Graphically Presenting Quantitative Relationships: Elements of Effective Posters

Julian Westerhout, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Summary

Sharing research in a public forum is an important (perhaps the most important) component of doing research. Poster sessions are increasingly used in political science as a vehicle for sharing research, yet we often do not spend much time with students focusing on how best to use the poster format to communicate the message of our research.

This workshop asks students to read several chapters from a text that focuses on graphical display of data, to consider poster presentations that they have seen, to think about what worked well, (or didn't work well) and why. This leads to reflection on the goals of a poster and the best way those goals can be achieved. After writing about their reflections, the class discusses the process using some examples of good and bad techniques.

Learning Goals

Students should understand how visual aids can help or hinder them in communicating their research results.

Students should understand that posters do not stand alone—that they are an integral part of the communication process.

Students should begin to understand how the use of design elements can maximize the readability and usability of their posters.

Context for Use

This workshop is used in a class on methods in political science. The students are almost all recently declared majors who are learning about the different research approaches in the discipline in addition to learning how to conduct and present their own research.

The class has a poster presentation of student work as an end-of-term capstone. The goal of this workshop is to get students to consider the role of design in communicating complex materials in a clear and meaningful manner.

Description and Teaching Materials

The syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 216kB Jun2 06) for the class in pdf format.

The following text is the assignment sheet used for this workshop:

An important part (perhaps the most important part) of doing research is sharing your ideas, progress and results with others in a paper, an oral presentation, a poster, or through some other medium. This is how your work can contribute to the larger body of knowledge, and it simultaneously provides opportunities for others to learn from your work and for you to receive feedback that, ideally, can help you refine your ideas and advance your understanding of the question you are trying to answer.

Assignment

Read chapters 6 and 7 in Miller, as well as the readings from Wainer and Tufte (on e-reserve). Think about your project for this class, and how you can best present your results. Consider poster sessions you've attended – how effective were the posters in communicating their message to the audience? How might they have been improved to better get their author's argument across? Write up a 2 page reflection on what you think works well, what doesn't really work well, and why. Also be sure to address the role that audience plays in communicating research in a poster process.

We will discuss the results of this exercise in small groups, and each group will decide which solutions they think are most and least effective, and why.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This workshop works best if it is preceded by a class session in which the mechanics of making posters is discussed, and in which examples of poor as well as effective use of graphics are presented and discussed. Students will get the most out of the assignment if they are allowed to assess example posters on their own, and then provided the opportunity to compare the understanding of the research gained through the poster with the actual message the author was attempting to convey. This will provide students with the opportunity to intuitively understand why design matters, and to begin to understand what elements work well, and why.

At the end-of-term poster session I realized that although in the workshop most students began to understand the importance of clean design in communicating research, in creating their posters many reverted to crowded, text-heavy presentations. Discussion revealed that they did this because they are risk-averse – in that they felt by not maximizing the amount of material on the poster they risked not being seen as "serious" scholars. The next use of this workshop will explicitly include discussion of this tendency.

Assessment

Post-assignment group discussions allowed for assessment of the efficacy of the assignment, as did evaluation of their end-of-term posters.

References and Resources

Miller, Jane E. 2004. The Chicago guide to writing about numbers, Chicago guides to writing, editing, and publishing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tufte, Edward R. 1983. The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Wainer, Howard. 2005. Graphic discovery : a trout in the milk and other visual adventures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.