The Study and Use of Graphic Novels

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Jeremy Short is a professor at the University of Oklahoma and recently co-authored a study about the use of use of Graphic Novels. While millions are spent each year on video games, books, and other self-help materials designed to improve memory, or at least curb its loss, their study titled “Graphic presentation: An empirical examination of the graphic novel approach to communicate business concepts” has found that graphic novels – a grown up form of comic book - can be an effective tool for improving memory. The results of the study, which featured an experiment with 140 undergraduate business seniors, will soon be published in Business Communication Quarterly.

The experiment had one set of participants read a short excerpt from Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure, a graphic novel created to teach key management concepts using the storyline of two students aspiring to start their own business.

A second set of participants read material from a traditional textbook covering the same topics. Participants were then given a short quiz about the material covered in the excerpts. While both groups were able to apply the concepts, the results indicated that participants who had read the graphic novel excerpt were better able to recognize direct quotes than participants exposed to the traditional textbook.

In a companion study, 114 students assigned a graphic novel in a senior level business course were asked to provide feedback regarding their experiences with the book. Over 80% of students indicated that the graphic novel compared favorably to traditional textbooks.

“It probably won’t surprise many to learn that students find comic inspired materials to be more interesting than a traditional textbook, but I imagine it will silence a number of critics to hear student recall was significantly better for the graphic novel format”, said Dr. Jeremy Short, the lead author of the study who has co-authored both traditional as well as graphic novel works including a Harvard Business Case in graphic novel format.

“As a member of Generation Y I can relate to the study’s findings”, noted Aaron McKenny, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of the study. “We have no difficulty learning from traditional textbooks, we have done so for most of our lives. But when a textbook can engage you in the story and make you actually want to turn the page, that is the sweet spot where learning becomes a pleasure. The first time I picked up Atlas Black as a new doctoral student I read it cover-to-cover in one evening. By contrast, I can honestly say that I have never made it all the way through any traditional textbooks in my 20 years of formal education.”

The findings reported in this research suggest that businesses might find a good return on training dollars by creating illustrated versions of key training manuals, human resource materials, safety documents, and other materials where verbatim recall is critical to business success. To facilitate integration into the business world, trainers, managers, and coworkers should also be aware that the next generation of employees may have learning needs and preferences that differ from the traditional text-only employee handbook.

Dave Ketchen, a professor at Auburn University that has authored traditional textbooks as well as graphic texts such as Tales of Garcón: The Franchise Players (a graphic novel focusing on franchising and family business) quips, “Storytelling has long been a powerful tool to convey rich concepts in organizations, and it may be that the most effective employee handbooks in the future will have pictures and a story to tell.”

So, I realize that stories on graphic novels for grown ups are becoming old hat. Indeed, the satirical paper The Onion had an article recently noting, ‘Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story.’

Jeremy Short believes their study is the first of its kind (in business or any field that he is aware of) directly comparing the impact of traditional textbooks and graphic novel/ comic type content and showing the latter is associated with better retention and equal learning.
There is also a free online course with the tie-in that they will be using the graphic novel used in this article as one of the texts for the class. The class is an Introduction to Management class.


  • skanaras

    skanaras (Mar 4, 2013 at 6:26pm)

    The US army understood this very well, as they used Will Eisner's maintenance cartoons in PS Magazine for decades.

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