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Can Comics Improve Pre-College Science Education?

As more learning occurs online and at home with the global pandemic, keeping students engaged in learning about science is a challenge. In this post, undergraduate student Simon Rodriguez explores recent research on how comics might be helpful in increasing student engagement in science learning. This post was written in partnership with Dr. Cary Moskovitz’s introductory writing course at Duke University. –KHL

Which comic or cartoon did you grow up reading? Was it Superman with his flowing red cape and supernatural strength? Or did you follow Batman as he swept across Gotham City fighting crime in the dark? Maybe superheroes weren’t your thing, but you probably remember the countless times reading and re-reading Dr. Seuss’ colorful and absurd stories. 

Comics have been loved for decades by many youth around the world. Their influence has grown exponentially, becoming integrated into TV, movies, video games, and many other facets of society. In recent years there has been an increased interest by academics on whether comic books are a tool that enhances scientific learning. Many articles in major journals and websites like the School Library Journal, NSTA News, and the Science in School Journal posted articles discussing teaching and science-related comics. These articles address how scientific comics are effective at capturing student attention and keeping them intrigued in scientific topics. Most importantly, they assert that scientific comics have the capability to improve academic performance and interest but provide little to no evidence for these assumptions. This raises the question: can comics improve academic performance, interest, and attitude in science classes or is it all just a sham? In particular, we will be focusing on whether performance, interest and attitude in pre collegiate level science classes can be improved through scientific comic use.

Why Comics?

Why focus on comics? Wouldn’t it be more effective to focus on more mainstream modalities of teachings like written textbooks and online lecture videos? First, I found there to be a lack of academic research on the effects of comics on scientific teaching. Second, I have had previous experience with comics throughout my pre-college education and into my time as a science-oriented undergraduate student at Duke University. Over the years, I have had positive experiences when exposed to comic-based learning strategies. They have kept me more engaged and attentive than long text-based learning methods, and the associated pictures often help me get a deeper understanding of the course material. I suspect that I am not alone in this sentiment, so if a positive association between scientific comics and enhanced educational attainment can be demonstrated, then hopefully other students could benefit as I have in the past.

Hands holding a comic book open to read
Image credit

Do Comics Make us Smart(er)?

Before we delve deeper into our discussion, let’s clarify what is meant by a “comic.” For us, a comic will be as McCloud describes: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (20).

Do comics improve learning and student performance in science classes? Yes…and no. Honestly it’s impossible to tell right now!

There is a lack of research addressing whether comics improve student performance in science classes. Even within the small number of studies executed, their quality ranges from incredibly well-conducted to not very applicable. Interestingly enough, the arguably most well-conducted study ended up producing the most complex and unexpected results. Lin and Lin analyzed the effectiveness of comics at teaching about nanotechnology. The researchers gathered 697 acceptable student responses from over seven different academic institutions in Taiwan and effectively separated them into experimental and control groups each with their own pre- and post-test. The increased sample size gives their conclusions a bit more merit and attention.

The study characterized students’ results based on their school’s academic percentile ranking. The students were separated into three different categories based on their schools’ percentile rankings: high achievers, medium achievers, and low achievers. Surprisingly, this study drew somewhat different conclusions than other studies. They argue that comics are actually detrimental for high achievers, beneficial for medium achievers and don’t really have a difference for low achievers when compared to their text-based control groups. Weird right?!

Their results very clearly support their conclusions. The researchers concluded that cartoons shortened the logical leap needed to connect scientific concepts and applications. Shorter logical leaps seen in comics ended up being helpful towards the medium achievers. However, the larger logical leaps and conclusions that are drawn when using textbooks are actually more beneficial to the high achievers. Larger logical connections allowed the high achievers to gain a better conceptual understanding of the material. Ironically, the group we would hope to have seen the most improvement, the low achievers, saw no real difference with the cartoons! 

Another relatively well-conducted study was conducted by Rule and Auge. They analyzed whether humorous cartoons could be used to effectively teach rock and mineral concepts. This study was conducted in a New York middle school, comprising of four 6th grade science classes. It ultimately reached a conclusion that humorous cartoons improved information retention and academic performance in the teaching of rock and mineral concepts to 6th graders. Rule and Auge incorporated both pre- and post- tests into their methodology and established a control group to compare their studies results too. We need to be aware that although this study is overall well conducted, it still has flaws that place doubt on the accuracy of their conclusions.

The main issue here is that it is possible that the control group’s enthusiasm and performance was lowered because they felt as though they were placed in an “unfair” situation. Both the control and experimental group attended the same school and the control group actively knew that they were not receiving cartoons. This, in older age audiences, may not have been an issue; however, the cartoons presented for the experimental group were almost unanimously considered “fun” and “entertaining” by the students. This led to the control group students actively voicing out complaints that it was “unfair” for them to not be learning with the cartoons.  The feeling of unfairness was a confounding variable that the researchers had not accounted for and did not address in their conclusion.

So this information indicates that comics could have a quantifiable effect. Let’s go through one last study before we make any final conclusions.

Photo of Olympus camera on top of an opened comic book of Spider-Man
Image credit

Our final study was conducted by Özdemir for the International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education in 2016. The researcher created and presented comic strips depicting and talking about the science of sound to 13-year-olds in a Turkish middle school. The students were then asked to answer questions about the science of sound after reading the comics, and the researcher concluded that comic strips did have a positive effect on academic achievement.  However, the study lacked any control group. Without a control, it is hard to know if the students would have done better with plain text. Although there was no control group, most students were able to adequately explain the scientific process of sound. It is unclear what demonstration method would be more effective.

Furthermore, the study did not have a pre- and post-test. Özdemir only provided a singular exam to the students. Without a pre- and post-test, it’s difficult to gauge whether there was any improvement in student understanding of sound concepts or if their success was based upon previous understanding of the material. While the study did a good job with the acquisition and analysis of its data, with such impactful limitations it is very difficult to utilize the study’s conclusions. 

Looking at the results from these three studies objectively, more research is needed to achieve conclusive results. We are already drawing from a very small pool of data to make conclusions, and even the quality of all the studies is not up to the necessary standard. There are many promising leads, especially as seen within this first study we observed, but more research will need to be conducted to prove that science comics improve academic performance. It may even be necessary to adapt the way we approach our studies because as seen with Lin’s study different types of students can receive different results when using cartoons.

Do Comics Make Us Pay Attention?

So now we have to discuss whether comics improve student interest and enjoyment when learning scientific concepts. Don’t worry this isn’t as ambiguous as our last question. The short and simple answer is yes. Almost unanimously yes!

Across all three sources we previously discussed there is essentially complete agreement that comics and cartoons heavily improved students’ attitude toward learning and pursuing scientific material. Now you might be saying, “Don’t we have to disregard the conclusions for some of the studies or at least put them under heavy scrutiny?” I would wholeheartedly agree with you…if we were talking about academic achievements. The fact is each study set up and dedicated a part of their research to ask the students their opinions of using cartoons as a teaching method. All studies handled this portion of their research very well and no real limitations of flaws that drew into question the validity of their conclusions. In fact, both Özdemir’s and Lin’s studies included written answers about the student opinions, as well as some direct student interviews. This allowed for students who are not effective at expressing their thoughts on paper to adequately express their opinions to the researchers.

What’s Next?

As demonstrated by the research, comics without a doubt increase interest in science topics; however, because of their unconfirmed ability to improve academic performance, we can’t justify implementing them across all pre-college academic systems. As of right now, it might be best to continue conducting research on comics due to the promising leads they possess. In particular, it may be a good idea to adapt the way we go about conducting research. As demonstrated by the results of Lin’s study, it may be beneficial to focus on how cartoons affect students of differing academic capabilities. By looking at students with differing academic capabilities, clearer correlations about humor use and which group it benefits the most may arise from future research. However, until comics’ effectiveness is proven (or disproven), it would be best to incorporate comic use as a technique to occasionally gather the students’ attention. One possible area of research that could be explored is how comics affect long term learning. Comics could have a longer lasting effect than what was explored in these three studies, and it would be interesting to see if we remember more of comics than regular literature in the long term. Given the current research, comics might best be used as a method to capture students’ interest in a new topic before switching back to text-based methods for actual learning. This way student engagement could increase, but would still allow the majority of the classes learning to be done through more traditional means. Also, who doesn’t like to have some fun while learning?

Edited by Krista Hoffmann-Longtin and Jessica Rech, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.

About the Author
  • Simon Rodriguez 0000-0003-1487-9901

    Simon Rodriguez is a pre-med undergraduate student at Duke University. Currently, he is doing research in a chemistry lab on Duke's campus to test if some chemotherapeutic drugs can be made more soluble within the body. Simon’s main interests outside of the academic and medical settings are tennis, table tennis, philanthropy, music, and board games.

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