National Park visitors' delayed responses to interpretive talks are examined and compared to professional interpreters' expectations for visitor responses to interpretive talks. The premise is that through an understanding of visitors' delayed responses, interpretive programs can be refined to further the goals of visitor learning and appreciation as well as the development of a sense of stewardship. Informal learning theory, schema theory, and constructivist learning theory provide a conceptual and theoretical framework for the research.
Visitors to nine U.S. National Parks participated in a computer-assisted telephone survey/interview eight months after attending an on-site interpretive talk (n=283, response rate 86%). Questions were designed to assess their lasting perceptions of the interpretative talk. Further, visitors were asked to describe what elements of the experience were most memorable. In the second component of the study, 640 permanent interpreters employed by the National Park Service (NPS) (response rate 56%) responded to a census web survey exploring: 1) expectations for visitors' responses to interpretive talks, using questions that paralleled those asked of the visitors, and 2) beliefs about what leads to memorable experiences at an interpretive talk.
Analyses revealed that a majority of visitors were able to describe memorable experiences, categorized as either general (n = 89; 32%) or talk/topic specific (n = 150, 53%). Interpreters suggested five major themes believed to lead to
memorable experiences: interpreter/ranger skills, relevance, connections, learning, and involvement. Items that were comparable for visitors' perceptions and interpreters' expectations for responses were strongly correlated (Rho = .834, p≤.001).
The implication is that visitors value experiences where interpreters actively seek to engage the audience. Further, interpretive talks can have a measurable impact on visitors' long-term memories. Informal learning theory, constructivist learning theory, and schema theory provide useful perspectives from which to understand the process and results of engagement. While interpreters recognize the need for and value of engaging visitors, this knowledge may not always translate into practice. Training that emphasizes visitor engagement at multiple levels is essential for memorable interpretive talks.