We designed a semester-long biomathematical modeling project that culminated in a professional-style class poster conference. We chose this approach over the traditional term paper because we wanted to increase the amount and sources of feedback each student received, provide students with opportunities to share their work with a wider audience, and foster the development of important communication skills. Students experienced the whole range of activities required to prepare for and attend a professional conference, including writing an abstract, preparing and presenting a poster, and answering questions from fellow scientists at the conference. We found it difficult to give consistent evaluations during the three hour poster session. We suggest multiple sessions, multiple evaluators, or collecting posters for final evaluation after the conference. Despite this difficulty, student evaluations of the conference indicated that it met our goals and was an excellent learning experience.
"Modeling Biological Systems" is a first semester
graduate course in North Carolina State University's Biomathematics
Program. The course is designed to teach students about the different
types of models biologists use, how to select the right type of
model for a given problem, and how to run, code, and analyze a
simple mechanistic model. It is meant to accommodate students
with a wide range of biological and mathematical backgrounds and
interests. A major part of the course is the final modeling project:
each student develops and presents a mechanistic model of a biological
In the past, students presented the results of their project in
a paper submitted to the instructor. We wanted to increase student
interaction and provide students with opportunities to learn from
one another and to share their work with a wider audience. We
ultimately designed a sequence of written and oral presentations
culminating in a professional-style poster conference at semester's
end. From all accounts, including an evaluation completed by
the students (Box 1), the conference was very successful and an
excellent learning experience.
Box 1. Poster Session Evaluation. |
The survey instrument asked students to react to each statement by circling a number from one (strongly disagree) through five (strongly agree). We also allowed for free-form comments at the bottom of the page.
Benefits of a Class Poster Conference
Poster sessions first appeared in Europe as a response to lack
of time to present papers in the conventional oral manner. The
first poster session at a major meeting in the United States was
held during the Biochemistry / Biophysics 1974 meeting in Minneapolis
(Maugh 1974). Poster sessions are becoming larger and more common
at scientific meetings -- a trend that has continued unabated
through the past three decades. Despite this trend, few graduate
students receive instruction, guidance, or experience preparing
and presenting posters, perhaps explaining in part the large number
of ineffective posters presented at professional meetings.
A well-executed class poster conference fosters the development of
important professional communications skills (e.g., Baird 1991,
Farber and Penhale 1995, Moneyham et al. 1996). The sheer novelty of
creating a poster can also increase interest and motivation among the
students. An effective poster is designed around visual presentation and
uses a minimum of text (Box 2). A poster conference
forces students to articulate both the big picture and the details of their
projects. Because of space limitations, poster presenters must edit ruthlessly
and communicate their main points clearly and concisely -- they must address the
"So what?" question. Yet, in order to succeed, the presenter must also be well
prepared to discuss details in response to questions from a diverse set of viewers.
The poster conference, and the steps we designed leading up to it, greatly increased the amount and sources of feedback each student received. In addition to evaluation by the instructors, student presentations were evaluated by classmates and other students and faculty who attended the poster conference. On a completely pragmatic level, the poster approach significantly reduced our grading burden. Instead of spending hours reading lengthy papers we evaluated 17 posters during one intense three hour period.
The Trail to the Poster Conference
The sequence of events leading up to the conference was designed
to increase interaction and minimize procrastination (Box 3).
We treated the conference in a serious and professional manner
so that the students understood it was to be an important event.
We reserved a ballroom in the student union for an evening at the
end of the semester and announced the event widely. Students
experienced the whole range of activities required to prepare
for and attend a professional conference, from writing a cogent
abstract before final results are available to answering questions
from fellow scientists at the poster session.
As the conference approached we held a poster guidance laboratory and a poster critique session. During the poster guidance laboratory we discussed the qualities of effective poster presentations using examples of posters presented by the senior author. Poster evaluation criteria (Box 4) were discussed and posted on the class web site. We also displayed the materials required to construct a poster and provided tips to simplify the construction process. For the critique, we asked each student to hang a preliminary poster, without fancy mounting and graphics. We provided markers and encouraged students to mark up each other's work with constructive comments. The students who presented preliminary work at the critique benefited greatly from the feedback they received.
Box 4. Poster Evaluation Criteria|
The poster conference was organized like those of many professional meetings.
Students were assigned a space 2.1 meters tall by 1.2 meters wide for their posters.
The three hour session was
divided into two blocks. Half of the students were required to
stand with their poster during each block while the other half
viewed and evaluated posters. Each student was assigned two posters
to evaluate formally, so that each student received written feedback
from four people: one from each of us and two from fellow students.
The meeting was open to the public and about 50 people attended, in addition to class members.
The energy level was very high during the session and we listened
in on several animated and intense conversations among presenters
and audience members. From what we overheard, and the comments of other facutly
who attended, the students were
articulate in answering questions about both the details and relevance of their work.
Visiting students and faculty reacted very
positively, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a flurry
of class poster sessions at North Carolina State University over
the next few semesters.
Improving the Poster Conference
Although we believe the conference was a success, we offer a few suggestions for improvement based on our experience. The student suggestions to supply name tags and to photograph the poster conference for future classes are excellent ones (Box 1) and we will implement them next time.
We also suggest the option of requiring that the two-page summary handout be prepared for the poster conference rather than due after the session. The advantages of this approach are that it emulates more closely the time pressures of a real poster conference and students can evaluate one another's handouts. The disadvantages are that it may overload the students and that students do not have the opportunity to incorporate feedback from the poster session into their summary handout. We think that this decision depends on the teaching objective. If the objective is to emulate a poster conference as closely as possible, the summary should be completed for the poster session. If the summary is considered a "small poster" and the objective is to allow students to improve their work, we recommend requiring the summary after the poster session.
A final issue for consideration is evaluating the posters. We found it difficult to remain consistently alert and give even treatment to all 17 posters in a three hour period. For a much larger class, it would be impossible to cover all posters without an excessively long conference. A break between poster sessions -- perhaps a split between morning and afternoon, or over multiple days -- would allow instructors to refresh. However, this multiplies scheduling requirements and the amount of time devoted to the conference itself. Another alternative is to split evaluation duties among several colleagues, with the potential for uneven grading minimized by clear evaluation criteria. A third option is to collect the posters and complete the evaluation after the conference. Using this option, more of our time at the conference would be devoted to talking to the students and probing the depth of their knowledge, with consideration of aesthetics and poster construction techniques postponed.
Regardless of how you decide to confront these challenges, we believe that you and your students will find the class poster conference to be an educational and rewarding experience.
We thank the students taking our course for the patience and enthusiasm
they brought to this endeavor. We also thank the faculty
and students who took the time to attend the poster session and
contribute to the professional growth of our students.
Finally, thanks to Gary Blank and Douglas Wellman for their comments on an
earlier version of this paper.
You can visit the poster conference web site at
the course home page is at http://www.stat.ncsu.edu/~bma567_info.
Baird, Brian N. 1991. In-class poster sessions. Teaching of Psychology
Farber, Evan, and Sara Penhale. 1995. Term Paper Alternatives:
Using Poster Sessions in Introductory Science Courses: An Example
at Earlham. Research strategies 13(1): 55-59.
Maugh, Thomas H., II. 1974. Poster sessions: a new look at scientific
meetings. Science 184: 1361.
Moneyham, Linda, Darla Ura, Steve Ellwood, and Barbara Bruno.
1996. The Poster Presentation as an Educational Tool. Nurse educator.
Resources for Poster Presenters
Block, Steven M. 1996. Do's and dont's of poster presentations.
Biophysical Journal 71: 3527-3529.
Briscoe, Mary Helen. 1996. Preparing Scientific Illustrations:
A Guide to Better Posters, Presentations, and Publications. Springer,
Davis, Martha. 1997. Scientific Papers and Presentations. Academic
Press, New York.
Harms, Michael. 1995. How to prepare a poster presentation. Physiotheraphy
Teixeira, Art. 1997. Preparing posters for technical presentations.
Resource 4(4): 15-16.
Tufte, Edward. 1983. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.
Graphics Press, Cheshire, CT.
Tufte, Edward. 1997. Visual Explanations: Images and Quatities,
Evidence and Narrative. Graphics Press, Cheshire, CT.
There are also a few nice internet sites with poster guidance, but they may be ephemeral.
University of Newcastle, Department of Chemical and Process Engineering
Princeton University, Department of Molecular Biology (same as
Block reference above)
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
American Anthropological Association