Preparing posters

Many fields — and more as time goes by — use posters to communicate research results at conferences and workshops. Just as with writing a paper, or giving a talk, preparing a poster that effectively communicates your ideas and results requires a set of skills. And as with every different mode of communication, the skills are not identical as for other modes.
Here is an article from The Scientist with advice. It also provides links to other resources. It has been reprinted in the Tomorrow’s Professor blog, and can be found there as well.

Guidance on preparing scientific posters

My colleague Eytan Adar recommends the following three resources to guide students on preparing scientific posters to communicate their research:
Advice on designing scientific posters, Colin Purrin, Swarthmore College (Eytan notes this is somewhat long, and he doesn’t agree with all of the advice).
Poster and Presentation Resources,UNC Graduate School (this is actually a collection of several resources from various others)
Tips for Posters in the Humanities, Stanford.

Effective bulletpoint presentations

I’m generally pretty critical of the traditional bulletpoint style for a presentation. But most people, of course, use them anyway. They might as well do it well.
Here is a presentation by former SI communications manager, Frank DeSanto, that he did for our summer undergraduate research program (REU) last year. He makes a number of good suggestions.

My use of slides in teaching

Over the past two years I have drastically changed the way that I use slides while teaching. (Some students still see some “old style” slides because I haven’t finished replacing all of my teaching materials — it takes a lot of work!) I have noticed that in course evaluation comments many students appreciate my presentation style, but some criticize it. One of the criticisms I’ve seen a few times is that my slides are not very helpful *after* class.
I think, from the comments, that the students want me to provide them with a lecture outline that they can use as a set of pre-written notes to study. That sounds nice, and might be a good idea sometimes, though I worry that providing everything (the readings, the lecture, the lecture notes, the sample problems and sample exams with solutions) pre-written is not good for learning: where is the *active* learning that research has shown to be essential? In any case, I don’t feel an obligation to provide lecture outlines and notes that I have written (though some student comments suggest that they think they are entitled to this).

Norman teapot: afforandanceThe obligation I do feel is to teach effectively, so that students learn successfully. And I have been convinced that the very standard approach to classroom slideware is ineffective. The standard approach, of course, is to provide a detailed set of bullet points: essentially, a lecture outline with notes. Many faculty more-or-less use the slides as their script, if not quite reading from them nonetheless going through each bullet as displayed. Gosh, as students sometimes say on a related topic: “I read the reading assignment in the textbook — why just repeat it in class?”

The problem is deeper. First, putting a detailed outline and notes on the screen, and then talking through them creates a cognitive overload that decreases learning. Second, it promotes passive learning, which is less effective than active learning.
In my new presentation style I have worked hard (and believe me, it takes a lot longer to develop one of my new presentations than to prepare a standard bullet point outline presentation: I basically have to do the former first, to figure out what I want to say, then start from scratch to prepare the accompanying illustrations) to support learning by using multimedia material to complement the spoken words. I present material to illuminate, provide associative material, or provoke.

Leverage with incentives Some concepts are better understood (at least by some learners) visually, so I illuminate with a graph or a figure or an animation. Other times, I provide material — often with cultural references (though I perhaps overdo this, since many of my students are foreign and may miss some of the cultural references) — that I hope will trigger associative links, prompting students to more active processing and elaboration of the material. Yet other times I try to provoke them (with humor — often self-deprecating since that’s usually less likely to offend *others* — sarcasm, surprising mental leaps or associations), again to get them to think differently and more deeply (or simply to wake up :).

I use a mixture of visual and auditory material. Get the good stuff in The visual includes photographs, words (but rarely more than one sentence per slide, and often just one word or phrase to EMPHASIZE a point, not repeat verbatim what I’m saying), paintings, graphs and figures, etc. I occasionally include a video clip, but I’ve not developed good skills at finding video illustrations appropriate to my lectures. Pity: dynamic visuals usually attract attention better than static. I do make use of color, contrast, size and other variations to increase the impact of my visuals. For auditory material I often use clips of popular music (sometimes classical or jazz), but have also created a few auditory demos.
These presentations do not make for good outline/lecture note handouts! I agree with the students on that. But I think they make the lectures themselves much more effective. I also provide the students with readings, sometimes supplemented with pre-lecture “reading guides”. I put some lecture notes in the “presenter notes” section of my slide files, and then publish collapsed versions of the slides with the notes to provide partial lecture outlines.
Yes, I could do even more class preparation than I already do, creating in addition a lecture outline / notes document to handout (or post after class). But I don’t want to do that instead of my more kinetic, dramatic, and complementary visual presentations. I think the loss in cognitively active learning in the lecture would be a much greater loss. So, I put the priority on trying to give effective lectures, rather than bad lectures accompanied by slide outlines to review after class.
And finally, I really do believe that students learn better if they take some lecture notes, take notes on the readings, and then after class, use those (and the slides, such as they are, and the audio or video recordings of lecture that I usually make available for my large lecture classes) to make one’s own annotated outline. The activities of reviewing, distilling, organizing and summarizing are precisely the sort of learning activities we know are most effective.
I don’t mean to claim that I have any special genius at lecturing in large classes, or that my way is necessarily best. I think (and my course evaluation scores over the years support this) that I am a better than average classroom teacher, but that there is substantial room for improvement. That’s why I keep reading the research on teaching, and keep working to improve my pedagogical methods over time. I’ve put a lot of hours into analyzing, critiquing, and ultimately completely changing my visual presentation aids the past two years, and I’ll keep putting time into improving my lecture skills.

Making presentations (not Powerpoint shows)

The Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list sent out YAPPB (yet another PowerPoint bashing) today, but this is one of those I think makes some good constructive points about good presentation (whether for business or teaching or youth group programs, etc.), not just “don’t use PowerPoint”. (Mailing list items are not posted to the blog for a week or two, but see the link to Kaminski’s lecture below if you are looking for this before early- or mid-February 2008).
The one sentence message: Slides are excellent for certain types of visual aids, but they alone are not an effective oral presentation (and too heavy reliance on them, for things they are not suited for, is the road to a bad presentation).
The essay is referenced by Tomorrow’s Professor as being from a book by Laurie Richlin, but apparently she borrowed it wholesale (with attribution) from an outlined lecture by Stephen Kaminski. The lecture outline has more detail and more constructive bits of advice, so I recommend reading it and reviewing it from time to time. (Kaminski links to another useful lecture of his, “Some Tips for Using Visual Aids“.
One very nice point about relying too heavily on a single, flat, static visual medium: “Presenters fail to establish ethos, their most powerful appeal.”

Ethos is the personal appeal of the speaker. It is classified by Aristotle as an “artistic proof” that the speaker fashions in his presentation. It involves both verbal and nonverbal elements of the message and must be carefully managed for a presentation to succeed. With PowerPoint™, however, many of the elements that establish ethos are blunted or negated. Speakers don’t look at the audience and the audience doesn’t look at the speaker. The subtle nonverbal cues are lost such as eye contact, posture, etc. Presentations tend to be read off the slide or handouts, flattening delivery.

Constructive advice: use multiple aides to demonstrate and illustrate: people, objects, models, figurative representations, maps, charts and graphs, spreadsheets, web pages, animations…

Using “Beyond Bullet Points”

Quick report: I used Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points quite dogmatically to create a one hour forty minute first-day lecture for a master’s class this week. I was very pleased with the results: after going through all of his templating and storyboarding steps, I had a much better idea of the main points I wanted to convey, and gave a much more focused presentation.
I also think the presentation was more lively, provocative, and engaging: it was a lecture to about 70 students I don’t yet know, in a large room, so it wasn’t intimate, but I think it was much closer to active learning than my previous versions of this same lecture have been. They seemed to enjoy it, and my doctoral student teaching assistants said it was an especially good opening lecture.
That said: it took me an enormous amount of time to prepare. This is partly because I basically had to read the entire Atkinson book, and go through the learning curve — future lectures using this style will be faster. It also took a lot of time because, even though I’ve given this lecture several times in the past, I reconceived the entire thing from scratch, rewrote every sentence, found new graphics, changed the visual style, etc. So, even though I thought of this as refreshing a lecture, it was really more like writing a new lecture from scratch, which is and should be time-consuming.
The other caveat: I’m not convinced yet that the rigid storytelling style that is the core of Atkinson’s method will work as well for all classroom lectures, especially with more technical material. This, being a first lecture, was largely motivational and high-level concepts (I don’t waste time with administrative trivia — handouts take care of that): I had a few persuasive points I wanted to make, and telling them through a story make sense. But when I’m teaching skills and techniques, I expect the method will need some modification.
But overall, I think Atkinson’s main communication points, drawing on (and referenced to) cognitive psychology literature on how people learn from visual presentations, are on target, and worth learning through doing, to incorporate in most presentations, even if not developed using his storyboarding method.

Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points: Using  PowerPoint  to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire Cliff Atkinson, Beyond Bullet Points

Multimedia learning

I just ran across a book that looks interesting:

Richard Mayer: Multimedia Learning
Richard Mayer: Multimedia Learning

From the description on the Amazon site:

For hundreds of years verbal messages have been the primary means of explaining ideas to learners. Although verbal learning offers a powerful tool for humans, this book explores ways of going beyond the purely verbal. An alternative to purely verbal presentations is to use multimedia presentations in which people learn from both words and pictures–a situation the author calls multimedia learning. Multimedia encyclopedias have become the latest addition to students’ reference tools, and the world wide web is full of messages that combine words and pictures. This book summarizes ten years of research aimed at realizing the promise of multimedia learning.