Research shows the importance of active learning, especially within science classes. One way to achieve this goal is to incorporate student-driven projects into the course (e.g., posters). Traditionally, science-poster assignments follow the spirit of the science fair in which a student conducts an experiment and analyzes the results. This article offers an alternative take on science posters: position posters, another way to get students engaged. Students pick their own topic and then present the scientific evidence for their topics and come to a conclusion of their own. Choosing their own topics encourages them to become more invested in the process of completing the poster, and overall, students enjoy the learning process.
In today’s classrooms, it seems that students are struggling with learning, particularly in my biology classes at the community-college level. More and more, research shows the importance of active learning, especially within science classes (Armbruster et al., 2009; Clark et al., 2009; Duch et al., 2001). Authors have published on the effectiveness of using posters within their science classes to improve student understanding of a given topic and encourage students to become familiar with the process and nature of science (e.g., Mulnix & Penhale, 1997; Montúfar-Chaveznava et al., 2008; Gorman, 2010; Deutch, 2011; Schmitt-Harsh & Harsh, 2013). Posters not only allow students to practice their critical-thinking and organizational skills, they promote further development of the students’ oral and visual presentation abilities (Newbrey & Baltezore, 2006; Deutch, 2011). Poster assignments can also invite students to develop a deeper understanding of how professional science is conducted and how scientific views are shared among peers (Mulnix & Penhale, 1997; Schmitt-Harsh & Harsh, 2013).
Here, I offer an alternative take on science posters. Traditionally, science-poster assignments follow the spirit of the science fair in which a student conducts an experiment that follows the scientific process of proposing a hypothesis, testing it, and then analyzing and presenting the results. Although this style of poster can be beneficial, I suggest position posters as another way to get students engaged and to take ownership of their learning through reviewing literature on an interesting topic. Instead of requiring students to create a poster on a set topic of my choosing, or an experiment, I allow them to pick their own topic (contingent upon my approval), specifically something that is controversial in science (or in our culture as a whole), has more than one possible explanation, or is tough to understand. Students then present the scientific evidence for their topics and come to a conclusion of their own. The self-reports of students indicate that choosing their own topics encourages them to become more invested in the process of completing the poster. In addition, Mulnix & Penhale (1997) found that doing a poster assignment was an enjoyable learning experience for most students within their study.
I initially chose a poster assignment because I wanted to encourage my students to start organizing and understanding information in a different way. Particularly for my students that are more visual or creative learners, making the poster offers them a unique opportunity to showcase their skills. While combining a literature review and poster assignment is not necessarily a novel idea, the poster does offer some advantages over other formats (e.g., research paper, web page, and PowerPoint presentation). In addition to providing more possibilities for visual creativity than a research paper, a poster assignment can give students a preview of what a poster session at a conference might be like, similar to the experience of professional scientists. To enhance that aspect of the experience, each student evaluates several of his or her peers, further replicating a conference poster-session environment. Also, in the format described below, students get a chance to practice their oral presentation skills in a lower-pressure atmosphere than in a PowerPoint presentation. Lastly, a poster provides a more “permanent” format for presentation, meaning that students must have their work organized and completed well before the poster session begins. By contrast, students can make changes to a PowerPoint or web page up until the moment they present. Presenting a premade poster requires students to work on their time-management and organizational skills, which are valuable in any class. While I have used this assignment successfully in nonmajors biology lecture and lab classes, cell biology classes, cultural anthropology classes, primate behavior classes, and biological anthropology lecture and lab classes, these posters could be a useful tool in any subject.
Students are expected to choose an interesting topic in science that is currently under debate – some controversy or a question that has multiple hypothesized answers. I provide them with several examples, both of topics and of posters created by former students. Examples of topics include causes of global climate change, the use of genetically modified foods, stem cell research, cloning, and so on. Upon approval of the topic, the students research that topic following a set of guidelines. Each poster should have the following elements: title, abstract, four to six subtopics, a minimum of three figures with captions, and references. Students have instructions about what sources are acceptable and the minimum number of sources (five) they must have on their poster. They are required to gather information on their topic from reputable sources such as academic journals, books, and websites. They then take the information they have collected and organize it into a poster that highlights the main points and gives evidence of both sides of the controversy or of the multiple hypothetical explanations. In order to promote timely completion of the assignment and organization of the research process, I offer students opportunities in class to consult with me about their subtopics and overall organization of the poster.
In addition to guidelines about the content of the poster, students receive instruction on the organization. They have instructions detailing the basic design of the poster, including size (3′ × 4′ trifold standup poster board), font (Times New Roman 18), hints about organization (name front and center below the title, organized from left to right on the board), illustrations (at least three, captioned, well explained), and references (internal citations in the text, cited figures, and a comprehensive References Cited section). As a class, we evaluate examples of old posters in order to increase student understanding of the requirements of the assignment. I specifically ask the students to evaluate each poster’s pros and cons, and we come to a consensus about what makes a poster good. See Figure 1 for an example of a handmade poster.
Some challenges that may arise during the assignment include students needing help in organizing the research process or developing a timeline for the assignment, and difficulty in choosing a topic. These challenges can be mitigated by providing examples of a research timeline and questioning students about their interests. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of presenting the assignment to the students is to very clearly establish the definition of plagiarism. I present students with examples of the same information, written both appropriately and inappropriately, and then they assess which versions would be considered plagiarism. The instructions state that the entire poster is to be written in the student’s own words, with the exception of a few quotes if necessary. For further resources, see the following:
On poster presentation day, all the posters are set up around the room and the students and I spend the class time reading and evaluating the posters. We begin by having each student offer a 60-second oral summary of their research to the class. The goal is for each student to have some practice explaining their work without the high-pressure situation of giving a fully oral presentation. Then, half of the students stand by their posters while the other half walk around reading the posters and asking the authors about their work; after a suitable amount of time, they switch.
Using a rubric, students are assessed in two ways: by me and by their peers. In order to create a more collegial, academic, professional environment, each student is assessed not only on their own poster but on the critical assessment they complete of other students’ posters. Students are evaluated in the following categories: quality of the abstract, accuracy and relevance of their information (35%), quality and explanations of the illustrations (15%), accuracy of citations of all information and illustration (10%), completeness of the bibliography (5%), overall neatness and professional appearance (15%), grammar and spelling (5%), and their participation in evaluating other posters (15%). At the end of the class period, we spend time as a class discussing the experience. During this time, students share what they liked and/or disliked about the position-poster assignment process.
I have found this to be a highly effective assignment, given what students have told me as well as how much effort they put into their posters (e.g., original tables, artwork, and double-matting) and how well students complete the assignment. Over the past year, I have used this assignment in five classes and I solicited feedback from students regarding how well they liked the assignment. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with most of the comments centering on student enjoyment in choosing their own topics, how much they learned from doing their own research, and the fun of completing a non-exam-based assessment. I believe that this poster assignment can be a useful tool for all instructors in both secondary and postsecondary education.