Posters as a Means of Communication (and Evaluation?)

By: Dr. Angus Munro

Posters in general are a way of conveying information to an interested ‘audience’, typically without the need for the presenter to be physically present. As such they have a defined area, a size-limitation which requires that the information presented has to be clear and concise, and readable by others from a reasonable distance.

In an academic context, posters are one important means of communicating findings at large conferences, for example. Thus many major scientific meetings have a large number of attendees, with the attraction of hearing the latest developments ‘from the horse’s mouth’ through talks presented by notable workers in the field(s) being covered.1 However, up-and-coming researchers in a particular field have the opportunity for presenting the results of their own studies during poster sessions: this is of great importance with regard to networking and finding future employers (Powell, 2012).

 The Society for Neuroscience has prepared useful guidelines2, which are generally applicable to all other such meetings (Fischer and Zigmond, 2013).

 Thus there is a generally-formalised structure to a good poster, comprising sequential compo- nents.3

The aim of preparing such a poster is to promote interest in, and discussion and feedback about, a specific set of findings (Powell, 2012). This requires that:

i. the presenter must be able to identify the key points in their research and organise them in a logical, succinct and coherent manner on a prescribed size of poster-board;
ii. whilst the posters are up for much or most of the meeting, the presenters are required to stand beside their respective posters at scheduled times to meet other interested parties and discuss the material presented in the broader context of their other findings;
iii. this clearly requires a more in-depth understanding of the material summarised in the poster itself for the presenter to be able to make a reasonable presentation (to potential future em - ployers, for example).

Thus the use of posters may be of an educational benefit outside the limited world of formal academic conferences.

 For example, Honours Zoology students at the National University of Singapore were re- quired to produce not only a thesis but also a poster as part of the evaluation process.
 This helped to focus their ideas for communication to additional examiners not directly in - volved as thesis evaluators.

I would like to suggest that posters be considered as an additional means for developing UC students’ soft skills.

i. Space limitations will help them to focus on the assigned issue and reduce any tendency towards ‘long-windedness’ (in contrast to oral presentations, with or without PowerPoint).

1. For example, the Society for Neuroscience has annual international meetings in the US where attendance has risen to 30,000 or more.
2. Neuroscientists tend to be a bit introverted, reserved, geeky, whatever … they need someone to point out the distinction between neural and social networking, and how to hopefully strive for the latter.
3. See also obviously different guidelines may apply in other disciplines and other contexts (e.g. a Methods section is often unnecessary in classroom presentations).

ii. Design practicalities will help them to focus on organising their ideas logically so as to en- lighten their ‘audience’.
iii. The end result should be something which gets the basic information across.
iv. The presenters can then be asked for more details about specific points by the lecturer or other interested parties.
v. Where the poster is a group presentation, it is easier to determine the understanding and rela- tive contributions the individual members.

This could be:
i. in classes, for the promotion of student dialogues which would be far more effective than oral presentations as a means of exchanging information (with the responsible faculty vetting the draft material to ensure that it meets a minimum standard beforehand);
ii. for graduate students doing a research paper or thesis, and may be a more useful way of fo- cusing their thoughts in presentations leading up to the research proposal or the final report; and
iii. broader possibilities through, for example, the Student Senate seeking to promote more meaningful discussion and awareness about e.g. environmental issues as one or more of their projects each year.
Clearly, there is the need for caution in implementing such a proposal.
i. Students need to understand the implications of preparing a poster – they cannot put random and/or superficial thoughts on a poster and expect a sympathetic audience (especially when comparisons with other class-members become much easier).
ii. There is also the need for the objective presentation and interpretation of material.
iii. There is the further issue of financial constraints regarding at least the materials required for producing the posters in the first place.
Regarding the last point: if the posters are to be graded, only a small portion of the final mark should be for superficial impressions of the presentation – what is most important is the information content and organisation (or otherwise), regardless of whether it is a professional ‘one-piece’ poster (presumably produced with payment for outside assistance) or some legible pieces of paper stuck on a flattened-out old cardboard box.
In conclusion, posters represent a tangible physical product which, if deemed of a good enough standard, could go on long-term display in UC and/or be featured at the UC Graduation to highlight our students’ (and their lecturers’) accomplishments.
Further practical information about preparing posters can be found on the Society for Neuroscience website1 and elsewhere2. Powell (2012) reproduces an example of a bad poster.

Block, S. M. (1996) Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Presentation. Biophys. J.
Fischer, B. A., and M. J. Zigmond (2013) Attending Professional Meetings Successfully - An Instruction Manual. Society for Neuroscience
Powell, K. (2012) Billboard science – Posters are a chance to show off work and to network with colleagues, but only if the design is easy on the eye. Nature

2. e.g. and; Block (1996)