Evolution: Education and Outreach

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 43-61

First online:

Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution

  • Amy N. SpiegelAffiliated withCenter for Instructional Innovation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Email author 
  • , E. Margaret EvansAffiliated withCenter for Human Growth and Development, University of Michigan
  • , Brandy FrazierAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • , Ashley HazelAffiliated withUniversity of Michigan Museum of Natural History
  • , Medha TareAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Virginia
  • , Wendy GramAffiliated withNational Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Inc.
  • , Judy DiamondAffiliated withUniversity of Nebraska State Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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We examined whether a single visit to an evolution exhibition contributed to conceptual change in adult (n = 30), youth, and child (n = 34) museum visitors’ reasoning about evolution. The exhibition included seven current research projects in evolutionary science, each focused on a different organism. To frame this study, we integrated a developmental model of visitors’ understanding of evolution, which incorporates visitors’ intuitive beliefs, with a model of free-choice learning that includes personal, sociocultural, and contextual variables. Using pre- and post-measures, we assessed how visitors’ causal explanations about biological change, drawn from three reasoning patterns (evolutionary, intuitive, and creationist), were modified as a result of visiting the exhibition. Whatever their age, background beliefs, or prior intuitive reasoning patterns, visitors significantly increased their use of explanations from the evolutionary reasoning pattern across all measures and extended this reasoning across diverse organisms. Visitors also increased their use of one intuitive reasoning pattern, need-based (goal-directed) explanations, which, we argue, may be a step toward evolutionary reasoning. Nonetheless, visitors continued to use mixed reasoning (endorsing all three reasoning patterns) in explaining biological change. The personal, socio-cultural, and contextual variables were found to be related to these reasoning patterns in predictable ways. These findings are used to examine the structure of visitors’ reasoning patterns and those aspects of the exhibition that may have contributed to the gains in museum visitors’ understanding of evolution.


Museum visitors Free-choice learning Developmental model Evolutionary reasoning Exhibition