A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations

This post is part of the ongoing series about assessments strategies for large class sizes

After teaching for a while, you just start wanting to do things differently.

That quote, from McGill Professor Jens Pruessner, resonates strongly: teaching is a dynamic and ever-changing activity, and strategies evolve over time. That being said, doing things differently is particularly challenging in large classes: moving ‘beyond the multiple choice’ when assessing students in a class with hundreds of students requires creativity, time, courage, and a lot of energy!

This didn’t faze Jens as he started re-thinking ways of assessing his students in his 300+ student Psychology class titled “Hormones & Behaviour”. The goal of this course is “to familiarize students with the basic concepts and theories in major areas of hormones and behavior, and to stimulate interest and further study in Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.” He wanted to find creative ways to link deeper aspects of research and scholarship directly into the course. In his own words:

When I was a student it was all about transferring content and not at all about becoming a scholar or researcher. In my course, I want students to learn how to present work to colleagues in conferences and publish in journals. So I wanted to combine content with some knowledge of what it means to work in academia.”

McGill Professor Jens Pruessner
McGill Professor Jens Pruessner

Jens has achieved this goal by having groups of students prepare poster presentations for 20% of their grade in the course, and he spends two days at the end of the term having a mini research conference where the students present their posters. This is very much in a ‘conference style’ since the instructor and TAs spend about 10 minutes with each poster, asking questions and interacting with the students. Given the class size (the most recent offering had over 400 students), group work is part of this process, and in groups of 4-6, students either select a poster topic from a list, or pitch a different idea to the instructor (or TAs).  The poster topics are appropriately detailed so that the expectation for the poster content is quite clear. As an example, for a particular topic students might be asked to present a research problem or question and highlight a research paper (from the peer-reviewed literature) that provides a solution to the problem. The students are well aware of the expectations, and are graded according to a rubric that includes these criteria: (1) Thought and Ideas, (2) Organization and Focus (3) Diction and Clarity and (4) Grammar/spelling. They are also given additional feedback according to the face-to-face discussions during the mini-conference.

Overall, Jens feels this assignment has been successful. Feedback from the students include the notion that this is a ‘very modern way of teaching (interacting- group projects)’, that material is presented ‘in a way that is engaging (and often hilarious)’, that ‘this prof has a deep understanding and a reflection process concerning the material’, and finally, that ‘he reflects upon pedagogical philosophy and has an interesting teaching method.’

This class offers students a different medium for thinking about the course and its content, and the poster activity is representative of what really happens at scientific conferences.  Working as a group, reading and evaluating literature, presenting their findings, and having to answer questions about their presentation are all key skills for students in a model of higher education which includes a deep connection to research. The mini-conference also has the added value of allowing students to see each other’s work, a process that is typically very tricky with large class sizes. As Jens explains, “Students might not have any incentive to read each other’s papers, whereas they are very excited to see each other’s posters.

In sum, I think Jens has done something creative, innovative, and remarkably special. He has found a method of assessment for a large class that includes many of the key ingredients for student engagement: real-world scenarios, collaborative work, relevance, excitement about the end-product, feedback, and fun. I hope others follow this model and think about doing poster assignments in large classes.

One thought on “A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations”

  1. I, too, have enjoyed doing poster assignments with my classes (~40 students in Education learning to be teachers). As Jens says, mimicking what happens at scientific conferences really contributes to students’ learning.

    The poster task I assign has two parts: the poster (individual or in pairs) and peer review. Each student peer reviews two posters. They follow peer review guidelines (as Jens mentions – expectations and criteria have to be clear) that have been discussed and modeled previously in class. Their comments are submitted to the poster author(s) and to me. Their reviews are a graded assignment. Since these students are learning to be teachers, the ability to articulate strengths and weaknesses in a way that will appeal to the author(s) is important. These students spend a certain amount of time practicing their “feedback” skills, so it makes sense in the context of the course to have them do an assignment related to a skill they’ve been practicing.

    Of course, the ability to engage in peer review is a valuable skill for all students—from across the disciplines—for at least two reasons. First, peer review has the potential for raising students’ meta-cognitive awareness. For example, a student who can articulate that there is a lack of an organizing principle in a peer’s work may be able to look critically at his/her own work to discern a clear organizing principle. Second, peer review is another way to engage students in an authentic research environment. Peer review is exactly what academics engage in as part of the publication process and the conference speaker process.

    Feedback from my students on the poster assignment has been enthusiastic. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, posters simply seem to afford an element of creativity that students don’t perceive when they write papers. Generally, the assignments are stimulating both for students to produce and for viewers to take in. In fact, in one class, students were so enthusiastic about the value of the poster content that a couple of students photographed all the posters and uploaded the photos to myCourses (with each student’s consent)—a truly satisfying teaching moment!


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