Overlapping factors in personal interpretation influence visitors' outcomes

Cook, K. J., Hvenegaard, G. T., & Halpenny, E. A. (2021). Visitor perceptions of the outcomes of personal interpretation in Alberta's Provincial Parks. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 20, 49 - 65.

Park managers try to maximize visitors' enjoyment and satisfaction with personal interpretation experiences – face-to-face interactions such as amphitheater shows and guided hikes – to create lasting behavior change in visitors. Research suggests that interpretation enhances visitor learning; enhanced knowledge can alter a person's attitudes; and many factors that improve attitude change also improve visitor satisfaction. The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) model shows that attitudes can influence a person's behaviors. The study aimed to answer the question, do personal interpretation experiences improve visitors' satisfaction, knowledge, and behavior change with regards to pro-environmental behaviors?

Researchers in this study sampled visitors at three provincial parks in central Alberta, Canada that ran face-to-face personal interpretation experiences between July and September. Researchers visited campgrounds at peak hours on weekdays and weekends, approaching visitors who weren't visibly occupied. A total of 24 people (43% response rate) responded, the majority at Bow Valley Provincial Park. The researchers conducted and recorded interviews lasting 10 to 20 minutes, asking open-ended questions about the respondents' recent experiences with personal interpretation in the parks, factors that affected those experiences, and whether those experiences had influenced any pro-environmental behavior change.

The respondents were 58% female and 42% male, 79% from urban areas and 21% from rural areas, and their average age was 45.4 years. Respondents had spent an average of 2.9 day trips and 10.3 days on overnight trips in Alberta parks in the past year. Within the week prior, 67% of the respondents had participated in an interpretive program; of these, 61% had participated in amphitheater programs. The researchers observed overwhelming approval, with 95% of respondents reporting the program as enjoyable, and 55% of the respondents able to give detailed descriptions of the program's topic and learning outcomes. Factors that respondents cited as positively contributing to their learning were theatrics, entertainment, interpreters, visitor involvement, and repetition of interpretation methods. Over three-quarters, 79%, of the respondents said that their attitudes towards the relevant topic had changed positively. However, 21% said the event did not change their attitudes, as they already had positive attitudes towards the program topic. Respondents attributed attitude change to educational components and presentation style.

Positive behavior change because of their interpretation experience was reported by 55% of respondents, motivated by increased knowledge, positive experiences, park staff, and realizing the consequences of negative environmental behavior. However, 45% of respondents reported no behavior change. Of the latter group, half said they already had pro-environmental behaviors; the most common pro-environmental behaviors that respondents already practiced at home were recycling, limiting utility use, and lifestyle/consumer choices. Respondents were motivated to practice pro-environmental behaviors by social pressure and a belief that these behaviors would generate positive results.

This study was limited by its small sample size and its survey design. Only a few respondents participated in the study, from three provincial parks in central Alberta, and most of them talked about amphitheater experiences, which was not representative of other forms of personal interpretation. Additionally, the survey's open-ended questions limited the statistical analysis tools that could be used to interpret the data. These factors make it difficult to draw conclusions about all park visitors from this study. The researchers recommended future studies use a larger sample size with close-ended questions that inquire about other variables, such as visitors' sense of connection to place and memorable experiences.

Many overlapping, interrelated factors influenced visitors' enjoyment, perceived learning, and attitude/behavior change. Respondents linked their enjoyment and learning to attitude and behavior change. Presentation style and memorability, including entertainment and theatrics, were considered important factors for both enjoyment and learning outcomes. These same factors also affected attitude change; respondents who reported attitude change attributed it to increased knowledge.

The researchers concluded that humor and fun can be integral parts of personal interpretation experiences. Human interaction with “confident, emotionally authentic, charismatic, and verbally engaged” interpreters contributed to visitors' enjoyment and perceived learning. Songs relating to the program's messages were popular and memorable to respondents. The researchers suggested that park managers document personal interpretation experience outcomes to evaluate and optimize the programs; particularly, what can be learned from the evaluations can guide interpreter trainings.

The Bottom Line

<p>Research suggests that personal interpretation enhances visitor learning, and enhanced knowledge can alter a person's attitudes. Researchers in this study interviewed visitors at three provincial parks in central Alberta about the respondents' recent experiences with personal interpretation in parks, factors that affected those experiences, typical pro-environmental behaviors, and any behavior change from those experiences. Of the respondents, 79% said their attitudes had changed positively due to interpretation, and 55% said that their behavior had positively changed. The respondents' reflections indicated that many overlapping, interrelated factors influence visitors' enjoyment, perceived learning, and attitude/behavior change. The researchers recommended that park managers incorporate humor and fun into interpretation, and document visitor outcomes to evaluate programs.</p>

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