20 May 2021

Using poster assignments in courses

This post is for my fellow educators. How can you best use posters in a course?

There are a few reasons you might want to have students make posters for a class. Probably the biggest one is practice for presenting a poster in a professional setting, like a conference. Same reason we ask students, even undergrads, write in journal format: to give them practice communicating like professionals.

I’m going to give an outline for how I integrate posters in a science communication course. 

The science communication course I teach is one semester class for advanced undergraduates.

The poster “officially” takes up only one week of the class, but several exercises before I give students the poster assignment build up and reinforce what I ask students to do in the poster module.

In the first few weeks of the course, I ask students to prepare standard application materials like a CV or résumé and a personal statement. This is usually fairly straightforward in terms of content, because students are writing about themselves. These modules give me a chance to talk about typography. I use these modules to emphasize the importance of good typography in the appearance of a professional document.

The learning objective within the applications module:

  • Describe key elements of typography that improve the appearance of documents.

A couple of weeks later, I ask them to create a few simple plots of data. I usually give them some raw weather data (say, a month of temperature data from two different cities) and ask them to make a few standard summary diagrams like bar graphs (with error bars!) and scatter plots. This module gives me a chance to talk about data visualization and introduce some basic concepts of graphic design.

The learning objectives for the graphing module:

  • Describe advantages of plotting data.
  • Describe and use best practices for creating tables for publication in scientific journals.
  • Describe and use best practices for creating graphs for publication in scientific journals.

In this particular course, I don’t ask students to make a poster about their own project. (They do have a project, but I ask them to do an oral presentation instead.) Instead, I tell them to base their poster on a recently published open access journal article. 

The advantage of asking students to modify a published article instead of making a poster of their own class project is that I want students to edit. It’s often easier to edit someone else’s work than your own.

I tell them:

Do not "dump" the paper into the poster and be done with it! That will get you a crummy score, guaranteed! The best posters are likely to be the ones that are the most different from the original paper. For an example, compare a paper I published here to a poster I made about the same project here (from this blog post). The paper has ten figures; the poster has only five. The difference in the number of words is obvious.

The learning objectives for the poster module:

  • Describe how posters are presented in academic conferences.
  • Create a design brief for a conference poster.
  • Describe basic concepts used in graphic design.
  • Describe and use several best principles for conference poster design.
  • Design a conference poster.
  • Use a checklist to evaluate your poster.

Of course, they also end up revisiting some of the learning objectives from the previous modules.

I direct students to a checklist here on this blog to assess their own posters. I use a modified version of the checklist as the scoring rubric.

After the students design and submit their poster, I ask them to do a round of peer review. In an online course, I do this using a discussion forum. Depending on how the semester is going, I might give students an opportunity to resubmit a poster for a revised grade. 

Later, I have students give an oral presentation of their class project, and that gives them another opportunity to revisit some of the graphic design and typography skills from the poster module.

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