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The Docent Challenge

New docents, also known as docents-in-training, must maneuver around the docent policy manual as deftly as they do around an exhibit or touch cart. But how can you know this? A paper and pencil-type test might indicate which trainees studied the policy manual, but can’t really indicate how they will perform on the job. Besides, paper and pencil testing is often anxiety producing and boring. On the other hand, observing each trainee on the job as they respond to visitors’ questions would help provide a feel for their knowledge of the policy manual, but only tor a tew specific policies, not the entire manual, and what a terribly inefficient use of everyone’s time.

Such frustration. No testing model seemed ideal, so, I invented one ╤ the Docent Challenge. The Docent Challenge tests docents’ knowledge of policies and related information, while building esprit de corps among the new recruits, and models information sharing between docents.

The Basic Idea

The object of the Docent Challenge is to have great fun testing, reviewing, and reinforcing essential information tor new (and experienced) docents. Small teams of docents work together answering questions and earning points.

One experienced docent may join each of the novice teams. This ensures that teams will not be completely stumped. The trainees learn that experienced docents really do know their way around the regulations and experienced docents learn that new recruits, fresh from training class, have an amazing handle on content information.

In our case, plush animals from the zoo’s subscription classes served as team mascots. Teams signaled with their mascot to respond to questions. The Challenge consisted of two rounds with higher stakes in Round II. A leader asked questions and teams responded in turn. A round ended when all teams had attempted to answer an equal number of questions. A tie between teams or surplus playing time could necessitate a Bonus Round.


In Round I, correctly answered questions earn one point and missed questions lose one point for the team. Once a team misses a question, the other teams can signal with their mascot and try to earn extra points on pick-up questions. The first team to signal gets to answer the pick-up questions. In Round I, correctly answered pick-up questions earn one point. In Round II, correct answers earn two points, incorrect responses lose one point, and pick-up questions earn one point. In the Bonus Round, correct responses earn three points, incorrect responses lose three and pick-up questions earn two points.


This is the fun part. Generating questions might seem daunting at first, so try dividing questions into categories. This strategy makes the task more manageable and ensures that questions touch all essential information areas. Shoot for at least 50 questions.

For instance, the category “Docent Operations” covers elements basic to docent life and responsibilities, such as uniforms, duty hours, discounts, parking privileges, office hours, training requirements, substitutions, and absence notifications. Another category, “Park Basics,” covers questions on building locations, bathroom locations, park security, visitor information, handling lost children and other emergencies, hours of operation, park history, park admission, special attractions, and rationale for specific policies. A third category called “Photos” asks trainees to view slides and then respond to questions. For example, a shot of several strollers might be followed by the question, “True or False ╤ strollers are allowed in every exhibit.’ Or a picture of a reindeer could be followed with “Where would you find this animal in our zoo?” Or a shot of a beautiful tulip garden might precede, “This is a view from which entry gate?”


There will need to be at least two staff members on hand to manage this fast moving, sometimes chaotic, and often hilarious game. One will be the Leader. This person reads the questions and determines if an answer is correct. The second person is the Scorer/Spotter. This person keeps track of points won and lost, as well as determines which group thrust their mascot in the air first in their attempt to answer a pick-up question If you have the luxury of a third staff person, consider splitting the ScorerSpotter role.

Bonus Round

A Bonus Round occurs in the event of a tie score following two rounds of play, or may be included if you have extra time. Bonus Round questions are worth more points and therefore, are more challenging, may contain more than one part and may be decidedly picky. For example, “What is the sex of the new rhino born last week; who are its parents; and what species of rhino is it?”


The team with the most points is the winner. You might consider offering special congratulations to the winning team and giving every participant a pencil or other inexpensive item from the gift shop. Another approach might be to serve a special treat at the break. Each participant also should receive a copy of all the questions and the answers.

Closing Thoughts

Scheduling this activity early in docent training created strong bonds between the new recruits like no other I’ve seen. Even the most reticent trainees blossomed in the free-wheeling atmosphere of this Docent Challenge. Also, many folks who join docent programs have been out of school for a long time and are out of practice taking tests. This type of “test” accomplishes everything a paper and pencil test does without the anxiety. The Docent Challenge also serves as a model for working together, sharing information,and having fun learning in an informal setting.

Jean Linsner, M.S. in Education, designs interactive science and math programming for children and adults. Before that, she managed the Docent and Guest Guide programs at the Brookfield Zoo. Ms. Linsner is a frequent contributor to The Docent Educator. Her most recent, previously published article, “Teenagers!!! One Tough Audience, “appeared in the Spring 1997 issue (Volume 6, Number 3).

Linsner, Jean. “The Docent Challenge,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 12-13.


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