Developing Professional Communication Skills in an Undergraduate Research Experience Poster Session

Colleen H. Fava, Basic Sciences Communication Studio Coordinator, Louisiana State University

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July 2009 LSU Poster forum showcases undergraduate student research.
Like many research-one universities, LSU is host to a number of summer undergraduate research experience programs. At the end of each summer, hundreds of student-researchers participate in a culminating event to showcase the work they have conducted over the previous two months. This event is a half-day poster session modeled on those commonly offered at major scientific conferences and meetings. The Coordinator of the Basic Sciences studio has worked closely with administrators and faculty mentors in 4 such programs to devise a comprehensive instructional framework to assist students in the development of professional-level scientific posters.

The most-represented majors are in the Biological Sciences and Chemistry, and most students are sophomores or juniors. The programs are funded by a variety of resources including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (which also funds the Communication studio), the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the Louisiana Biomedical Research Network.

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Learning Goals

The major goal is to provide students with an authentic research experience that mirrors the the experience of practicing scientists. Although the timeline is a bit amped up, students are immersed in an intensive simulation of the greater community of research-science.

Students apply to one of our REUs which gives them practice pitching their aptitude for learning and research.

They work closely with a faculty mentor, research associates, graduate students and other undergraduates within a functioning research group, which provides them with early insight into the operations of a lab and the work that scientists must accomplish through various stages of their careers.

We know that discipline-specific content-knowledge and skill-acquisition only takes you so far; thus we have students present their work in two formats: through a written document and a scientific poster. We are still experimenting with the written component, but the poster project has been very successful, especially as we have increased the instructional support provided by the Basic Sciences Communication Studio Coordinator.

Zaleh Amini, LSU Biological Sciences Junior showcases her research project at the 2009 annual poster forum.

Scientific posters have quickly become the standard medium for presenters at scientific meetings and conferences. Few participants these days are given the privilege of time on the stage for a formal oral presentation.

"Creating a poster and participating in a poster session ultimately solidifies your knowledge of your subject. The preparation forces you to look at your data in a novel way to predict audience responses to anticipate their questions. One of the problems with science is that the information is not always accessible to the common person, the CxC presentations and workshops made us aware that the poster design would influence the audience's response (because no one wants to look at a boring poster even if the scientific implications are profound). I have since given greater thought to the design elements when presenting my research so that my results will not be encumbered by awkward design."

Zhaleh Amini, LSU Junior, Biological Sciences, participated in the 2009 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Research Program.

Context for Use

A formal poster session modeled on sessions held at scientific conferences is an excellent culminating event for an undergraduate research experience, but there are numerous other instances when a poster session makes sense.

Upperclass students enrolled in independent research hours across departments and colleges could assemble for a poster session at the end of a semester or academic year. In addition to the benefits to the students, the university would also benefit from a large-scale event showcasing student work and achievement. We are often unaware of the interesting projects students in our own departments are completing, let alone students in completely distinct colleges or departments.

Finally, posters can (and should) be incorporated into traditional scientific courses, both lab and theory courses.

Description and Teaching Materials

Effective Poster Design Lecture by Colleen H. Fava, LSU Basic Sciences Communication Studio Coordinator
In 2009, student participants were asked to create both a scientific poster and a supplemental written handout aimed toward a general audience.

The Basic Sciences Communication Studio Coordinator supplied the students with a formal project description and support schedule for both assignments. She gave a formal lecture on executing scientific posters and writing science for a public audience. Students also participated in required small-group workshops led by the coordinator and were invited to an optional, supplemental open-house workshop.

Poster Project Description and Support Schedule (Acrobat (PDF) 123kB Nov2 09)

Writing Project Description and Support Schedule (Acrobat (PDF) 240kB Nov2 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

As with all project assignments, it is useful to provide students with detailed requirements, formatting guidelines, and models. It is important to create a reasonable balance of structure and freedom so that students do not become overwhelmed trying to reinvent the wheel.

If you do not have access to a technical support resource, take the time to review some exemplary examples of scientific posters, and provide structured feedback and guidance while your students are working through the design process.

Quick reference sheets that highlight required sections and important formatting rules can do a lot to ease the process (see a sample tipsheet linked below).

If there is no organic audience for students to present their posters to, create one. Faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates are usually receptive to an opportunity to peak into work being done in courses beyond the ones they are teaching or enrolled in; even a foyer or building hallway can serve as an impromptu poster session space.

Tip Sheet for Effective Poster Design from the LSU Basic Sciences Communication Studio (Acrobat (PDF) 941kB Nov2 09)


There are no formal grades for scientific posters generated by students participating in the undergraduate research programs. However, the communication studio staff provide comprehensive feedback on design elements including layout, graphics, and general formatting, as well as feedback on the style and grammar of the written portions of the posters. Faculty mentors are also asked to provide regular feedback on the scientific content, inclusion of relevant charts, graphs, equations, and other images.

When incorporating a scientific poster for a grade, you can build a rubric specific to your learning goals for the particular research project. Below is a link to the formal rubric for visual communication assessment developed by the Communication across the Curriculum team at LSU. It can be easily modified to account for a number of variables.

LSU CxC Formal Rubric for Assessing Visual Communication (Acrobat (PDF) 115kB Nov2 09)

References and Resources

Identify campus, community, and virtual resources available to students at your institution. Many colleges and universities have Writing across the Curriculum programs, writing labs, speech tutors, and other support centers for academic excellence.