Using Posters in Case Studies:
The Scientific Poster as a Teaching Tool

by Charles R. Fourtner, Mary Bisson and Christopher A. Loretz
Department of Biological Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo

The poster has become one of the most important types of scientific communication at societal meetings and scientific conferences. The power of the poster is that the communicants can directly discuss their data and interpretations one-on-one or in a small group atmosphere. The feedback generated during these discussions generally proves to be more useful than the feedback in question and answer sessions following the more traditional slide presentations. The data and data analyses are visually available in a well developed local flow in a poster presentation. Indeed the poster format or some similar format will probably become the most useful layout for electronic presentations through the "net."

Generally, scientific posters are the product of group efforts from individual laboratories or often from collegial interactions among research laboratories. In keeping with the team approach so common to the modern sciences, we have developed a cooperative learning experience in which a group of students research a topic, design posters and orally defend their presentations before students and faculty.

Our rationale for developing this exercise was our concern that biology majors were not given sufficient opportunities to read, analyze and discuss the primary scientific literature. Although they may have written papers in other courses, they have had little opportunity to express themselves in their own discipline. In most cases they have never had to defend the materials which they have researched. In the scientific community, increasely in other fields of study as well, professional associations are using the poster format for disciplinary discussions.

Click on image for detailed pictureimage
Example of a Student Poster
(See below for more examples of the students' work)

We have adapted the scientific poster as a mode of learning and instruction for our departmental majors through our General Physiology course. The specific goals of this teaching strategy are to instruct the students: 1) in researching the primary literature and topical reviews on a specified subject; 2) in the evaluation of the methodologies, technologies, and experiments serving as the basis of the research they have read; 3) in determining the pertinent data and analyses leading to the conclusions reached by experts in the field; 4) in concise and logical preparation of data for presentation in a poster format; 5) in the oral defense of the material they have presented on their posters; 6) in the importance of group discussions and interactions as they develop their formal presentation.

There are three equally weighted components by which the posters projects are evaluated. First, the poster is evaluated for content and presentation. Second, each student is given a brief, individual, and public oral examination (6 - 7 min.) to determine the level of her/his understanding of the topic. Third, the students in each group grade their peers as to time and effort. Since the peer evaluations must be anonymous, the student is given only the total poster grade and not the three component parts. These three mechanisms are described below.

The poster group project requires a time and effort commitment from both the faculty mentors and the students. We have established a time line with specific target dates for faculty and student responsibilities for successful completion of the poster project. The following is a typical time line for our fall semester course:

9/20 Staff librarian speaks to the class to give some preliminary information about techniques in information retrieval at the laboratory recitation.
10/7 Assign posters (generally one week following first examination). Students are assigned to groups, topics and advisors. Information on the format of the poster and grading procedures will be handed out at this time.
10/9 - 10/11 Students arrange to see faculty advisors to clarify topics.
10/14 -10/18 Students begin literature search; make appointments with library staff as necessary.
11/1 Students hand in first bibliography to advisor for critique.
11/18 Students hand in final bibliography to advisor. At this time, they also present rough draft of material which they are intending to use for their poster
11/25 Students are assigned times and dates for oral defense.
12/8 Sunday 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. (always during a Buffalo Bills game and a snow storm). Students bring poster to campus and are responsible for place them on display.
12/9 - 12/11 Students publicly defend posters in individual oral examinations.

If timely targets are not established and rigorously followed, we find that students do not finish in a timely manner or have a tendency to be incomplete and sloppy in their presentations. Each of the components listed below are described in detail.

1. Faculty selection of topics
2. Meeting with library liaison
3. Group determination
4. Assignment of topics and the faculty mentor -- selection of spokespersons for each group
5. Group report on literature research on the topic
6. Bibliographic report; -- revisions may be requested at this stage
7. Rough outline of material to be presented
8. Rough draft of the final poster
9. Posters presentation day. Evaluation
10. Peer evaluation
11. Individual oral defense of poster. Evaluation
12. Removal of posters

Faculty Selection of Topics
The topic selection process should be of a breadth commensurate with the scope of the course. In General Physiology, topics are selected from all systems in both animal and plant and from molecular and cellular to systemic levels. The participating faculty develop a list of carefully chosen topics which give the student groups sufficient material to perform a reasonably complete library search. The faculty outline each of the topics and the expectations for the student groups. This process is of paramount importance because individual topics should not be so broad that the number of papers from the primary literature are in the thousands. On their own, students generally would not recognize individual research areas as exceptionally interesting topics in physiology for further analysis and investigation. A typical list of topics would range over diverse fields of physiology:
  1. Natriuretic peptide involvement in congestive heart disease
  2. The motor driving closure of the Venus fly trap
  3. Secretory mechanism in the elasmobranch rectal gland
  4. Determine the role of small calcium activated potassium channels in neuronal membranes (cell of your choice)
  5. Structure and function of the fish electric organ
  6. When the uncoupler protein is induced in the brown fat mitochondrion, the respiratory rate goes up. What is the mechanism for increasing substrate delivery to mitochondrion to support the increased respiration?
  7. Mechanism of action of RU-486
  8. NO: does it serve a synaptic feedback role?
  9. What is the evidence that second messenger pathways which have been identified in animal systems are also involved in hormonal responses in plant cells? Select one hormonal response that has been studied in detail.
  10. Regulation of cutaneous water transport in the Rhodesian frog
  11. Role of Eclosion hormone in programming ecdysis
  12. In response to insect attack, wild tobacco plants increase the amount of nicotine which accumulates in the leaves. Describe the pathway for nicotine synthesis, transport, and accumulation in the leaves, and points at which insect attack could affect leaf accumulation of this alkaloid.

The faculty then serve as group mentors to guide the students in their research and poster presentations.

Meeting with Library Liaison
This can be handled by a number of different mechanisms depending on the relationship with the librarians on staff. In our course we schedule a full hour of class time for a librarian to talk about research resources from standard journals to scientific search indices. The librarian describes searches using Internet and "Web" search engines and the use of various search engines. The librarian is available by appointment to aid the students in their research searches. This part of the project has proven to be extremely important. Although our students may be familiar with some library search mechanisms, generally we find that they have not extensively utilized the power of the library and the "Web." It is particularly important that students are taught to devise a logical search. As faculty mentors we strongly recommend that students use texts and general reference materials to understand the basic terminology defining their topics.

Group Determination
For the poster project we have found the most efficient size of a group is four students although we will occasionally assign three to a group. Group selection should be on a basis that allows some uniformity among the groups. We have found that grouping students on academic performance; for example, grouping either by performance on the first examination in our course or Q.P.A. in the major, is somewhat successful. The selection process should establish groups with some degree of equity; for example, selection of a four student group such that the mean Q.P.A.s of all groups are similar. In our course the group means varied between 2.6 and 2.7. We found, however, that a more reliable mechanism in our course is to establish groups after the first examination. We use the grades on the exam to establish a group of four -- one from each quartile of the examination. Groups are established independent of gender, age or ethnic considerations.

Assignment of Topics
At this time, the membership of each group is published, the faculty mentors are named, and project topics are assigned. The groups are requested to exchange phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses, to schedule meeting times, and to select a spokesperson who will be responsible for scheduling regular meeting with the faculty mentor. These meetings should be with as many of the group members as possible; this encourages group participation and gives faculty an opportunity to evaluate the progress of each student. At the time of assignment, the mentor gives a brief explanation of the topic and asks that the group meet with her/him within a few days to discuss the precise nature of the subject material. We have opted for assigned topics rather than student selected topics so that the students will spend more time on the specific research rather than attempting to delineate a sufficiently narrow line of research that can be handled in a poster presentation.

At the time of topic assignment the students are also given the specific time-line by date for completion of the various stages of the project. They are also expected to make an appointment with the library liaison to initiate their library search of the topic.

Group Report on Literature Research on the Topic
Within four weeks students must complete an extensive literature search. The groups must report on the search and selection of the most important papers. At this time the students are given the format for posters. We use two sources for the poster format. First each student is given the handout derived from the American Physiological Society for the use and disuse of posters. We also have on reserve in the library Dazzl'em with Style Anholt (1994). Most scientific societies publish instructions on poster presentations with suggestions for improving clarity and effectiveness.

At this time the faculty plays an important role in directing the groups to begin to focus on the topic. Generally students have cast a very wide net in their research and their discussions. Only occasionally are their research areas too narrow and the faculty may need to give them a pertinent paper or two they may have missed.

Outline of Proposed Report
Within three weeks students are required to produce an outline of the material to be covered in the poster. This is submitted to the mentor, who returns it within a few days with appropriate comments regarding the experimental procedures and the importance of those experiments vis-a-vis the conceptual framework of the project.

Rough Draft of the final Poster
Two weeks before the presentation of the poster, the student groups must present a draft of the poster layout. During this advisory session, the faculty mentors emphasize that the material must be presented in a clear, logical and concise manner. It is not the role of the mentor to direct the layout. They may suggest or question the omission of some data or analyses. We require from students that data -- raw, graphical and/or tabular-- be an integral part of the poster. It is imperative from the instructional perspective that the experiments be understood and that method of data collection and interpretation appear on the poster.

Posters Presentation Day -- Poster Evaluation
One or two days before poster defense, students must deliver and hang posters in the examination rooms In our case we use the teaching laboratory. These rooms are readily available since laboratories are not scheduled during the last week of the semester. A faculty member is present to organize the arrangement of the posters. Some may be attached to the wall, others free standing while others may be placed on easels. We specify size limitations (generally 4'x 3' width x height), which aids in our planning for use of the rooms.

All faculty and graduate teaching assistants independently grade the posters on a basis of 0-5 (with 5 being highest). These evaluations and questions regarding the posters must be completed before the oral defense. The group grade for the poster is arrived at by consensus discussion and is awarded to each student in the group.

Peer Evaluation
Each student is required to evaluate every other member of his/her group. This peer evaluation forms one-third of the final poster grade. Each student must apportion a fixed number of points to her/his peers. It is the students' responsibility to determine what criterion to use in this apportioning of points. Some of the criteria students may use could be time spent, useful discussion, work on research, work on layout, and general organizational skills. The following is an example of the form we distribute to each student. The form must be completed and returned at the time of their oral exams (it is their ticket to the exam).
Peer Evaluation of Participation in Poster Project

Distribute 15 points in any allocation among your poster-mates. All 15 points must be distributed based on your estimation of their contribution to the project. For example, if one person did 40% of the work attributable to them, and the other two did 30% each, then the distribution should be 6, 4.5, and 4.5, respectively. If their contributions were equal, give each person 5 points.

NAME                            POINTS GIVEN

________________		    ________
________________ ________
________________ ________


Place this evaluation in a sealed envelope with your name printed on the outside and deliver the envelope to Dr. XXXX at the time of your oral presentation.

Oral Defense of Poster
Each student must defend the poster individually. This is a public defense and all members of the class, teaching faculty, and graduate assistants are invited. Only poster-mates cannot attend the oral. The exam consists of a series of questions which may be drawn from any material on the poster and other material pertaining to an understanding of the data and concluding statements. The oral is brief, 5-7 min., and each student gets equal time. After all students of a poster group have completed their oral examinations, the faculty and T.A.'s retire to a nearby room, discuss the performance of each student of the group, and reach a consensus grade regarding each student's performance and the final poster grade. Again this evaluation is one-third of the total grade on the poster, and generally is a ranked mark from 0 to 5. The final reporting of the grade is a simple total of all three components - - again the rationale is that since the peer evaluation is anonymous, we can not reveal any of the individual evaluations. Students strongly support this policy.

Removal of Posters
The day following the final examination period, the students are requested to remove their posters -- no grade for this. Remarkably we are surprised at the number who select to keep the posters for posterity. We have had several students who have returned years later and claim to still have their posters.

Student Evaluation of Poster Experience
At the end of the course during the formal evaluation period the students are requested to write comments regarding their reactions to the poster. The comments are varied as expected but generally the students consider the poster to be too much work and their semester-long interactions in the group are either exciting and beneficial or exasperating and boring. They are almost unanimous in having appreciated the opportunity to grade their poster-mates and were pleased with the anonymity of the grading process. Only those who didn't participate extensively in the project were unhappy with the grading procedures. This experience is an intellectual (researching the topic, preparing the poster and orally defending their presented material) and socially taxing (group interaction) project.

The attitudes regarding the poster project clearly change over time. A typical response when students return after a year is: "I really hated that poster project, but it is the one experience I remember from undergraduate school. I learned a lot and not just the way a cockroach runs."

Click on image for detailed picture.

Student Posters

Anholt, R. R. Dazzle 'em with Style: The Art of Oral Scientific Presentation. (1994) Freeman: NY.

Internet Sites of Interest
Radel, J. Designing Effective Posters. (1996) University of Kansas Medical Center: Department of Occupational Therapy Education.