Students presenting research posters

Helpful tips for teaching students on how to construct and present research posters

By Janie H. Wilson, PhD

The research process helps define psychology. In fact, everything we know about human behavior rests on the scientific method. We communicate the importance of research in classes by discussing classic and modern studies and allowing our students to conduct their own research. One of the most rewarding experiences as a teacher involves engaging students in the research process by encouraging them to conduct their own research, and then helping them share their study results.

Traditionally, students discuss their research in either a professional talk or a poster format. At conferences, a talk lasts about 15 minutes, and that time limit includes questions from the audience. Usually, the presentation occurs in a session with three additional talks, and a moderator introduces the session, keeps speakers on time and invites questions from the audience. The latter responsibility includes rewording a difficult or vague question. In general, the moderator should support speakers and ensure a positive experience for them.

Instead of a talk, most first-time presenters choose to share their work in a poster. Posters require advance preparation, but students often experience less stress (and less of a time constraint) when presenting their work. In addition to the attractive poster format, a poster session may also be a more enjoyable way for students to interact with conference attendees.

First, students should prepare a poster based on guidelines (e.g., dimensions) offered by the conference organizer. Students or teachers should ask for dimensions if they are not advertised. To prepare the poster, PowerPoint offers countless attractive backgrounds; one panel (i.e., slide) is used to create the entire poster, then the single slide can be printed as large as is needed. Across the top of the poster, the student should include the study title, author(s) and their affiliation (e.g., school) in a text box. Across the rest of the poster, the student can organize text boxes to summarize APA sections of a paper, including an abstract, a brief introduction, the method (including surveys, if there is room), results (with graphs or tables for visual interest as well as sharing information), a brief discussion and a few key references used in the abbreviated sections. In summarizing sections, a fairly large font should be used. One guideline is to make sure the poster can be read comfortably from three feet away. Three sample poster templates have been posted on the APA website.

When printing the poster (in general, a size of 3 X 4 feet is used, but again, double check with the specific conference), students or teachers should first call the copy shop to ask if the correct size can be printed. Some businesses do not have a large enough paper roll for posters. Print shops will need a digital copy of the poster, which can be sent by students in a file or taken to the shop. Printing in black and white is fine for any conference; there is no need to spend a good bit more money on full-color posters. Some students might choose to laminate their posters if they want to save them after the conference; most print shops can laminate.

To travel with a poster (especially one that has not been laminated), students can roll and secure the poster with a rubber band or roll and put it into a mailing tube. A mailing tube works best for traveling on public transportation such as a plane. Students should always keep their posters with them as carry-on pieces. Arriving at a conference with no luggage or change of clothes is much more acceptable than arriving with no poster.

As the poster session nears, students should dress professionally and arrive at the session location at least 15 minutes early. In fact, most conferences advertise a set-up time for posters. Poster sessions usually include several stand-up corkboards (standard size is 4 X 8 feet), and often each poster spot will be identified with a number that corresponds with the conference program given to attendees at the registration desk. A few minutes before the poster session begins, students should stand in front of their posters but a little to the side. Their body language should be open and inviting for people to stop when they walk by. A few cautions: This is no time to sit, eat, talk with friends or yell at people to look at the poster. Students should remain open and smiling, inviting people with their body language to pause.

When someone does pause at the poster and appears to be reading, students should quickly offer to summarize their research. Most conference attendees appreciate a summary because otherwise they would have to read dozens of long posters. Summarizing also keeps students active and involved rather than standing idly by and perhaps feeling awkward. As an added bonus, the summarizing may draw a small crowd, allowing students to include everyone in the discussion by making eye contact with each newcomer and smiling a welcome.

After summarizing the poster, students should offer a single-page handout with the poster title, author(s), affiliation, abstract and contact information such as an email address. (One caution is students should have professional-sounding email addresses rather than slang or embarrassing words.) Conference attendees love handouts, and students look more prepared when they offer one. As a general rule, 50 copies should be enough, but a larger conference may require more. Students should also know that some attendees will simply ask for a handout and keep walking; they are trying to get to many posters and will read the summary later.

When the poster session ends, students should wrap up conversations with attendees, keeping in mind that they might stay a few minutes after the session or invite the current viewer to continue the discussion over coffee, for example. Students should be cautioned to avoid taking down a poster before the session officially ends. However, they should not leave a poster up and hope someone else will take it down for them. The poster can either be discarded outside of the poster-session room or saved to post in the classroom or at home as a testament to an impressive accomplishment.

Janie WilsonJanie Wilson received her PhD from the University of South Carolina and has been teaching at Georgia Southern University since 1994. She specializes in teaching and learning in statistics and research methods and maintains a strong focus on involving undergraduates in her research as well as mentors students to complete their own projects. Her research interests include rapport in teaching, social buffering and ego depletion. Dr. Wilson currently serves as the vice president of programming for APA's Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology). She also serves as a college-faculty representative to Teachers in Psychology at Secondary Schools (TOPSS). She was honored with the College of Liberal Arts Award of Distinction in Teaching in 2003, the Georgia Southern University Award for Excellence in Contributions to Instruction in 2004-2005, and the Georgia Southern University Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award in 2012.