Graphic Novels Offer a Better Way of Learning
Today we are pleased to put up an interview we did with Professor Jeremy Short who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. He and his team have discovered a better way of learning through graphic novels as opposed to standard textbooks, and we have got hold of the man to tell us more about his findings.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a professor of management at the University of Oklahoma. I grew up mostly in Texas and did my Ph.D. work at LSU. Before ending up as a management professor I sang and played guitar at coffee shops and held many, many odd and part-time jobs that serves as the inspiration for a lot of the material in the graphic novels I authored.
You mentioned that you conducted a study where you find graphic novels are more effective than textbooks for direct recall of material. Can you tell me more about how you went about conducting this study and how you can prove if your findings are accurate.
Proof is a difficult word as an academic, but the standard for research is a peer-reviewed publication. This means that the work goes through multiple rounds where anonymous reviewers who are experts critique my work and then changes are made. So, we were able to meet this standard for the article that I, along with my co-authors Brandon Randolph-Seng and Aaron McKenny had accepted at the journal Business Communication Quarterly titled, “An Empirical Examination of the Graphic Novel Approach to Communicate Business Concepts.” Our work actually included two studies. The first asked students who had used the graphic novel in class how it compared to other textbooks they had used in their college careers. Overall, using a group of business majors in their senior year 80% liked the graphic novel as much or more than traditional textbooks. In our second study, we gave one group the graphic novel material and the other the same material in a traditional textbook format. Both formats were useful for the application of learning, but direct recall of material was better with the graphic novel format.
What gave you the idea that graphic novels are a more effective teaching tool?
I think it was really just the sort of intellectual curiosity that fuels us academic types. I had seen a lot of folks besmirch the idea of using the graphic novel I developed to teach college students and they argued – with no basis at all, mind you – that they dumbed down education. So I wanted to conduct my own study to shed some light on this issue and put this question, at least to some extent, to rest.
Is there a formula you use in the application of such a method?
I don’t believe there is any one formula or ‘right way’ to incorporate graphic novels in teaching. The Atlas Black textbooks have been out for about two years now and I’ve heard of it being used in several ways. I’ve used it both as the sole course textbook and in conjunction with a traditional textbook in different situations and completely option in others. Some of my colleagues have used it as an applied case study so that students can see how the materials they learn in class is applicable in real-life situations. One of the beauties of this format is that it is flexible that way – depending on how the instructor integrates the graphic novel into the class, students will focus on different aspects of the graphic novel and get different things out of it. Of course, a number of nonstudents have also enjoyed the book so reaching out to an audience that would not likely read a textbook is very rewarding too.
In terms of the research, we based our study comparing the graphic novel with traditional textbooks on studies conducted by Richard Mayer out of UC-Santa Barbara. Mayer and his colleagues have conducted several studies looking at whether including images in scientific texts influences learning. For example, in one study he examined whether providing diagrams of hydraulic drum brakes in a text explaining how they work facilitated different kinds of learning. Since we view our study as being a logical extension of the work he has done in this area, modeling our experiment after his made sense.
Are you not worried that graphic novels serve more as a distraction, given that graphic novels are notorious for over stimulating the mind, or is this just a misconception altogether?
It’s funny because I have a four-year-old son and one year old daughter and so much of their education and educational materials is education based. But then, at some point, it seems someone in education gets on the idea that education shouldn’t be entertaining anymore. So I’m not sure I buy the argument that people are overstimulated by graphic novels (or other rich media). I feel that this argument starts from the premise that learning and entertainment are two non-overlapping concepts. If they were then certainly spending too much time on graphic novels (ie., entertainment that is not learning) would hurt learning. However, I’m not aware of any evidence that this premise is true. My understanding is that learning happens best when the brain is stimulated. So why not find creative ways to integrate learning into engaging media to maximize both learning and enjoyment?
I think in this day and age of constant media barrage, texts, cell-phones, and the like – anything that stimulates the mind that is relevant to the material being taught should be embraced.
How do you see this idea being applied across all levels?
I think and discipline or subject where there is a ‘story’ to tell could use this method effectively. For example, a book could be done on the topic of journalism and the steps to create good stories versus tactics that are often used to create stories with less rigorous investigation. And in this sense, the graphic novel is really good for the ability to integrate ethical concerns. I was able to work on the first Harvard Business School case in graphic novel format so I think applying the graphic novel idea to the case method also works really well. Of course, the graphic novel format is already being used in many ways across other levels. For high school and younger children, we see much classic literature being translated into a graphic novel type format, for example.
Tell us more about your course.
Whether or not they take it from me, I believe that everyone who works or will eventually work in a business should take an introduction to management course. Intro to management courses generally explain at a high level how businesses work. For instance, in my class we’ll talk some about the strategies of business. For example, what do restaurants that want to charge higher prices do differently than fast food outlets? We’ll also draw from psychology and apply it to the business setting to discuss how people make decisions in businesses as well as how to lead and manage teams effectively. So, whether you are an entry-level mail clerk who wants to better understand how businesses work outside the mailroom or a CEO who wants to figure out how to motivate your employees, there is something to be learned by all.
How are you applying your method into your course?
We are using two books I co-authored. The first book, Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure – is a graphic novel that tells the story of two young entrepreneurs that are college students. The second book is a traditional textbook. So, students in my class can look at both books and do their own study to see which format helps them learn about management best.
What do you think is lacking in today’s education?
I think, in general, there is a lack of passion and enthusiasm. And this seems to be true for both those that teach as well as students. Of course, there are many folks with considerable passion that are doing unique things in and out of the classroom – but I would say a good 80% or more of folks are slow to embrace new ideas, and are running a bit on autopilot when teaching or learning about a subject.
How do you envisage the future of education?
I think the future will need to embrace a multitude of approaches. I don’t by any means think that the massive online class I will teach can substitute for certain forms of face to face instruction, but it can offer a powerful supplement in some cases – especially in introductory type classes that are often taught in large classrooms with little interaction in the first place.
If given a choice to instill one or more of the following in kids today, what would it be and why? Creativity, humor, presentation skills, analytical thinking or altruism?
At the University of Oklahoma where I work, we put a lot of time into developing analytical skills, presentation skill, and many students are involved in altruistic initiatives. So, for me, I would say one of the hardest areas where I would like to see more work with business students is in the area of creativity.
Anything else to add?
The great thing about our research comparing graphic novels to traditional textbooks is that now anyone in the world can take our class for free and see which method speaks to them. Class begins June 10 for the 2013 summer class and anyone can enroll now for free at http://management.ou.edu/ – I hope to see you in class!