Types of Learning

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Cat Scharon and Sarah Cohn. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Informal Science Education programs are designed for a wide variety of audiences with a wide variety of intended outcomes. Learning takes place across entire lifespans and in virtually every environment within which humans interact.  Measuring, documenting, describing the types of learning that takes place outside of the classroom is a complex and evolving area of work in the field of museum learning and assessment.

Findings from Research and Evaluation

History of Learning Outcomes

A first wave of museum-appropriate outcomes for informal learning were developed in (Bloom, 1956)’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, encompassing cognitive areas for measurement (e.g., knowledge, comprehension, etc.) as well as affective (receiving, responding, valuing, organizing, and characterizing) and psychomotor outcomes (e.g. developing a skill). These categorizations remain as the foundation for contemporary definitions of learning.

The National Science Foundation aligns its activities and grantmaking to five impact categories, spanning cognitive, affective, and psychomotor changes in participants. The Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects (2008) is a comprehensive resource on evaluation planning for exhibits, programs, media, collaborations, and myriad other deliverables.

The NSF Impact Categories are as follows:

  1. Awareness, knowledge or understanding: Measurable demonstration of assessment of, change in, or exercise of awareness, knowledge, understanding of a particular scientific topic, concept, phenomena, theory, or careers central to the project.

  2. Engagement or Interest: Measurable demonstration of assessment of, change in, or exercise of engagement/interest in a particular scientific topic, concept, phenomena, theory, or careers central to the project.

  3. Attitude: Measurable demonstration of assessment of, change in, or exercise of attitude toward a particular scientific topic, concept, phenomena, theory, or careers central to the project or one’s capabilities relative to these areas.  Although similar to awareness/interest/engagement, attitudes refer to changes in relatively stable, more intractable constructs such as empathy for animals and their habitats, appreciation for the role of scientists in society or attitudes toward stem cell research.

  4. Behavior: Measurable demonstration of assessment of, change in, or exercise of behavior related to a STEM topic. These types of impacts are particularly relevant to projects that are environmental in nature or have some kind of a health science focus since action is a desired outcome.

  5. Skills: Measurable demonstration of the development and/or reinforcement of skills, either entirely new ones or the reinforcement, even practice, of developing skills.  These tend to be procedural aspects of knowing, as opposed to the more declarative aspects of knowledge impacts.  Although they can sometimes manifest as engagement, typically observed skills include a level of depth and skill such as engaging in scientific inquiry skills (observing, classifying, exploring, questioning, predicting, or experimenting), as well as developing/practicing very specific skills related to the use of scientific instruments and devices (e.g. using microscopes or telescopes successfully).

Other models for defining learning have been developed concurrently around the world, including the UK’s Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council’s General Learning Outcomes (GLOs) . Though similar to the NSF’s defined impacts in many respects, they offer expanded consideration of affective outcomes.

General Learning Outcomes are defined as follows:

Knowledge and Understanding

  1. Knowing what or about something

  2. Learning facts or information

  3. Making sense of something

  4. Deepening understanding

  5. How museums, libraries and archives operate

  6. Making links and relationships between things


  1. Knowing how to do something

  2. Being able to do new things

  3. Intellectual skills

  4. Information management skills

  5. Social skills

  6. Communication skills

  7. Physical skills

Attitudes and Values

  1. Feelings

  2. Perceptions

  3. Opinions about ourselves (e.g. self esteem)

  4. Opinions or attitudes towards other people

  5. Increased capacity for tolerance

  6. Empathy

  7. Increased motivation

  8. Attitudes toward an organization (e.g. a museum, archive or library)

  9. Positive and negative attitudes in relation to an experience

Enjoyment, Inspiration and Creativity

  1. Having fun

  2. Being surprised

  3. Innovative thoughts

  4. Creativity

  5. Exploration, experimentation and making

  6. Being inspired

Activity, Behavior, Progression

  1. What people do

  2. What people intend to do

  3. What people have done

  4. Reported or observed actions

  5. A change in the way that people manage their lives

Though less often the focus of ISE experiences and evaluation, the MLA’s complementary General Social Outcomes (GSOs) may also provide a relevant framework for determining logic models and program impacts, particularly with regards to outreach and community engagement audiences. GSOs include:

  • Stronger and Safer Communities

  • Strengthening Public Life

  • Health and Well-Being

Learning Science in Informal Environments: Strands Approach

Outcomes of science education should reflect the core values and unique characteristics of learning and teaching in informal settings. Beyond many shared content and practice goals for science education, informal environments often value – and specifically strive to foster – capabilities and affective outcomes that are unlikely to register on school-based assessments of learning.

Several reports from the National Research Council, particularly Taking Science to School (2007) and Learning Science in Informal Environments (2009), attempted to consolidate the outcomes of learning in informal science settings by synthesizing the current body of research and evaluation studies from out-of-school and in-school learning. Learning Science in Informal Environments (2009) categorizes the following six strands as a set of goals and practices for science learning in ISE:

Strand 1: Sparking and Developing Interest and Excitement

Often characterized by people’s excitement, interest and motivation to engage in activities that promote learning about the natural and physical world, this strand focuses on motivation to learn science, and the emotional engagement, curiosity, and willingness to persevere through complicated scientific ideas and procedures over time. People with an interest in science are likely to be motivated learners, seeking out challenges and difficulty, use effective learning strategies, and make use of feedback to develop their knowledge. Individuals are empowered to make their own choices to become involved in science-based experiences or choices about what subject matter to pursue.

Strand 2: Understanding Science Knowledge

Encompassing content knowledge, science learning includes the use and interpretation of scientific explanations of the natural world. More than discrete facts, learners must understand interrelations between concepts and use them to build and critique scientific arguments.

Strand 3: Engaging in Scientific Reasoning

People learn the knowledge and skills to build and refine models and explanations, design and analyze investigations, and construct and defend arguments with evidence. This also includes recognizing when there is insufficient or inappropriate evidence to draw a conclusion, and determining what kind of additional data are needed.

Strand 4: Reflecting on Science

Understanding that science is a way of knowing, and related to understanding how knowledge is constructed and how ideas change. Scientific knowledge is dynamic as new evidence emerges and theories are reevaluated through a process of social engagement in scientific discourse. For laypeople and scientists alike, this provides a critical stance for an informed citizenry in political debate and public policy.

Strand 5: Engaging in Scientific Practice

Despite the stereotype of the lone scientist, science is largely a social endeavor. Participation in the scientific community requires knowledge of language, tools and core values as scientists come together to achieve a greater understanding of a scientific problem. By participating in opportunities for doing science that allow for exploration, learners in informal settings can develop an appreciation for how scientific progress is made, as well as gain greater facility with the language of science, such as “hypothesis,” “experiment,” and “control.”

Strand 6: Identifying with the Scientific Enterprise

Through experiences in informal environments, people may come to see themselves as capable of doing science, and for young people, considering careers in the STEM fields. For those who do not become professional scientists, it is important that they identify themselves as being comfortable with, knowledgeable about, or interested in science, in order to pursue hobbies, take informed policy positions, or draw on science when it seems to be appropriate. Identity develops over a lifetime, and may fluctuate as more or less salient according to the encounters and environments in which an individual lives.

Goals related to the content, practices and nature of science knowledge are also taught in formal schooling (strands 2-5, above). The LSIE report attempts to recognize affective outcomes (strands 1 and 6) to include fostering interest, excitement, and the development of a personal identity linked to science knowledge. Yet these goals may still not adequately encompass the unique characteristics of ISE, and some argue that there are other outcomes and complexities not reflected within those defined by this committee. Opportunity for deeply looking, thinking, and wondering (Duke, 2010), implications of cultural contexts and personal history (Kisiel & Anderson, 2010), as well as many research and evaluation questions and methodologies (Kisiel & Anderson, 2010; Shouse et al., 2010) are just some of the elements that will need to be further reflected upon within ISE.


Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A. W., & Feder, M. A., (Eds.) (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Accessed from: http://informalscience.org/research/ic-000-000-002-024/LSIE

Bloom, B. S., Krathwohl, D. R., & Masia, B. B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals. New York: D. McKay.

Duke, L. (2010), The Museum Visit: It’s an Experience, Not a Lesson. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53: 271–279.

Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., & Shouse, A. W. (Eds.). (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press. Access from: http://informalscience.org/research/ic-000-000-002-027/Taking_Science_to_School

Friedman, A. (Ed.). (March 12, 2008). Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects. http://informalscience.org/documents/Eval_Framework.pdf  

Kisiel, J. and Anderson, D. (2010), The Challenges of Understanding Science Learning in Informal Environments. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53: 181–189.

Shouse, A., Lewenstein, B. V., Feder, M. and Bell, P. (2010), Crafting Museum Experiences in Light of Research on Learning: Implications of the National Research Council’s Report on Informal Science Education. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53: 137–154.