Like everybody else who enjoys teaching, I experiment with all sorts of things on my modules, from changing content, to varying modes of delivery and yes, by continuously rethinking assessment. My main focus for a module rethink this academic year (2014/15) has concerned one of our core modules for Single Honours History of Art students, where I want to integrate more varied assessment that encourages reflection and also allows History of Art students, traditionally a very creative bunch, often with A-Levels in Art, Photography etc to draw on this creativity. For this particular module, V42999 International Study: A Tale of Two Cities, students work over the course of the academic year on two cities (in this case Berlin and Nottingham) and following a series of fieldtrips and work on site, the students will; devise their own research projects for the two cities, one for Nottingham and one for Berlin. As part of the fieldwork, students are asked to keep a study diary to record impressions, reflect on experiences and create a visual record, and while these study diaries are not directly assessed, they are an integral part of the way this module seeks to encourage an engagement with looking on site and importantly, helps students to develop ways of recording and accessing these impressions. So we sketch, photograph, write and look- and this is where the poster comes into play, as an additional (10%) assessment component for this module. It turns out though that using posters as part of the assessment for a module isn’t an entirely straightforward process, because quite apart from the conceptual issues of what a poster is and can do, what students have really struggled with is the basics of how to make one in the first place! The issue for many of my students has actually been about where to start, and in particular, which software to use. Not everybody has access to graphics design software such as InDesign, so we actually settled on PowerPoint as our ‘software of choice’ because everybody in the class has access to that programme, and actually, once you start playing with PowerPoint, it turns out to be very flexible as regards backgrounds, images, and words, which can be placed in all sorts of different ways. So far, so good. Having taken that first hurdle, of realising that there is an easily available tool for making posters, things became a lot more interesting, because at that point, we could start talking about why a poster rather than an essay in the first place?
A colleague whose work I very much admire for freshness of approach and emphasis on the visual, Dr Alke Groppel-Wegener (Staffordshire University), has recently written a blog post on academic posters, http://tactileacademia.com/2014/11/17/posters-spineless-reports-and-fast-rhetorics/ and what struck me about Alke’s post is the clarity with which she expressed the issues I have encountered, namely:
1. Posters are used much more widely in the Sciences than in the Arts and Humanities, so much of the material on posters privileges a science research poster designed for a conference, rather than offering a basic introduction to thinking about posters for Arts and Humanities students. What this means of course is that an opportunity for reflective thinking could be missed in the Arts, especially the Visual Arts, where much of the engagement cuts across the verbal only and engages a range of different sensory perceptions.
2.There is very little agreement on marking criteria if posters are used as part of assessment; in fact, we had to liken our poster to an abstract, and decide on the intended audience (lay audience, generally well informed and interested , but not specialist). The marking criteria I am using are the same ones we use for presentations, but really, I need to rewrite them and expand them in the light of my experience with this cohort of students, and what I have found so far is that the most interesting area to look for descriptors and marking criteria is definitely the field of creative writing, but also, marking criteria used for extra-curricular, employment-focussed modules which often use criteria aimed at encouraging reflection. So, there is a very interesting overlap here between a content-focussed module such as V42999 and extra-curricular provision, and if I am allowed a guess, I would have thought that much teaching innovation and teaching development at University level will look more closely at these areas, and I see much space for useful experimentation.
So, having said all that, the posters definitely add a very important element to the assessment for the module, largely because I decided not to use them as the sole form of assessment, but in conjunction with an essay and a study diary, so bringing together familiar and new forms of assessment. What worked best for us was to think of the poster as an abstract for the essay, and even to lay out the text in the form of a traditional spider diagram, showing up and highlighting the non-linear connections that merge from working with any form of visual material. Marking them is actually as hard for me as making them has been for my students, but it has definitely kept all of us on our toes. Will I use poster assessment agin? A most emphatic yes.
Some excellent examples of super posters can be found here ,in a blog post written by Design Historian Grace Lees-Maffei-which contains some cracking,hands-on advice, especially as regards
the importance of design principles such as using a range of colours (up to three) to demarcate parts of the poster according to varying content, and using good contrast between the poster background and photographic or other illustrations.
So, what would be my top 3 tips on making posters?
1. Use a computer package you are comfortable with– or, why not make a poster/collage by hand!!!!!!!! Use whatever medium you are most comfortable with to express yourself most effectively. Even handmade posters can be scanned should an electronic record be required, but bear in mind that there is something about the materiality of a handmade poster that may significantly add to its meaning.
2. A poster is about visual impact, so needs to look good and be interesting to read. So, think about using both text and images when planning the poster.
3. Make it easy for the reader and lead the text with your main conclusions and main points- That will make them read on.
Wellcome Trust and Design Science: Poster Design. A Practical Guide for Researchers
University of Staffordshire Fact Sheet (under Academic Posters) http://libguides.staffs.ac.uk/academicskills/A-Z_Resources_and_Factsheets
University of Leicester Designing a Poster http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/presentation/designing-poster/designing-poster
University of Nottingham Presentations and Posters http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/studentservices/supportforyourstudies/academicsupport/studyresources/presentationsandposters.aspx