Posters, Infographics, & Ways of Showcasing Student Engagement

This summer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about posters. In early June, NPR shared a story of Mike Morrison, a graduate student who has been trying to transform the academic research poster landscape. In Mike’s almost 20 minute video, he explains what’s wrong about current academic posters and proposes a new layout in order to gather knowledge from these posters more easily. 

I don’t disagree with Mike; his new poster layout is appealing. As a librarian who has been leading undergraduate research poster workshops for a few years now, Mike’s layout emphasizes our big three: font, color, and size. Viewers are directed to the big ideas (aka the biggest elements on your poster) and have sidebars to more information if needed. This new layout also relies on a QR code, to direct really interested viewers to explore more on the project, on their own time.  

However, as I sat in my office and listened to Mike’s video explanation, I thought of the summer science students I just given a poster workshop to. The supervisor of their summer program noted several times throughout my presentation that while I was showing off some best practices, ultimately the students’ faculty mentor/PI had final say on the poster layout. This could mean a poster could end up very text heavy, use a certain color palette, or requires a certain logo or author designation. These preferences often come from faculty who have spent a lot of time in the field and have strong opinions about creating posters. Then I tried to imagine having a conversation with them about Mike’s new layout. Making this sort of jump and abandoning the traditional poster layout will take time and energy. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if the poster tides move towards Mike’s layout, it will be a challenge. Academia is steeped in tradition and this includes a tradition of how research posters are thought about, created, and displayed. Before computers, posters were created by cutting up an article and pasting it on poster board! While we have PowerPoint and InDesign, I can’t say that all of our posters have moved much farther than cutting and pasting in their own digital way. 

Mike’s layout also got me thinking about another spin off of research posters we’ve been talking about at Penn State: student engagement posters. Recently, I’ve been in a lot of conversations asking about the best way for a student to showcase their experience. A research poster feels too stiff, too formal. An infographic seems like a better match, but also isn’t a perfect fit. Earlier this spring I took our research poster workshop and modified it for an infographic student engagement workshop. Within these student engagement posters, we are trying to see the meta part of the experience. What did the students learn from this experience? What skills did they bring in and what skills did they take away? How did this experience prepare them for another experience? I built in a set of reflection questions and even tried my hand at my own student engagement experience poster. 

A poster describing the author's experience in New York City where she interned at the New York Public Library.
My attempt at a student engagement poster

Today, I met with some Student Engagement Network interns, who had been tasked with making their own student engagement posters. They used both a formal, template (a hybrid of the research poster with some engagement) and were also asked to create some sort of infographic inspired poster. It was great to chat with them and it definitely reminded me of a few things: 

  • Making posters is NOT a skill often taught to undergraduates. Even with platforms like Canva or Piktochart, students still need guidance on how to visually represent an experience. 
  • The students I worked with felt strongly their primary poster audience was undergraduates who might be interested in their engagement experience. The poster needed to not only convey the experience, but also encourage others to explore a similar experience. I don’t think I had fully considered that audience and that definitely influences how the poster is created and what resources should be included. 
  • They appreciated the ability to reflect and hone in on a main message they wanted to get across. Of course, if they discover the reflection questions AFTER they started making the poster, that’s not quite as helpful. 

So what’s next? I’m not sure. I have some ideas and will be curious to see the research that Mike and others do around eye tracking and understanding the new poster layout he has proposed. Perhaps academia will see a shift in research posters and perhaps we’ll find a way to get student engagement experiences out there too. It seems like everything is up for grabs and it’s exciting to explore and think about these topics. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the new research poster layout or if your institutions are thinking about more intentionally showcasing the meta part of student engagement experiences. 

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