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Comic Strips as Educational Tools

Supporting content for poster presentation, by Holly Brown, Learning & Teaching Librarian, King's College London

Switching the Lens: Expanding on cultural, historical or scientific teaching

(on learning history through traditional textbooks) - "Instead of leaving the classroom [having engaged in] analysis, debate, and interpretation to construct meaningful, complex, and evolving narratives of the past, students are presented with the stultifying, disheartening, and mandatory nature of remembering disembodied sets of facts"

- Barbre et al. (2022:10)

Barbre et al. (2022) explore how traditional textbooks are both space- and time-efficient vehicles of curricula; however, they also argue that, while not discrediting textbooks, "an over-reliance on these forms do not provide the kind of experiential aesthetic that engages students and makes the memory worthwhile" (2022:2-3). The fact that comic books/graphic novels can deliver this aesthetic novelty in a learning situation is further enriched by the way the creation of them and the fictional stories within them are often anchored in an era or in a cultural and/or political historical situation. This can be used by teachers as a vehicle through which to generate discussion and deeper understanding of wider contexts similarly anchored in specific times or places, in all kinds of subjects. Anecdotally speaking, comics that are often cited by academics and educators include titles such as Alan Moore & David Lloyd's V For Vendetta (1982-85), and Art Spiegelmann's Maus (1997). The very existence and popularity (and, in the mid-20th century, conservative abhorrence of) comics as a literary form can itself be studied for the part they play in the cultural development of the western world in particular.

Switching the Lens: Comics/narrated illustrations in instructional materials teaching new information

"Text and picture integration facilitate comprehension, [...] that helps students strengthen their ability to synthesize information"

- Apostolou & Linardatos (2023:5)

Comic strips can play a visually appealing role in teaching, and allows for scenarios to come to life which may improve recall and the cognitive generation of meaning. Giancaspro & Brown (2022) write about the positive effects of integrating narrated illustration into problem-based learning activities, particularly in fields like law or banking where traditionally esoteric vocabulary and concepts can be hard for the layperson to understand. Apostolou & Linardatos (2023) point out further benefits for the learner such as improved motivation. Mayer's work (2020) on Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning focuses in on the ways that students; 1) manage incoming information (extraneous processing), 2) learn new content (essential processing) and 3) make sense of new information (generative processing). The cognitive work that a reader puts in to analyse pictures and the accompanying text within a visual narration like a comic strip engages that generative processing aspect. Mayer further introduces and explores what he terms the 'multimedia principle' within this pedagogical theory, which is particularly applicable to "low-knowledge learners rather than high-knowledge learners, [...] because low-knowledge learners need guidance in building connections between pictorial and verbal representations (2020:117). In other words, it is most beneficial when brought into teaching materials when a new topic or concept is being taught.

From a slightly different angle, Keogh & Naylor (2000) explored the idea of 'concept cartoons' for science classroom instruction - very short comic strips in which different, simply-drawn characters each provide a distinct theory on why something works the way it does, within a particular scientific sub-field. These provide a foundation to ignite discussion, debate and reasoning skills in the classroom setting, which can add enriching layers to the basic idea of 'learning a new topic' in the classroom. There are two benefits to this visual approach that stand out, and promise to supersede those of a text-only, non-cartoon approach to the same activity. First, novelty value. Keogh and Naylor (2000) discuss the novelty value of using comic strips to deliver information on a new topic. In library and information literacy instruction, we are often faced with a 'one-shot' approach to teaching our content, i.e., we don't get an entire term of regular contact with the same groups of learners to build rapport, trust, and an awareness of our students' skills and development that would benefit how we interact with, challenge, and assess them. Hence it could be argued that novelty value is a distinct advantage within the hour/two hour contact we have during each stand-alone workshop. Second, in a simply drawn comic strip McCloud (1994) argues that the reader transposes themselves into the character's place and relates to them on a more universal level, as opposed to when illustration is more photo-realistic, because that is closer to how most humans perceive their own faces in their mind's eye when not looking in a mirror. In Keogh & Naylor's research on 'concept cartoons', they found that when other voices are speaking on a students behalf, i.e, the simply-drawn, universally-relateable cartoon human, it "seems to be especially valuable in engaging learners who are reluctant to put forward their own ideas in case they are wrong" (2000:11). If this is the case, then we have another example of how a multimedia approach using simple comic strips can make the learning process more meaningful, and accessible to more learners who might otherwise struggle.

Linked to accessibility, Giancaspro & Brown (2022) write about the limitations of delivering instruction through words alone, and how it becomes particularly hard work for those with low academic literacy or for non-native English speakers. A significant proportion of HE students in the UK do not have English as their native language, so this immediately becomes an extremely relevant point to consider, especially if very esoteric, jargon-heavy subject fields are being taught such as law or finance.

Switching the Lens: Students creating comic strips as a reflective/exploratory exercise

"Viewed through the lens of reflective practice, (creating) comics provide(s) a unique opportunity for students to represent their insights"

- McGarr et al., (2021:2)

Having stated the above, McGarr et al. nevertheless go on to claim that the extent to which students (and teachers, presumably) could benefit from this medium in a reflective capacity is as yet under-researched. Letizia (2021) talks about the ways in which a classroom activity based around learners creating a comic strip or a one-cell cartoon can provide a stimulatingly novel way of constructing meaning through art and text. In her online article, Kolk (2020) writes that the illustrative nature of comic creation "validate(s) the learning needs and strengths of visual learners who may need more than words to create meaning". The creation of comic strips itself is an art form analysed by the likes of McCloud (1994) and Eisner (2008), who explore ideas like colour, symbolism, iconography and 'gutters' (the spaces between panels), and the active inferences that happen in the readers' minds during these moments. While the construction of meaning is subjective, the student-creator of the comic can guide how they would like the reader to understand the content using particular techniques, and in the process of doing so, reflect deeper on their own perspective of the topic at hand.