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Comic Strips as Educational Tools

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

Gathering Impact Evidence: The Methodology

In January and February 2024, I recruited 7 adults - a mixture of library colleagues and HE students - asking for their permission and maximum 45 minutes of their time to complete 2x surveys and 1x reading activity over the course of a week.

I assigned each participant to GROUP 1 or GROUP 2. As this was a light-touch study, I manually designated them based on their answers to Survey #1, for example trying to get a balance of experience and background knowledge. I acknowledge that time and practicality restraints put a limit on the number of participants, and also the format of the study; on reflection I think that a focus group method would have yielded more reflective, in-depth feedback. In GROUP 1, one participant declined to allow their answers to be used for inclusion in the study, hence there are only 6 participants (P) represented in the findings below.

I emailed GROUP 1 some slides with written text and 1 venn diagram talking about Boolean operators (lifted directly from 'Database Search Tips: Boolean Operators', available at, accessed Jan '24) and the disadvantages of over-reliance on Google Scholar (text using this author's own words). This was to imitate as closely as possible what we see in most PowerPoint presentations when being taught new information.

I emailed GROUP 2 some slides with the same core concepts presented in comic strip format (see Image A and Image B below). The participants were blinded to a] how many groups there were, and what had been allocated to others; and b] the purpose of the study, other then being told by me that " research is looking at ways that information is delivered, eg, through written text, pictures, etc, and how people subsequently process and absorb and understand that information". I also asked them explicitly not to discuss their reading activity or reflections with any other participant. 

Gathering Impact Evidence: The Surveys

Survey #1: Pre-Allocation to Groups

[not represented in the image below:

Dropdown options for question 2 = 0-2 years ago; 2-8 years ago; 8-15 years ago; >15 years ago; Never.

Dropdown options for question 3 = Google; Google Scholar; JSTOR or other freely accessible database; Databases or ejournals that King's pays a subscription to, eg, Humanities Index on ProQuest or Business Source Complete on EBSCO; GenAI such as ChatGPT or Bard; Other (please specify).

Dropdown options for question 4 = Yes; Yes, but I'm rusty; No, but I've heard of them; No, I've got no idea what you're talking about; Other (please specify). ]


Survey #2: Follow Up

Gathering Impact Evidence: The Reading Tasks

Group 1 reading activity: text only

First text - boolean operators *the following text is lifted directly from MIT Libraries libguides, see citations in images.



Second text - the limits of searching with Google Scholar *the following text is author's own words




Group 2 reading activity: comics and text 

Image A: "The Adventures of Boolean Bot" comic strip, by Holly Brown and Rosemary Purr, King's College London.





Image B: Comic strip "Why Can't I Just Google It?" by Holly Brown and Rosemary Purr, King's College London

Gathering Impact Evidence: Reflections

Survey #1 - Background key aspects of participants (P), gathered before the reading activity


*'Library Search' is the name of the online library catalogue at King's College London.

**None of the participants who are librarians work in a library role where using and teaching information literacy skills is part of their everyday responsibilities.


Survey #2 - The Follow-up, after the Reading Activity

Question 1: How long to finish the reading activity?

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: 2 minutes

P2: A few minutes, although I read through a few times

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: 5 minutes

P4: 10 minutes

P5: 5 minutes

P6: 8 minutes

Author's Reflections on Question 1

P1 and P2 (text only) spent a very short amount of time on their reading activity. P3, P4, P5 and P6 answers show they all took twice as long. Reading comics and cartoons is generally done in a slower manner due to the reader analysing text as well as accompanying imagery. In the learning context, it could be argued that this is an advantage to the learner, as it may allow for deeper processing of meaning to happen. However, the limits of the small sample size come into play here. If we had a larger sample size in each group, would we see this trend in timings continue? If yes, could we draw connections between the level of thinking and learning happening, and the format in which the information is being delivered? This study was too short and under-powered to answer this satisfactorily, however it would be interesting to explore in future.



Question 2: Did you need to re-read certain parts in order to understand?

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: "Yes - the first section - just to ensure that I understood how to use Boolean search method"

P2: "I broadly understood the sections on Boolean search terms the first time I read them but read them a couple more times in order to make sure I completely understood them."

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: "Yes; when all commands were brought together in the final shopping list, I recapped slowly what each meant / the purpose of each."

P4: "Yes, I had to re-read the first slide of 'The adventures of Boolean Bot: Part 1' to understand it and take in the information."

P5: "I had to read the google scholar bit a few times, especially the first few panels. I am still not entirely sure I understand the analogy of google scholar being like kicking a ball without skill."

P6: "It got complicated after slide 2 given that the concept became more complex, as it would. I re-read slide 3 to fully understand"

Author's Reflections on Question 2

There does not appear to be significant differences between Group 1 and Group 2 in how they answered this question. P5 (text and comic strips) reflects on one visual analogy not coming across clearly, which is interesting from the comic creator's point of view. It can be argued that analogy can be a powerful tool, but clearly some caution is required in translating it into a comic strip. 



Question 3: Impressions of method of delivery

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: "The information was fairly clear, since a limited number of points were made and the information was presented visually in a manner that was fairly comprehensible"

P2: "The format is much like reading a book - for someone who doesn't do a lot of research it was a bit uninteresting to the eye - a break with some images and/or screenshots would be good to keep people who are more apt to read and absorb something if there is an interesting image or images, interested".

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: "Loved the shopping list comic. The premise was fun in itself: a robo-monkey doing the shopping for you. It was very relateable: remembering all the different bits of information you consider when looking for just the right product to buy, how annoying it can be standing in the aisles and finding not what you're after despite the array of products in front of you. It suggested to me, rather reassuringly, that I'm already very experienced in drilling down my search requirements, and that boolean operators are merely surfacing what's going on in my head subconsciously anyway. It's just a language that expresses that subconscious logic, and I felt it wouldn't be that difficult to (re)learn it. I also liked the comic strip showed photos of items I would actually encounter in my local supermarket, making it even more relatable and funny (the robo-monkey bringing home items that I know instinctively are not what's required). The second comic I found less fun, because it simply came across a teaching message put into speech bubbles. It reminded me of annoying YouTube ads that start with "Did you know that...?" and then tell you something shocking, only to sell you the remedy/solution. It made me feel similarly taken for an idiot. The facial expression and body language of the teaching figure also comes across as patronising, despairing of the naivety of the student. All in all a bit infantilising. Would have preferred that message in simple text format."

P4: "I enjoyed the information being formatted as comic strips, it made it easier to consume and understand. I found comic strip 1's format to be better than comic strip 2's, because it felt more like a story. Comic strip 2's format made it seem more like an advertisement. But when it came to remembering the information, I remembered Comic Strip 2's information better than 1. This could be because the terms used are much simpler (no references to Booleans, OR/AND functions) but also because the information was presented in continuous flow of dialogue from the same character, so remembering one thing the character said helped me remember the rest. Overall, whilst the first comic strip gave the impression of a more fun reading experience, the second comic strip was easier to remember."

P5: "The cartoons were a lot more fun to read than a high page of text. Would have been good maybe to have the text integrated into the cartoons themselves rather than floating above them in a different font (this is more for the shopping one)."

P6:  "User-friendly; humourous; cute. I loved the desperation on her face when the BOT either brought nothing or everything back. Reminded me of botched Tesco deliveries ( I shop with Ocado or Wiatrose for that reason)."

Author's Reflections on Question 3

P2 (text only) states that they found the reading activity uninteresting to the eye and would have liked more imagery, and that it would keep people interested for longer (*note that none of the participants were aware of the nature of this basic study of text vs. imagery, how many groupings there were, and what the other groups were sent as a reading activity). 

P4 (text and comics) stated their preference for comic strip 1 ('Boolean Bot') as it was more like a story, however they were able to recall the information learned from comic strip 2 ('Google') because it was 'presented in a continuous flow of dialogue from the same character', which could suggest that comics delivering new information work well when minimum characters are delivering it.

All four participants in Group 2 (comics and text) used the word 'fun' to describe the activity. Moreover, they can all recall with fairly good accuracy the information that they learnt (see Questions 4 and 5).

P3's (text and comics) answer is really interesting, for two reasons:

1) Interpreting our image of Boolean Bot as a robo-monkey! We hadn't intended the monkey aspect, but the way in which different people perceive art differently from one another, is a fascinating part of creating it for teaching materials. McCloud (1994) explores what we see in comics and how we apply meaning to lines and colours on a page, and how identity is constructed and a sense of relatability follows suit (P3 does mention a sense of relating to Bot). Maybe there's a connection in this participant's own experiences in interpreting Boolean Bot as a monkey, because of the way Bot is requested to perform basic, repetitive tasks and chores? P6 also recalls their own experiences when doing shopping themselves in a supermarket.

2) P3's negative emotional reaction to the "Why Can't I Just Google It?" comic strip.It's a reaction we had not anticipated when designing it. It therefore brings to the discussion the idea of pitch; are some readers in an academic setting going to find the design of certain comic strips infantilising and patronising? In designing teaching materials for HE students, nobody will ever be able to pitch it 100% correctly for every individual. However, this author reflected on P3's description of the librarian in the piece 'despairing of the naivety of the student'. Personally I have felt despair in my teaching role when students frequently cite Google as their only form of online academic research: however, I would never express this in a negative way to a student such as the librarian is doing in this comic strip, i.e., head in hands, sad face. A question that needs asking is; Do we need to be careful about subconscious negative professional experiences bubbling over into imagery we've designed, therefore? Probably yes.

P3 also says it came across as "a teaching message put into speech bubbles". P3 is not a current student of HE, and I would hypothesise that it would land differently with current students for whom basing entire researched essays on random Google searches seems to be understood as acceptable, unfortunately: the aim of the comic is, indeed, to act as a teaching message. It's also fascinating that P3 likened it to personal experience of annoying YouTube ads, and obviously not something we'd like to aim for in designing visual analogies for teaching materials. P4 had a similar experience, in describing it similar to an advertisement. How might we improve on this if, given a larger sample of participants, this opinion was voiced repeatedly? Is there something that an artist can do to increase emotional connection with a cartoon strip character? On the other side of the coin, however, and returning to our main priority here; did P3 learn and were they able to recall the information from the comic strip effectively, or did their dislike of the aspects mentioned above hinder this? See their answer to Question 6 'how did you recall in the information' later in this section.



Question 4: Without looking at the reading materials again, explain what you now understand about the disadvantages of relying too much on Google Scholar?

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: "Google Scholar tends to direct you to paid sites which limits your access to articles/information that may be integral to your research - it gives an advantage to people who can pay for these items and is not inclusive for students or researchers from the global majority as they may not have money to pay to access the info they need."

P2: "Information is sorted by the search algorithm and not by date [or relevance?]. Google does not define what they mean by 'scholarly'"

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: "I understand that Google will not prioritised verified, peer-reviewed information in their search results, results may be influenced by who paid money to feature near the top, and that as a result my essay is unlikely to be as thorough and well-researched as it could be, which may lead to me looking like a bit of a fool in front of my lecturer - who may see a bunch of essays saying the same things, all resulting from a superficial google search."

P4: "Google scholar leads to search results that might not be up to date or credible. The websites can also restrict access and make you pay to read articles. Using the websites, portals and papers that Kings provides makes sure the information is up to date, free to access and credible."

P5: "Google scholar is an imprecise tool from what I understand. It casts a broad net, which can be useful for initial bits of research, but KCL library search is more precise and up to date and can also link you to the resources which KCL libraries subscribe to easier."

P6: "It sweep searches and therefore cannot refine unless you 'modify' you terms of search. It first appears the 'easy' option to search for materials but you will end up having to reduce and refine what it throws up to get to the nub of what you require."

Author's Reflections on Question 4

P1 and P2's (text only) answers stand out because P1 seems to have missed the point of the original text, and instead talks about lack of inclusivity with Google Scholar (where this is not really the issue). This could be supported by their answer to Question 6 later on, where they stated that they did some further self-guided research after the reading activity and before the follow-up survey: perhaps they were getting mixed up with what they had learned from their own research. P2 gives the shortest answer among all the participants.

It could be argued that Ps 3-6 use more engaging language to recall the information they have learnt. P3 even goes as far as to place themselves in the comic strip character's stead, i.e, 'may lead to me looking like a bit of a fool in front of my lecturer'. This is really interesting. McCloud (1994:36) has some fascinating insights into how readers can imagine themselves in the place of the cartoon character if the cartoon character is drawn simply, because that is how a human recalls their own appearance in their mind's eye (as opposed to highly detailed photo realism).  



Question 5: Without looking at the reading materials again, explain what you now understand about Boolean operators.

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: "These will hone the search you are doing so that the important information you need is filtered into your searches."

P2: "Boolean operators allow one to search in a way that takes into account the relationship between search terms rather than simply searching for material that has any of the search terms in it anywhere. 'AND' allows one to search for material in which all the search terms appear, and 'OR' allows one to search for material related to part of one's query."

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: "The OR command will bring up search results that bring up one, any, or all the words used in my search, whereas the AND command will only bring up search results that include each and everyone of my search terms. Therefore I'm likely to get more results with OR, but more relevant/accurate results with AND - if I'm only interested in thing A in context B, rather than all things A and all things B."

P4: "Using OR and AND logic commands helps the Booleans find the specific and relevant pieces of information you are searching for. Without it, search results are vague and/or irrelevant. Boolean operators save you time when searching."

P5: "OR indicates a range of preferences whilst AND indicated a specific requirement"

P6: "OR  -  generic search ie. please include  Ryvita, multigrain crackers, AND - refine search to'not' go above £1.99"


Author's Reflections on Question 5

P4 (comics and text) describes their understanding of boolean operators with a very interesting turn of phrase: 'using OR and AND logic commands helps the Booleans find the specific and relevant pieces of information you are searching for'. Whilst this description is a little muddled, nevertheless I found it delightful that they have almost anthropomorphised 'the Booleans', in a similar way to what we've done with Boolean Bot. What happened here, and was the visual analogous imagery the cause? Once again, a focus group setting for this study would have offered opportunity to explore answers like this further.

All participants in both groups were able to recall information learned; there doesn't seem to be any prevalent distinction between accuracy of the information recalled between the two groups. However, all participants in Group 2 (comics and text) described overall positive reactions and used the word 'fun' to describe the format (see Question 3).



Question 6: How did you recall the information from the reading activity when answering questions 4 and 5?

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: "I remembered what I read - having done a bit of searching before I recalled this after rereading it. The emphasis on the words OR and AND in all caps helps a lot as it reminded me of their use"

P2: "I found it fairly difficult to remember specific information as I first read the materials on a different day from when I did this survey, and I found it difficult not to interpolate knowledge about Google Scholar or Boolean operators which I already had. I remembered memorable phrases, such as the fact that Google does not define what they mean by 'scholarly', as well as information that was presented in a visually appealing manner, such as in the Venn diagram explaining how 'AND' searching works. Otherwise I mostly remembered generalised information from the slides."

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: "For question 5, I saw the faces and postures of the comic figures in front of me very clearly. For question 6, I did not think of the comic (surprisingly for me), but of recent work contexts where boolean operators could have been useful, e.g, ..." [...text redacted to maintain anonymity...]

P4: "I tried to remember the characters in the comic strips."

P5: "For the OR and AND question I was thinking about the difference between the range of crackers and the precise price of the items the robot brought over. For the google scholar question I thought about the red KCL library logo and the benefits that the player said KCL library search had."

P6: "Shopping list"

Author's Reflections on Question 6

In Group 1, P2 comments on how 'visually appealing' information like the Venn diagram was a key aid in recall. Both P1 and P2 seemed to have recalled the information from their reading activity was generalised, and mixed in with information they already knew. Does this suggest a further angle at which we could research information-recall, by hypothesising that learning through narrated images (ie, comic strips) aid in a clearer, more effective recall journey?  From Group 2, there is a prevalence of visual imagery and visual analogy throughout their experiences of recall, eg, 'I saw the faces', 'I was thinking about the range of crackers (they) brought over', and 'I thought about the red KCL logo', which is also really interesting.



Question 7: Any further thoughts (optional question)

Group 1 (text only): 

P1: "It would be nice for it to be formatted with images, and examples and a bit more clarity with the phrase  (search for it via our links because we've already paid for it for you...) to let the students know that might be the first and best course of action when they are searching?"

P2: "I found the information easy to absorb when I was reading the slide but difficult to remember subsequently, except for memorable phrases and information presented in diagrammatic format. If I were to use these slides in an educational context, or in a professional context where I would gain an advantage from absorbing the information on them, I might have taken notes from them, which would have helped me absorb information from them thanks to the process of writing the notes."

Group 2 (comics and text):

P3: -

P4: -

P5: -

P6: "I'd like to have more practise on this since I'm very rusty. I find many of the databases clunky and difficult to navigate."

Author's Reflections on Question 7

We can see that, even though this is a non-mandatory question, both P1 and P2 feel the need to comment on how the addition of diagrams or images would have been preferable. P1 would have liked images and examples to be included. P2 (similar to their answer to Q6) recalled the information through 'memorable phrases' and 'information presented in diagrammatic format'. Both P1 and P2's answers suggest that more visual stimulation enhances the learning and recall process.

It is interesting that P3, P4 and P5 did not feel the need to supply further thoughts. P6 chooses to reflect on how they'd like more practice. Does this suggest that interest has been piqued or re-ignited, and could the format of the materials have something to do with this? A similar study with a larger sample size would be recommended, in order to draw conclusions.