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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2015

[Board Accepted]

A Poster Assignment Connects Information Literacy and Writing Skills

Natalie Waters
Head Librarian, Macdonald Campus Library
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada


This paper describes the implementation of a poster assignment in a writing and information literacy course required for undergraduate Life Sciences and Environmental Biology majors with the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill University. The assignment was introduced in response to weaknesses identified through course evaluations. Students were not making the connection between what was being taught by the librarian, the information literacy portion, and the course lecturer, the grammar and writing portion, because most lectures and all assignments were handled separately. Students also had trouble tying the relevance of this this required course to their other science courses. A poster assignment holds many advantages, one of which is a clear connection in course content between the two sections, as well as being a common communication method in the sciences.


In 2009 the head librarian of Macdonald Campus Library at McGill University accepted the assignment to co-teach a new course: AEHM 205: Science Literacy, which is described as "Development of English language and information literacy. Problem-based approach using science topics from specializations offered by the Faculty will be central to skill development. The course includes how to research and compose work in scientific format and will encourage a reader-oriented style" (McGill University 2012). The course is offered in the Fall and Winter terms, with an average of 35 students per session of varying competency levels.

The librarian teaches and awards grades on 25% of the course, while the English instructor is responsible for the larger portion of 75%. In the early course design stages the instructors focused on their content and assessment separately, with the intent to re-group after the first year to examine results and make any necessary changes. Through end-of-year course evaluations, students expressed a disconnect between the two sections of the course and the relation of the course's content to their field of study. The students were clearly confused by the switch from English writing and grammar to information literacy. After some discussion, the instructors also discovered that students were not applying what they were being taught from one section of the course to the other. For example, though students were given instruction, lab time, and an exercise on citation styles, they neglected to use their new skills in their written assignments for the English section. Not only did they cite their sources poorly in an end-of-term literature review, but many of the sources they were citing were web sites of dubious quality. The instructors agreed that at least one co-corrected assignment would emphasize that the two sections of the course go hand in hand. A joint assignment will help students recognize that a well written article, lab report, poster, research paper, or any other piece of writing, will lack depth and credibility without reliable, well-documented sources of information. Likewise, one can complete an exhaustive literature review, identifying and digesting pertinent information, but if it is not written clearly and concisely, the value is compromised. A condensed one-month summer session in May 2012 with fewer students (12), provided an opportunity for the instructors to pilot a co-taught, co-corrected poster assignment.

The assignment has since become a repeated evaluation method midway through the course. Students understand that a successful poster must effectively include elements from each section at that point in the semester. Students develop a research question based on broad, pre-selected themes chosen by the instructors after consultation with faculty members. Topic suggestions from faculty members heighten the poster assignment's relevance to agricultural and environmental sciences, solidifying the connection between AEHM 205: science literacy and their field of study.

Learning Objectives and Assessment

Content for the information literacy section is based on the Association of College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Standards (2000), coupled with informal consultation with the faculty members who champion the course. Through the influence of Whetten's suggestion to address the following question "What are the three or four most important things I hope students will master in the course?" (Whetten 2007), four areas of interest are covered. The first is to ensure that students grasp how information is organized and disseminated. This is expressed anecdotally through various comments, such as "knowing when a book is more appropriate as a source than a journal article." The second is tied to using the most relevant resources to find information. Instructors want students to preferentially use article databases rather than Google for more effective retrieval of scholarly sources. This leads directly to a third goal; if students are going to use Google, instructors require that students eliminate inappropriate, non-scholarly sources by evaluating the information. Finally, several faculty members decry students' inability to cite correctly and the related increase in plagiarism, which opens the discussion on academic integrity, often a new concept for undergraduate students.

Other than a few improvements in instructions or similar small modifications, assignments have altered little since the Spring of 2012, but prior to the introduction of the poster assignment, assessment methods changed every term in an attempt to improve upon ineffective assignments. While there are many articles that detail lessons, teaching methods, and active learning examples, there is a noticeable gap in the literature when it comes to assessment methods designed to provide feedback to students and provide a grade. Of particular interest for this course is formative evaluation, which includes short assessments, usually with a low grade value, that help instructors and students focus on areas that are particularly difficult and that have an important role to play in future work. Students receive feedback to improve upon and build into their next assignments. The majority of assessment methods described in the literature focus on summative evaluations, where the assessment results are not used to provide feedback to students, but rather to assist librarians in assessing student learning of information literacy with the goal of improving lessons and methods (Dennis et al. 2011; Fuselier & Nelson 2011). Results of these assessments are often compiled to produce reports justifying the benefit of library instruction programs to relevant library/university administrators, or faculty members. In a recent informative survey, Sobel and Sugimoto (2012) queried librarians regarding their assessment methods, and found a clear gap in terms of what librarians are doing and what is being shared in the literature. Many librarians reported looking in journals for practical advice on what is "working and not working" (Sobel & Sugimoto 2012) but admit to not sharing their own examples.

Within the first five weeks of term, the information literacy section measures student learning and provides feedback through two short assignments. The first reinforces lectures and in-class exercises on the identification of concepts and related terms (Appendix 1), and the second is a basic citation style exercise (Appendix 2). In the first iterations of the course, these two skills were included in longer assignments. Student understanding of concept and related term identification was only assessed along with the submission of a database searching assignment. This was problematic for those students who had not understood the critical thinking element of the task. Misidentified key concepts and related terms lead to failures in database searching and associated assignments. This assignment is an important building block for the poster search strategy worksheet that is handed in at the same time as the poster (Appendix 3).

Similarly, many students continued to cite inaccurately in their written work for the English instructor, despite a lecture on academic integrity and a 90-minute hands-on EndNote lab. During the lecture, rather than laying out pedantic rules of a single style, the instructor emphasizes the reasons for citing correctly and focuses on the importance of consistency in an effort to make one's sources as easily identifiable as possible. The short assignment is where students make their first attempt at applying a style to an assigned list of common documents, such as journal articles, and less obvious ones, such as government documents on the web. Once again, the first time students are assessed on their ability to use a style is no longer within one larger assignment where the grade cost can be much higher.

The Poster Assignment

The poster assignment is a midterm project. By this time, through several lectures, labs and exercises, the language literacy instructor has gone through paraphrasing, using plain English, and title selection based on keywords. The information literacy section of the class, a mix of lectures, active learning exercises and hands-on labs, is finished. Students are exposed to several librarians with different areas of expertise, who are invited to lead students through subject specific sources. The Government Information Librarian introduces government-produced literature, an important source for agricultural sciences. The Liaison Librarian for their subject area presents a lecture on periodical literature and a hands-on lab with a subject specific database (Agricola, CAB Abstracts, or Biosis Previews) and a multi-disciplinary database (Scopus).

The requirements (see figure 1) and other relevant information are presented by both instructors in a pre-poster lecture.

The poster 20%
Must work in groups of two
Choose from a list of pre-selected topics

Information Literacy 10%
(Search strategy worksheet 5%)

Language literacy 10%

  • Identify key concepts and related terms
  • Apply a suitable search strategy
  • Select relevant sources based on evaluation criteria
  • Apply a citation style
  • Write in plain English
  • Display a strong visual vocabulary
  • Apply proper paraphrase technique

Figure 1: Poster requirements

Search strategy sheets (Appendix 3) are corrected and returned with a Poster Evaluation Form filled in by both instructors. To authenticate the experience, the instructors invite faculty, staff and students to come to the exhibit room and vote for their favorites. At a shared lecture, a short period of constructive criticism is followed by the eagerly awaited two prizes - one for the most popular poster according to visitor votes, and one for the poster with the highest grade.

As previously mentioned the poster is worth 20% of the final course grade, 10% towards the information literacy section. The breakdown in figure 2 demonstrates, broadly, how the marks are dispersed based on a scale of 100.

Appearance and visual cues:
Design (2);
Themes can be followed in a logical manner (4);
Informative headings (4)


Citation style and relevant sources:
Reference list follows the rules of style (10);
All references are correctly cited within the text following the name-year rules (10); Sources are scholarly and relevant (10)


Key concepts and related terms:
Key concepts are correctly identified (10);
Related terms are well selected (20)


Search strategy:
Database choice (5);
Concepts and related terms are applied effectively (10);
Search strategy demonstrates comprehension of search operators (10);
Attach best search strategies and first 10 results (5)


Figure 2: Mark breakdown for the information literacy section of the poster assignment


At the outset, the main goal of the poster assignment was to exemplify how the skills students were building could be used to their immediate and future benefit. In response to the feedback in course evaluations, the instructors hoped that by clearly tying the two sections of the course into one assignment, the course would be more cohesive and appear less disorganized to the students. In course evaluations for the terms following the introduction of the poster, there is a positive improvement in the Likert scale rating in response to the question directly pertaining to the organisation of the course (see figure 3). For the purposes of this paper, only course evaluations with participation rates at 50% or higher are compared in order to maintain a large sample size. Fall 2009 and Winter 2010 represent pre-poster courses, while Fall 2012 and 2013 represent the post-introduction of the poster assignment. In McGill course evaluations, rated questions are scored on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Before the poster assignment   After the poster assignment


% respondents

Mean (s.d.)*


% of respondents

Mean (s.d.)*

Fall 2009


2.9 (1.1)

Fall 2012


3.9 (1.0)

Winter 2010


3.4 (1.1)

Fall 2013


3.7 (1.0)

*standard deviation

Figure 3: Course evaluation results to the question directly pertaining to organization

According to McGill's course evaluation interpretation guidelines (Winer, Di Genova, Vungoc, & Talsma 2012, p.5), "results below 3.5 should be of concern, while 3.5 to 4 represent solid results." As seen in Figure 3, the evaluations after the poster reveal a substantial improvement in the rating, taking the course from an area of concern to solid results. In addition, the guidelines point out that a standard deviation of more than 1.1 indicates wide differences of opinion and instructors are encouraged to examine written comments. A comparison of the standard deviation from the pre and post poster assignment shows a decrease of 0.1 and this is evidenced in the written comments received. In Fall 2009, eight written comments referred negatively to the organization of the course, as did another three students in Winter 2010. In comparison, there were no written comments for Fall 2012 and one positive comment in Fall 2013.

Posters play a significant role in a science student's education and future professional life. Posters are seen in abundance around campus, displaying undergraduate research projects, internships, and important faculty and graduate research. By integrating writing and information literacy in a poster assignment, students more readily recognize the relevance of acquiring and perfecting these skills. Hosting the poster session has the added benefit of attracting viewers who not only provide valuable feedback and validate students' efforts, but also increases the course's visibility within the faculty. The success with the poster has encouraged the instructors to increase team taught lectures and co-correct a final literature review, which emphasizes continued integration and improvement of students' new skills.


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Appendix 1: Concepts and related terms Exercise
Appendix 2: Citation Style Exercise
Appendix 3: Poster Search Strategy Worksheet

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