Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen,
associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She
can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.
Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown
substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses
now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students
through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling
papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that
presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria),
improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to
summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse
strengths and weaknesses to step up.
What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates
awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and
complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as
witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.
Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a
friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create
posters that are presented at a conference session.
Two class periods are designated for our research
conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask
two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their
work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the
day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity,
creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking
poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students
who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.
I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the
research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but
not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was
amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.
Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved.
Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence,
which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end,
I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of
poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides
this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.
For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk
about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how
they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When
I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread
it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales
pitches at the research conference.