The Class Poster Conference as a Teaching Tool

George Hess & Elizabeth Brooks
North Carolina State University

Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education
(1998) 27: 155-158
This is not the final version that appeared in the Journal.


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 system.

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.


(Std. Error)
1. The poster session increased interaction among students. 144.71 (0.16)
2. By viewing other students' work I was able to gain more information about topics I'm interested in. 144.29 (0.22)
3. I valued the opportunity to present my work in a form other than a written paper. 144.79 (0.11)
4. I attended last week's poster review and critique session. 9N/A
5. Last week's poster review and critique session provided valuable feedback that I used to improve my poster. 94.88 (0.15)
6. I appreciated the opportunity to formally evaluate other posters. 133.38 (0.43)
7. I like the idea of having other students formally evaluate my work. 144.29 (0.22)
8. The poster session was an effective format for presenting the results of my final project.144.36 (0.31)
9. I received an appropriate amount of guidance in the construction of a poster presentation.144.86 (0.10)
10. Overall, the poster session was a valuable experience.14 4.64 (0.17)
11. I would have preferred a full-length term paper to a poster presentation. 14 2.71 (0.42)
12. The poster grade is an appropriate portion (35%) of my final grade.

14 4.21 (0.21)

Other Comments

1. Provide name tags for presenters.
2. Photograph the poster session and include these photographs on next year's web site.
3. The poster session is a good idea, especially with outside participation.
4. This was a valuable experience.

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
Instructions to reviewer: Use these criteria to rate the poster presentation on a scale of 1-5 (1=strongly disagree; 3=neutral; 5=strongly agree).
1. Display attracts viewer's attention. 1 2 3 4 5
2. Words are easy to read from an appropriate distance (1-2 meters). 1 2 3 4 5
3. Poster is well organized and easy to follow. 1 2 3 4 5
4. Graphics and other visuals enhance presentation. 1 2 3 4 5
5. The poster is neat and appealing to look at. 1 2 3 4 5
6. Content is clear and easy to understand. 1 2 3 4 5
7. Purpose of model (question being addressed) is stated clearly. 1 2 3 4 5
8. I understand why someone might be interested in the model results. 1 2 3 4 5
9. Key simplifying assumptions are identified. 1 2 3 4 5
10. There is enough detail about methods (e.g., deriving rate equations and parameter values) for me to understand the model and results. 1 2 3 4 5
11. The approach taken is appropriate for the problem and technically sound. 1 2 3 4 5
12. Poster is free of unnecessary detail.1 2 3 4 5
13. Conclusions are stated clearly.1 2 3 4 5
14. Conclusions are supported by model results.1 2 3 4 5
15. Presenter's response to questions demonstrated knowledge of subject matter and project. 1 2 3 4 5
16. Overall, this was a really good poster presentation.1 2 3 4 5

The Conference

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

Literature Cited

Baird, Brian N. 1991. In-class poster sessions. Teaching of Psychology 18(1): 27-29.

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. 21(4): 45-47.

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, New York.

Davis, Martha. 1997. Scientific Papers and Presentations. Academic Press, New York.

Harms, Michael. 1995. How to prepare a poster presentation. Physiotheraphy 81(5): 276.

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