall number of behaviors participants reported being “more likely” to perform and their motivation for coming to the zoo. The most common behavior participants reported being likely to adopt was “sharing wildlife/zoo experiences with others to encourage them to visit and get involved” (83% of participants). Certain behaviors were more likely to be incorporated by particular motivation groups; for example, spiritual pilgrims were more likely to “donate personal resources to conservation initiatives in the future,” whereas explorers were more likely to report their intention to “explore natural spaces and reconnect with the natural world.”

The authors also analyzed the types of issues and actions reported by participants. The most common types of issues about which visitors reported having learned related to threats to and endangerment of species and habitats (69% of reported issues). Issues related to sustainability, such as recycling, waste management, and consumer choices, were also common (27% of responses). In terms of types of actions participants learned they could take, the most common actions had to do with reducing ecological footprints and changing consumer choices (68%), followed by supporting environmental organizations (32%).

The Bottom Line

In the context of informal education environments, such as museums and zoos, understanding the motivation of visitors is critical, since learning in these contexts is self-motivated and voluntary. Although the motivation of visitors may differ between zoos and museums, this research suggests that facilitators—those whose primary motivation is to enable the learning of others—comprise a large proportion of visitors to zoos and museums. This paper suggests that facilitators tend to gain less knowledge than other visitors, which may be a result of numerous circumstances (such as, for example, attending to the experiences of others or being distracted by children). Given this, specific efforts should be made to engage facilitators in learning experiences during their visit. Likewise, educators also need to find ways to learn about and reach audiences with other motivations for visiting.