Exploring Science Communication and Teaching with Comics

If you are open to exploring science communication and teaching with comics, this article is for you.

Our next twitter chat will be Tuesday, November 7th at 6pm PT/7pm MT/8pm CT/9pm ET. Make sure to follow our official account, @scicomm_JC, so you can join in on the fun.  This month’s chat is hosted by Dr. Echo Rivera, @echoechoR and the topic is about using comics for science communication.

Twitter chat: Exploring Science Communication and Teaching with Comics

** This is a special #scicommJC twitter chat that has an activity to go along with it. Download the activity worksheet here **


Are comics an effective teaching tool in STEM? That question inspired Dr. Caitlin Donahue Wiley and Dr. Kathryn Neeley to conduct a much-needed study on the impact of comics on their undergraduate engineering students’ learning. This blog post summarizes their conference paper, Laughing Out Loud (LOL): How comics can develop the communication and critical thinking skills of engineering students.

In 2010, 30% of students were bored most or all of the time (Rosegard & Wilson, 2013; as cited in Donahue & Neeley, 2016). That’s why seeking a strategy to more effectively engage our audience is a worthwhile endeavor–and creating a bridge into to the creative arts is one way to go about this.

Teaching with comics- Learning Out Loud (LOL) with cartoons as a teaching method (Section 1)

LOL is a “process of group interpretations of cartoons [that] created a safe space where students could generate multiple plausible interpretations, as opposed to searching for a single answer.” (p. 2)

The authors give a list of why cartoons are so valuable for education (p.3). Cartoons:

  • Are entertaining yet require interpretation
  • Play off familiar social norms and pop culture that students understand
  • Convey generalized messages
  • Have meaning that is not as clearly defined as most texts
  • Make the students think, by being playful and open-ended
  • Create an environment where students aren’t afraid of suggesting the “wrong” answer
  • Created a friendly and fun classroom environment, often including laughter
  • Inspired an animated class discussion
  • Captured students’ attention at the beginning of class

One author cited in this paper reports that “cartoons broke down barriers and promoted connections in her classes” (Cheesman, 2006, as cited in Donahue & Neeley, 2016, p.10). Using comics or cartoons, then, is one method of creating a “climate of learning [that] encourages students’ attention, motivation, and participation” (p. 10)

Pilot study method and results from teaching with comics (Section 5)

Participants/Setting: January 2016, undergraduate engineering classes (students were senior-level, engineering majors)

Sample size: 120 students  

Design: The study was conducted by two instructors, each teaching two separate sections of a course about ethics in engineering. Each instructor included cartoons for instruction in one section, while excluding cartoons for the other section.

Both instructors conducted multiple choice assessments of student learning outcomes via a multiple choice anonymous test at two times:

  1. At the end of the class, which the authors refer to as “Post”
  2. Seven weeks following the lecture, termed by the authors as “Follow-up”  

In addition, while Neeley revealed and discussed the answers to the assessment with her class at the conclusion of the lecture, Wiley did not discuss or review the answers.

Hypothesis: Students in the “with cartoons” group will better remember and understand the theories in both the short and long term than their peers in the “without cartoons” condition.

Results: At post (assessment at the end of the class), students in the “without cartoon” scored higher compared to the students in the “with cartoon” group.

However, at follow-up, students from the “without cartoon group” forgot more information than the students from the “with cartoon” group. Students in Neeley’s class, where students had the opportunity to review and discuss the assessment questions, “with cartoon” students showed a 19-point improvement in scores at follow-up.

Conclusion: Cartoons seem to enhance learning and retention of lecture material in long term. However, more research is needed. One reason the post scores were lower could be because the accurate definition of course content might have been lost during the discussion.

More on theoretical and background research in teaching with comics

The authors also review research from other fields to provide additional support for why comics show the potential for increased learning among students. These studies are presented in section 2 and 3, and summarized briefly below.

Cartoons as Cultural Symbols (Section 3)

A highly desired skill set includes the ability to consider multiple perspectives and understanding the social context within which we operate. The articles provide a thoughtful summary of how cartoons are particularly effective and helping STEM students develop these skills. Comics are symbolic, and that “require interpretation based on cultural awareness and critical thinking” (p. 11).

Political cartoons, in particular, are a useful teaching tool that helps students learn how to “Read between the lines” (p.12)

Finally, comics promote dual processing learning that combines emotional and visual material, which is helpful for a wide range of students ( p.13).

Research that supports cartoons’ potential for learning (Section 2)

Boredom and attention are complex phenomena to study (as are most things), and boredom is not necessarily always a bad thing, in every context. However, apathetic boredom (p. 5) is a concern in educational settings.

One promising strategy for counteracting boredom is variety–something that comics and cartoons can bring to a classroom. Paying attention, humor, a moderate amount of arousal, and curiosity are also important for learning and memory. Unsurprisingly, those “who pay attention remember more” (p. 7). The expectation is that comics will be more attention-grabbing and spark students’ curiosity (p. 6).

Humor, in particular, helps learning by (p. 9):

  • Increasing intrinsic motivation
  • Aiding memory
  • Improving comprehension
  • Increasing attention span
  • Increasing knowledge retention
  • Diminishing tension and stress
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Creating an environment that is conducive to learning
  • Building rapport between writer and reader

About this month’s #scicommJC host

Dr. Echo Rivera is a research associate at a research & evaluation center, where she works with programs to evaluate their impact. She also specializes in using effective, visual, and creative communication for dissemination. Echo is the owner of Creative Research Communications, LLC where she teaches researchers, scientists, academics, and evaluators how to effectively communicate their research.

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