We Should Probably Turn Textbooks Into Comic Books

Kids stay up all night reading comics and graphic novels. Bringing that style to textbooks could make them as excited about academics.

Much of the recent textbook debate has been over whether a physical or digital format is best—should students lug around 20-pound backpacks full of hardcover textbooks or should they simply download them onto a sleek e-reader? Well, a new study from researchers at the University of Oklahoma suggests that we'd be better off focusing on something else: ensuring the academic content within the book is in a format that's going to help students retain more information. That might mean ditching traditional textbooks and replacing them with graphic novels and comics.

The lead author of the study, Jeremy Short, a professor at Oklahoma's business school who also co-authored the first Harvard Business Case in graphic novel format, had one group of seniors read passages on management and entrepreneurship from a traditional business textbook while a second group read about the same topics from a graphic novel. Short then gave the students a quiz on the material and found that those who read the graphic novel retained more information and could even recognize direct quotes. In a corresponding study, Short found that 80 percent of students were more engaged by and preferred the format of a graphic novel.

"With that kind of information, that really has a lot of implications about how we should be teaching business, how we should be teaching a lot of things, really," Short told The Oklahoman. And the study's co-author, doctoral student Aaron McKenny, says he's stayed up all night reading graphic novel business textbooks because they're so engaging, but students aren't "going to read a textbook" in the same way, which means their understanding of the academic content won't be as strong.

I've caught my own sons sneak-reading The Simpsons comics and Batman graphic novels under the covers with flashlights at midnight, but I'm still waiting to see either of them be as excited about an English, science, or social studies textbook. I bet kids would be pretty thrilled to read about the Abolitionist movement—complete with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass as superhero abolitionists—or anything else in U.S. history if it was in an engaging graphic novel format instead of the comparatively dry traditional text.

While publishers aren't likely to turn textbooks into the academic equivalent of the Marvel or DC Comics universes anytime soon, it's clearly a smart idea to incorporate creative visuals and storytelling elements into them. If that happened, we could have a generation of students eager to read their textbooks cover to cover.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Sam Howzit

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