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Evaluation and Visitor Research

It is important for zoos and aquariums to carry out research and to evaluate what they are doing. In this way, they will best achieve the highest  standards of education, conservation, research and animal welfare.


Evaluation is an integral component of any successful education programme. It enables an organization to assess the effectiveness of a project in attaining its objectives.  Evaluation may take many forms and can take place before, during and after a project.

  • Initial evaluation of visitor knowledge, understanding, perceptions and expectations is carried out early in the planning stage of a project in order to identify specific issues that may arise. Pre-emptive measures can then be put in place that will address these issues.
  • Formative evaluation takes place during the development or execution of a project. It identifies problems as they arise so that changes and improvements can be made while the project is still in operation.
  • Summative evaluation is carried out after a project to assess its final impact. For example a group of school children attending a taught education session may have their understanding assessed before and after the session in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the session in developing their understanding of a specific topic.
  • Evaluation in zoos and aquariums is carried out in a number of ways and the scale of evaluative studies can vary enormously. Staff may undertake in-house studies to evaluate exhibits, education programmes and projects within their own organizations. Education staff request explicit feedback about school education sessions from teachers whose pupils attend those sessions. Pupil feedback is also playing an increasingly common but important part of evaluating learning.

Zoos and aquariums also take part in studies conducted by external researchers, often in collaboration with research institutions such as universities.The findings of both in-house and external evaluation play a vital role in developing organizations’ own projects and programmes. However, the benefits can be far more widespread. Publication of this research in peer-reviewed journals makes it available to others from a broad spectrum of disciplines who might find it useful. For more information and examples of eduacation evaluation, see the Resources page.

Visitor Research

Do visitors read interpretations signs? Which elements of a zoo education programme have the most impact on visitor attitudes to conservation? Why do people visit zoos?

These are just a few of the many questions investigated by researchers carrying out visitor studies in BIAZA zoos and aquariums.

Visitor research is a rapidly-developing discipline that informal educational settings such as zoos and museums can use to better understand their customers. According to the Visitor Studies Group, the systematic gathering of real evidence enables organizations to:

  • make informed decisions about how to meet core aims and objectives
  • explore the impact they have on their visitors
  • develop ongoing relationships with their visitors
  • encourage ongoing improvements within themselves

Visitor studies generally fall into one of four categories:

  • Market Research aims to discover what people want, need or believe.
  • Participation studies investigate audience demographics to find out who utilises an organization or service.
  • Evaluation examines how successful an exhibit or programme is in achieving its aims.
  • Meta-evaluation involves evaluating the evaluation process to reflect on its effectiveness.

Visitor research methodology encompasses a diverse landscape of social science techniques. It accommodates both naturalistic and scientific paradigms and may involve a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data collection methods including questionnaires, observations, focus groups and visitor tracking.

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