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Educational-poster project earns praise

By : Brett Vermilyea

Michael Hubenthal isn’t a typical education master’s student.

He has already spent five years teaching earth science and physics in public schools, two years at NASA and is now the education specialist for Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), where he trains science teachers to deliver effective classroom instruction and develops learning materials for seismology education.

“The combination of his school-based teaching experience and his work teaching teachers and developing curriculum support materials really sets him apart,” said Thomas O’Brien, School of Education associate professor.

O’Brien said Hubenthal and his master’s project have the potential to change an omnipresent feature of the classroom — the education poster. Though they are ubiquitous, it seems no one has ever evaluated their effectiveness.

“What role does the poster serve?” Hubenthal wants to know. “Is it an instructional aid? Or is it something that just adds ambiance to the classroom, like wallpaper? And does that have any value?”

When he looked for research answering his questions, he “was really shocked” to find little examination of the subject. The only educational-poster research he could find concerned those hung in doctors’ offices. So he conducted his own.

First, he looked at how posters are used. Remembering posters distributed to teachers during a workshop sponsored by Binghamton University’s Department of Geological Sciences and Environmental Studies and supported by IRIS, Hubenthal called the teachers to ask if and how the posters were used.

Well over half were discarded, and he wasn’t impressed with why the rest were hung.

“The posters were really wallpaper for the most part,” he said. “One of the basic roles teachers felt posters served was to overcome the sterility of the room. They wanted students to have some things to look at that were related to the content they were covering in class. But as far as actually using the posters as part of their instruction, that didn’t happen.”

To make posters more instructionally meaningful, Hubenthal applied learning theory and cognitive psychology to understand how we process static information. He found that if he reduced the visual complexity of the poster, boiled down information to a key message and phrased it as a question accompanied by a central, thought-provoking image, posters were much more likely to engage students.

“If the title of the poster is a statement, when you read it you’re done,” he said. “But if the title is a question, it engages you in a thought process. The poster becomes more minds-on in that way.” For instance, his prototype asks, “Are earthquakes like ripples on water?” over a visual analogy of a dripping faucet above a visualization of ground displacements in the western U.S. following an earthquake. Under it, a prominent URL leads students to online explorations like interactive simulations, providing  a more in-depth understanding of earthquakes.

Hubenthal presented his new posters to several focus groups of teachers, who saw how they could use the new poster design as part of lessons and to spark discussions in addition to adding ambiance to the room.

“This is doctoral-caliber research,” O’Brien said. “The depth of his questioning and thinking and the strategies that he’s using to challenge multiple ‘unquestioned answers’ of educational posters is extraordinary. In my 23 years teaching, Mike’s project is the best I’ve ever had.”

Hubenthal isn’t so sure he deserves the praise.

“I don’t think of it as a huge idea,” he said. “It’s really applying a lot of preexisting research to a medium that hadn’t had it applied to before, but I like the project because it has potential for big impact.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08