When my son was growing up, my wife and I bought memberships at the local science museum so we could take him there any time we wanted. Like many parents, we wanted him to grow up in an intellectually stimulating environment. No vacuous video games for him. The more time I spent at the science museum, though, the more I wondered whether my son was learning anything meaningful. I found that science museums excel at engagement, but they may not be that good for learning. Museum exhibits usually offer people something fun or interesting to do, like lying on a bed of spikes, creating smoke rings, or building a catenary arch of blocks. People enjoy doing the exhibit, but do they learn about the science and math being demonstrated? Usually there is a panel on the exhibit explaining what is going on, but few (children or adults) stop to read it. They are on to the next exhibit. People’s attitudes seem to be more “What does this exhibit do?” than “What can I learn from this exhibit?”
I don’t blame museums. Exhibits have to be interesting and entertaining to attract people. I’m not suggesting that all exhibits be 20-minute recorded lectures. I also understand that part of the mission of science museums is to make science appealing and promote a positive attitude toward science. The problem is that engagement is not learning. Engagement is typically necessary, but it isn’t sufficient for learning.
Engagement is an educational term that doesn’t translate directly to the cognitive science of learning. I think of it as a combination of attention and interest. When we are engaged, we focus our attention on an event in expectation that something interesting or important will take place. An engaging museum exhibit or class activity draws students in so they are invested in seeing the outcome, and the outcome should justify the effort. Attention has a narrow focus; we miss anything outside that focus. As teachers, we try to capture students’ attention and direct it to the key elements of the lesson or activity. Effective teaching involves convincing students that they should focus their attention on what we are doing because it is important and interesting. If we are successful, then students are engaged. Learning, however, requires more than attention and interest.
Psychologists have known since the 1960s that attention isn’t sufficient for learning. In a typical experiment (Hyde & Jenkins, 1969), participants would review a list of common words one at a time and carry out a task on each word. In one condition, participants had to report whether the word had an e in it. Let’s call that the e-checking condition. In another condition, they had to report whether they found the word pleasant or not. Let’s call that the pleasantness condition. If the word was desk, participants in the e-checking condition would respond yes, and participants in the pleasantness condition would respond yes or no according to their experience (I’d be a no). If the word was mountain, participants in the e-checking condition would respond no, and participants in the pleasantness condition would respond yes or no according to their experience (I’d be a yes). These kinds of tasks are called orienting tasks. Orienting tasks induce participants to encode the words in a particular way. E-checking requires only shallow, meaningless analysis of spelling, while pleasantness requires recalling meaningful past associations with each word. Note that both orienting tasks require participants to attend to each word. After going through the entire list of words, participants were given a surprise memory task in which they had to recall as many words in the list as they could in any order. Even though both groups had paid attention to the words, there was a stark difference between the two groups. The pleasantness group recalled far more words than the e-checking group. The pleasantness group recalled as many words on average as a control group instructed to learn the words for later recall. Furthermore, the pleasantness group that was not warned about the recall task recalled significantly more words than a control group that was warned about the recall task but had to do the meaningless e-checking orienting task. Whether or not participants learned depended on encoding—that is, how they represented the words. If the encoding was semantically rich and elaborate, such as thinking about pleasantness, participants learned the words whether they intended to or not. If the encoding was shallow and meaningless, as in e-checking, then subjects learned poorly, even though they had paid attention and even when they knew they would have to recall the words. Paying attention, or engagement, does not guarantee learning.
Getting back to museum exhibits, many people interact with them in a shallow way: figure out what to do, do it, observe the results, and move on. I’ve seen teachers employ the same kind of high engagement but shallow processing activities as well. We may have a demonstration that is fun and surprising. The students enjoy it and remember it, but they don’t comprehend it or remember its meaning. It is useful to think of our activities and assignments as orienting tasks. We should think about what our assignments are making students think about. The assignments that are best for learning go beyond engagement. They make students elaborate on concepts by making meaningful associations, they emphasize key distinctions among different concepts, and they require students to apply concepts in new ways.
Learning is more than engagement. The best activities are both engaging and lead students to think about information in a meaningful way to support learning. Poorly designed assignments may be engaging but cause students to think in shallow, meaningless ways that undermine learning. Creating intriguing activities that support learning is a challenge for both teachers and designers of museum exhibits. My favorite science museum is the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. In their River Journey exhibit, they trace the Tennessee River from its origins to where it flows into Reelfoot Lake. The six-story building is a metaphor for the river itself. Viewers start at the top to see the beginnings of the river in the mountains and then descend to the ground floor, tracing the changes in the river as it descends. The exhibit is engaging in a way that helps viewers understand the natural history of the river. The exhibit is designed so that engagement leads to meaningful learning. Not all museums, nor all class activities, can make this claim. As teachers, we are constantly refining and modifying our assignments to make them both engaging and meaningful.
Hyde, T. S., & Jenkins, J. J. (1969). Differential effects of incidental tasks on the organization of recall of a list of highly associated words. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 82(3), 472–481. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0028372
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.