Poster sessions: A great way of establishing a scholarly ecosystem in the classroom

For a few years now, I’ve included a poster session component in my assessment. I began using them while I was chair of the Text Encoding Initiative, inspired in large part by the poster slam organised by my friend Susan Schreibman (now of Maynooth, then of the University of Maryland).

Until this year, I didn’t treat them that seriously: students were assessed on a pass/fail basis with the pass threshold being simple submission of a good faith effort; I didn’t really give any instructions on how to make posters (something traditionally humanists have not done); and I didn’t neither evaluated the presentations nor (most years) provided time for students to look at each others’ posters outside of the slam presentation itself.

This year, however, inspired largely by Inge Genee’s practice in her linguistics class, I stumbled upon a much better and educationally valuable way of using them. We did the slam as in previous years, but then we broke the c up into groups, each of which took turns circulating around the posters and asking questions of the presenters (because people want to see and hear from presenters in their own groups, we needed to redo the groups a few times).

The result was superb: students reported themselves to be thrilled by the opportunity to hear what their colleagues were up to, and certainly I heard a number of very intense discussions and Q&A sessions going on among clusters of students.

In retrospect, of course, all I did was take the poster component seriously. But what a result!

Tips and techniques

I have a couple of tips if you are interested in doing this:

  1. Announce to students early on that you are planning to do this and provide guidance on how to put posters together. Especially if your students are humanities majors, they are unlikely to have much experience with this so really basic instruction is required.
    1. Design matters like how to use Powerpoint or Impress to design the slide, tips on layout, size, use of fonts, images, and colour, for example;
    2. Questions of content and rhetoric—e.g. how to extract and summarise an argument for presentation on the poster; using different heading levels to indicate different levels of argumentative detail; how to use the Q&A period to supplement the argument.
    3. Practical questions like how and where to print them off as well as some estimated prices (if you are requiring paper posters); an alternative to this that we used is to book a computer lab and have students display a virtual poster on their workstation screen.
  2. Do a preliminary slam (here’s a model) at the beginning of the room in which students pitch their poster to their colleagues. This helps prime the subsequent discussion. Set a time limit of 1 minute for each presentation, but be flexible (especially with shy students). Some find the timed presentation extremely harrowing.
  3. Plan on several rounds of Q&A to allow students to see and hear from almost everybody. What we did was assign everybody a number from 1-5, an alphabetical group based on their first name, and a third in which they were grouped by seating rows. Several groups would then circulate at a time. This didn’t cover all permutations, but towards the end we let people switch groups if they really realised that somebody they really wanted to hear was always in the same group.



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