19 December 2019

”Why did I lose?” Making poster competitions better

Many conferences have poster competitions. Lots of people like to compete, and it often brings out people’s best efforts. I have been pleased to show lots of competition winners here on the blog.

But often, neither winners or losers know why they are winners or losers.

Some conferences have the judges’ scoring rubrics available for the competitors before the conference. This is good practice, because it helps people know what targets they have to hit. Different people have different ideas about what makes a good poster, and that’s fine, but competitors  should be rewarded for reading instructions! (Including rubrics.)

But typically, the award winners are announced at the very end of the conference, after posters have come down. Nobody gets to go back and see the winning posters. And there is no feedback at all for any of the entrants. The scores and comments compiled by the judges usually just stay with the organizer of the contest. The contest winner is a fact in a vacuum, with no context and no opportunities for people to learn.

Here’s what could be better.

Announce the winner before the end of the conference. Put the winning posters somewhere prominent so people can easily find them and see them. Put a little note card explaining the judges’ summary assessment of the poster.

Give all presenters their score sheets (if they want them), so they can see their scores and comments. Let the presenters know who the judges are so they can follow up with questions if they so choose.

In the society newsletter and website — hell, the society’s journals if it had one — feature the first place poster, second place poster, and any runners up. Again, include commentary from the judges. Perhaps include commentary from the poster designer, too, explaining how they did what they did.

Over time, the society’s website should develop a gallery, easy to find, with each year’s “best of” conference posters and competition winners.

As I said last week, posters will stay horrible if we don’t develop a body of work that people can look at, learn from, and improve upon. Providing this sort of detailed commentary to people, showcasing the winning posters, and explaining why it won starts to develop that body of work in a field.

Hat tip to May Gun on Twitter (https://twitter.com/may_gun/status/1207006302074916871) for the prompt for this post.

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