Using a poster to assess learning
Academic posters are widely used within scientific and academic communities to present research findings and have been described as “as an illustrated abstract - a highly condensed version of a research paper constructed primarily of visual displays of data with just enough supporting text to provide context, interpretation, and conclusions” (Hess et al., 2009, p. 357). They therefore offer an authentic way for students to demonstrate their understanding. Highly visual, posters offer a strong alternative to text-heavy assessment methods. They require students to communicate complex thinking clearly and with concision, synthesising and integrating information, and can foster critical thinking.
What is a poster?
Posters are screen-based, paper-based, or virtual objects which represent ideas and / or research findings. Designed to communicate from a distance, they often incorporate images, figures and graphs and so illustrate what is known. They can be created individually or collaboratively, communicate the outcomes from independent research, group projects or to demonstrate understanding of module content. They can stand alone as an assessed artefact or be accompanied by an oral presentation and/or a Q&A session
Posters can be printed or produced and displayed digitally, either online or in a face-to-face environment. In addition to the production of the poster, students can be asked to present their findings using the poster as a visual aid. This might be done entirely through a Q&A session with the assessing tutor or through a more formal presentation. Again, the assessment rubric will need to be carefully considered, as will the weighting of the poster as an artefact and the oral presentation/response to questions. Running an academic ‘poster session’ will create opportunities for peer feedback and evaluation, and can also generate a sense of pride and accomplishment which is beneficial to a sense of student belonging and a positive learning environment.
What can posters assess?
Academic posters are most authentically used in disciplines where poster presentations are part of academic dissemination activities, e.g. science, medical sciences and social sciences. Posters are less frequently found in the Arts and Humanities, but there is no reason why they could not be adopted. It may however, be more challenging to communicate standards to students without strong understanding and experience of poster creation / observation.
As a visual medium they best lend themselves to topics where data visualisation, visual imagery and narrative are essential elements of student work. They can be used to disseminate research, demonstrate understanding of content knowledge, or document process (after the fact).
Producing non-academic posters might also be used as an assessment task, e.g. publicity or educational poster. This would assess how well students were able to communicate with a variety of audiences for a variety of purposes.
The way in which the assessment task is presented to students will direct their effort. If the task is introduced as “create a poster” rather than “carry out independent research and summarize what you have learned in an accessible manner to a public audience,” it is likely that students will focus on the creation of the poster rather than the learning that goes into developing the material for one (Legget et al. 2014).
In addition to outlining the purpose of the poster, it is important to offer clear guidance on how the poster is going to be assessed; the emphasis placed upon design, clarity of text, visual presentation of data, and content (including design decisions on what to include and what not to include). This will, of course, be informed by the intended learning outcomes of the module. If it is the first time that students have produced a poster it may be useful to scaffold their introduction by offering them a framework, and / or a template to populate, perhaps as a formative assessment.
Criteria for poster assessment will depend on the intended learning outcomes but might include (Wallace et al. 2016):
- aesthetic components
- processes and skills such as locating and selecting evidence
- organising and integrating information
- using evidence to reach a conclusion
- presenting and communicating information.
If there are specific requirements for the poster, e.g. include a graph, headings, graphics, references these should also be incorporated into the assessment criteria.
Assessing aesthetic and creative artefacts inevitably admits a degree of subjectivity. Working with students to develop their assessment literacy, and specifically teaching them what constitutes good design can mitigate against challenges to assessor judgements. If peer assessment is being used it is even more essential that students understand and use assessment criteria effectively.
Powney & Short in Havemann and Sherman (eds., 2017) provide a useful case study in chapter 8: Assessing Veterinary Students Using Posters and Online Lectures.
Diversity & inclusion
Less text might be beneficial for students with specific learning differences such as dyslexia, or who have English as an additional language.
Using posters to disseminate student research / work may deter plagiarism as each poster will demonstrate unique characteristics (Walker 2005). It is important to stress to students the need for proper referencing on academic posters. Adding opportunities for Q&A brings the poster presentation closer to a viva voce assessment and will enable you to assess whether student(s) have a deep understanding of what is presented, and can explain their methodology, research process and decision-making. Q&A would also enable you to speak with each member of the group to avoid ‘the one who is good at presenting’ taking sole responsibility for the oral presentation (although you may need to make this clear in the rubric to avoid the second best person at speaking being nominated by the group to deal with the Q&A).
(Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)
Student and staff experience
Students seem to like it (Fernandes et al. 2005) but report that it takes them a lot of time to create a poster.
Posters can facilitate deep learning. The constraints of space demand a robust editing process, and require students to make evaluative judgements about which information is essential which promotes critical and creative thinking (Chabeli, 2002; Davis, 2000; Tanner, 2012). Working with such an economy of words may also develop academic writing skills and can help develop students’ ability to write clearly and concisely to communicate complex ideas.
Working in a visual medium enables students to develop different skillsets. Producing an artefact can stimulate student creativity and give students a strong sense of ownership over their work. Insofar as they are portable, posters can provide a showcase of transferable skills to potential employers.
Producing academic posters can make students nervous if they are not clear on the task and the way in which their work will be evaluated (Erekson 2011).
If students are working in groups you will need to attend to the issues which can arise around group work - such as free loading, unequal division of work, whether to award group marks or individual marks.
Posters bring affordances of a visual medium - if the subject does not lend itself to concise exposition / visualisation then there may be a tension between what students’ are being asked to do, and what they are asked to create.
Students may be unfamiliar with poster format and will need clear guidance on what is expected, and what ‘good’ looks like. There are lots of student-facing resources on how to design a poster, including a Moodle course produce by Warwick Student Skills. However, these tend to be quite generic and so you will also need to supplement this sort of guidance with a discipline context.
Assessment criteria need to be carefully designed and communicated to students. Clear consideration should be given to the validity of this assessment method - is student ability to communicate, including through visual media, being assessed as well as student knowledge, understanding and / or strength of research. This creative aspect of the task may surface subjectivity in assessors’ evaluation in a way in which a report / essay will not, generating a perception of unfairness.
There may be costs associated with producing a poster such as printing costs. A decision will need to be made about who should bear these costs and how they might be limited or mitigated. If students are required to pay for the production of posters, less financially secure students may be put under additional stress, or disadvantaged. If required resources such as suitable printers are limited then student access to them may have to be managed. If students are expected to use tools or software outside of their usual experience then it may be necessary to make additional training opportunities available to them.
Students Given that academic posters are used to present academic research it should not be supposed that it is less time-consuming to produce a poster than it is to produce a piece of continuous prose, an essay or a report. The student work / research which the poster disseminates will have taken the same amount of time and the work required to present that work effectively will take a significant number of hours. It should not be assumed that a poster will be experienced as a small task and therefore should not be used as supplemental to the main assessment task.
Staff It may take longer to plan and construct a good poster task and assessment criteria. However, the simplicity, succinctness of the product designed as it is to enable its audience to absorb a lot of material quickly, combined with the necessary clarity of the criteria may make it a more effective method to assess large cohorts (Davis 2000). If you are going to run a poster session you will need sufficient time and space to do this. Electronic posters submitted or displayed online is an alternative if this is not possible.
Guidance from Manchester University
Guidance from the Research Guides at New York University
Guidance from the University of Melbourne