More Research Needed on Interpretation's Best Practices

Skibins, J. C., Powell, R. B., & Stern, M. J. (2012). Exploring empirical support for interpretation's best practices. Journal Of Interpretation Research, 17, 25 - 44.

Because interpretation has grown as a field and now is relied upon as a critical tool in managing natural resources, it's important to understand which interpretive practices are most effective in reaching certain desired educational, behavioral, and conservation outcomes. To that end, this paper's authors compiled a list of interpretation's best practices from the field's most influential texts and searched the literature to find empirical support for the practices. Their research uncovered gaps in the evaluation literature regarding what we know about best practices in interpretation.

The researchers reviewed 18 “key sources” in interpretive training, including foundational sources such as Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage, more recent sources such as Ham's Environmental Interpretation, National Park Service training modules, and other well-known interpretation guides. The authors identified 17 best practices, defined as follows:

Theme development: Interpretation delivery system has a clear theme(s).
Link tangibles to intangibles to universals: Interpretation makes a link between tangible and intangible concepts and objects and demonstrates the relationship to universal concepts.
Multisensory: Interpretation delivery system is intentionally designed to engage one or more senses.
Actively engage audience: Interpretation is designed to facilitate audience participation in the interpretive experience.
Multiple activities: Interpretive experience consists of a variety of activities and opportunities for direct audience involvement.
Multiple delivery styles: Interpretation delivery system employs a mixture of first-person interpretation, brochures, signs, exhibits, and so on.
Relevance to audience: Interpretive delivery system communicates relevance of subject to audience.
Resource and place-based messaging: Interpretive message focuses on relationship between visitor and the site/resource.
Physical engagement with the resource: Interpretive delivery system intentionally provides direct physical experiences and interactions with the site/resource to build relationship between the visitor and the site/resource.
Tailored to the audience: Interpretive delivery system is developed specifically for a predefined audience or user group (e.g., age appropriate).
Cognitive-based messaging: Interpretation delivery system provides accurate, fact-based information as part of interpretation.
Affective messaging: Interpretation delivery system provides affective messages.
Cognitive/affective messaging: Interpretation delivery system has a combination of cognitive and affective messages.

The following best practices are specific to addressing behavioral outcomes:

Demonstrates benefits of action: Interpretation delivery system uses messaging to present the potential results of desired actions.
Social norms: Interpretation delivery system presents messaging focused on social norms regarding a particular behavior or desired action.
Ease of action: Interpretation delivery system uses messaging to present the ease of visitors adopting desired actions.
Demonstrates action: Interpretation delivery system provides examples of or opportunities for desired actions.

The authors searched for research articles published from 1996 to 2009 in major interpretation journals that demonstrated how interpretive programs affected at least one of the following visitor outcomes: attitudes, awareness, behavior, behavioral intentions, knowledge, or satisfaction. The research articles also had to provide enough detail about the interpretive programs to determine which best practices were employed. In all, the researchers selected 70 articles that met the criteria, and because each paper may have reported on more than one best practice and/or outcome, the researchers were able to pair practices with outcomes a total of 394 times.

The researchers found that in 84% of the pairings of a best practice with an outcome, the results were positive, which suggests that the best practices are effective at eliciting a range of positive outcomes. But, the authors raise a series of questions about the quality of the data. First, the sample sizes for many pairings were small. Second, the papers often did not fully describe the interpretive programs being evaluated, so it was impossible to judge the quality or quantity of a specific best practice in a program. Third, most papers reported only positive results, leading the authors to suggest that perhaps negative or null results are left unpublished. The authors also note that of the 111 instances of an outcome being evaluated in the papers, just five evaluations conducted a post-test more than six months after the interpretive program. The authors argue that long-term impacts should be measured more often. The authors also note that knowledge was the most-evaluated outcome. But, the authors argue that given interpretation's goal of “life-long change in understanding and action . . . short-term assessments of knowledge through pre-post tests appear to be of minimal significance.”

The authors conclude that more focused research on interpretation's best practices is sorely needed. Future research should explicitly target best practices, compare practices across programs, conduct longer-term followups, and report null and negative results when they occur.

The Bottom Line

<p>Although the published research largely supports interpretation's best practices, there are many gaps in the research. In general, researchers have not explicitly tested specific practices, and often have not published negative or neutral evaluation results. And although most interpretive programs aim for long-term changes in their audience, short-term evaluations of knowledge dominate interpretation's evaluation literature. The field would benefit from more evaluations specifically investigating best practices, comparing them across programs to better understand if and how they are effective, considering their impact on a range of outcomes beyond knowledge, measuring their impacts over longer time periods, and reporting instances where they are not effective.</p>