Conference Posters in the Classroom

In my Avatars, Cyborgs, and Ordinary Human(s)/Beings module, I tried to find new was to engage students with course content and one another, I decided to replace the more traditional 10-20min oral presentation (where one student talks and the rest more often than not does not pay attention) I had in the syllabus with a conference poster presentation. I created an imaginary conference scenario and asked students to create a poster based on their term paper topics. This is how I described the assignment in the syllabus:

The presentation will be in the form of a “conference poster”. Imagine you submitted a proposal to present your research during the annual conference of the International Society for the Subversive Study of Polysemic Bodies. Peer reviewers have accepted your proposal and you are given the unique opportunity to present your research in the form of a conference poster. World-leading scholars will be attending the conference and with your poster you want to attract interest in your research. The conference organizers will award the most interesting posters with a PhD scholarship at a prestigious university. Your task, therefore, is to create a conference poster that a) gives the audience an overview of your highly interesting, original, and ground breaking research, b) is visually stimulating, c) attracts interest, d) breaks down a complex topic into something that is easy to digest for the viewer without oversimplifying it. There will be a lot of competition so you need to think of a strong thesis/argument to keep your viewers’ interest.

I was hoping that through the poster presentation, a) the presenters would have to sit down and think about their term paper topics well ahead of the paper deadline, b) the presenter would get some valuable feedback for their term paper research, and c) the audience would have an opportunity to practice giving constructive feedback to topics they are not necessarily overly familiar with.

I split up the poster presentation sessions into two classes so I would have some sort of a balance between people presenting and people being in the audience. During the presentation classes, I had students put up their posters onto the walls and asked the audience to walk around and engage with the presenters. Each class was two hours and – doing this the first time – I was a bit worried that after a few minutes students would switch topics to more exciting topics than uni work.

Also, before the first poster session, students were a bit worried because none of them had ever done anything like that before and they were not quite sure what exactly I expected of them. I told them the most important thing is to be creative and the syllabus had a few links to websites explaining what conference posters are and what to keep in mind when designing a conference poster. But since those posters were all intended to present post-grad/post-doc research, I probably need to address that next time – but in the end, it worked out very well. Which brings me to:

The result? I was truly amazed by how engaged everyone in class was. Those who brought the posters were excited to share their ideas. The audience, too, really engaged with the posters and the topics/posters kept the group busy for almost the entire two hours. To help the presenters remember some of the questions/feedback, I handed out post-its and asked everyone to leave little notes for each poster. Looking at those post-its, I was impressed by the great feedback students gave/received. I thought that both presenters and audience got more out of the conference poster sessions than they would have from an oral presentation.  The posters gave a good visual impression of the topics and there was a lot of discussion/debate going on.

I will definitely do this again, trying to think of ways to tweak it a bit in particular regarding the process of transferring or translating the poster into a paper. Any ideas/suggestion welcome!

P.S.: Next time I need to make pictures and ask students for their permission to post the images.