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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