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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Samantha Murphy

Samantha Murphy, one of our Distinguished Lecturers, speaks about her successful teaching practices.Samantha-Murphy

Samantha Murphy is a Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of English. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the George Washington University. Samantha serves as co-chair of the Faculty Senate Teaching and Learning Council where she regularly gets to engage with UT’s amazing teachers and their pedagogical materials. She also was a Faculty Fellow at UT’s Experience Learning Summer Institute. Samantha regularly teaches the Chancellor’s Honors Writing sequence along with a host of other writing-intensive classes.

The Composition Office recently interviewed her to find out more about how she teaches poster design in her courses.

 

Our interview follows:

Can you tell us about why you incorporate poster design in some of your courses? How do you integrate the poster assignment with your students’ other papers/projects in the course? What are some of the benefits of having students create research posters?

I have taught poster design in a few different courses: English 102, English 118, English 298, and English 206 (Introduction to Shakespeare). I consistently teach poster design in first-year-composition courses – lately in English 298 to coincide with EUReCA. Teaching poster design is wonderful to include in undergraduate courses for several reasons. First, visual literacy is an indispensable tool. Just as students need to be able to perform a rhetorical analysis of print texts to understand how they are structured to persuade, they need to do the same for visual texts which are just as (if not more) ubiquitous as print. Second, many of our undergraduates will wind up in majors or careers for which visual presentation is a standard rather than the exception. And, finally, it is great to connect the research poster presentation with a larger research project so that students have the experience of adapting their work for multiple forms of presentation.

In my English 298 class, the research poster is part of a larger secondary source research project. We begin this project with a proposal that includes an evaluative annotated bibliography. There are two culminating points of this project: a secondary source research paper and the EUReCA poster presentation. As part of preparing for EUReCA, students learn to cull and re-shape their ideas. They must winnow down what will ultimately be an 8-9 page paper into a poster and 2-3 minute oral presentation. As part of the poster process, they also create a title and abstract that is submitted to EUReCA and published in the conference program.

 

How do you guide your students in creating these research posters? What are some of the lessons/activities you use? 

By the time I begin teaching poster design, my students have already completed drafts of both their secondary source research paper and their title/abstract. I have module on Canvas with multiple resources for my students to work with. The three pieces of material I work with in class are: (1)  a handout on poster design which is adapted from the excellent handout provided by the First-Year Composition office and the guidelines posted to the EUReCA website; (2) the EUReCA judging form; and (3) a marvelous website from North Carolina State University called “Creating Effective Poster Presentations.”

I ask my students to review these materials before class. I spend a short amount of time on the two print handouts – particularly the EUReCA judging form as that is the rubric I use to evaluate the poster and that the students will use to evaluate each other’s posters. The bulk of the time is spent with the NC State website. I have found that the most useful sections to review in class are the ones on message, audience, layout, and headings. They provide good tips and, even more importantly, good and bad visual examples. I also include a genre analysis worksheet for students to apply to a sample poster. The NC State website has multiple sample posters. During class, all students (in pre-assigned working groups) do a sample genre analysis on the same poster. We then review that poster analysis together in class. For homework, they must complete a genre analysis of a different sample poster from the website.

 

How do you prepare your students for the research poster competitions on campus? What are some good ways students can make their posters stand out?

My English 298 students participate in EUReCA and my English 102 students participate in the competition sponsored by the department and libraries. I prepare my students to participate in these competitions mainly by having them present. I do briefly cover elements of a successful oral presentation. (A great resource for this is the video on the NC State website on presenting your poster. It shows mock presentations and critiques them in an amusing way). The keys to the presentation are making sure that the ‘take-home’ message is clear from the beginning and that students focus on the ‘why’ of the content, not just the ‘what.’

Most importantly, though, is to set aside class days for students to present. For English 298, all students are required to print their posters rather than to screen them digitally. This turned out to be a real benefit as I ran mock conference sessions during class. Each class period was divided into two mini-sessions with five students presenting in each session. All five of the posters were hung around the room. Each student presented their poster and, when all were presented, they stood next to their poster while the audience mingled around the room and asked questions. This prepared the presenters to interact with the audience and it prepared the audience to view the poster and ask good questions. That way, every student had a sense of what a poster conference felt and sounded like before experiencing EUReCA.

In English 298, finalists for each class are chosen prior to EUReCA so that not everyone presents at the competition. I asked my students to use the EUReCA judging form to evaluate their classmates and vote for their top finalist choices. To aid in this, I stressed note-taking during the oral presentations and had each student upload a digital copy of their poster to Canvas so that they were available for review. I found that, generally, I agreed with my students’ choices about finalists.

There are some good ways to make a research poster stand out. First, have a specific title with ample keywords. Tell the viewer exactly what they should expect from viewing the poster. Headings can either be used like the title (to disclose content) or act as a viewing outline (‘Introduction’, ‘Objectives,’ etc.). Also, if a piece of information can be displayed visually, display it visually. Too much text will make a viewer move on.

 

Do you have any last tips for teachers who would like to include a poster assignment in their classes?

One definite ‘do’ for incorporating posters is to provide the students with a template. The Office of Undergraduate Research provides these which are UT branded. There are also free non-branded templates at PosterPresentations.com.

Using a template, particularly for the large majority of students who don’t have experience with graphic design, helps with formatting. It also allows for a more professional presentation than cutting/gluing onto a cardboard poster backing. Finally, it will allow students to digitally screen their posters to the class if that is more logistically or economically feasible.

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