Using comics to teach difficult concepts

Complex topics in a range of disciplines can be very difficult to explain using traditional teaching methods. Even when greatly simplified, words alone frequently fail to assist students’ understanding of many concepts.

The challenge is increased further for students whose reading or academic literacy skills are underdeveloped or for students with English as an additional language.

The legal, insurance and banking sectors among others have also identified the need to actively find ways to make legal concepts, for example, easier for lay people to comprehend.

Using visualization to explain complex concepts

Visualization and storytelling techniques such as comics provide a novel way to solve this problem. Research is beginning to suggest that explaining legal principles through imagery and running narratives is a more engaging and memorable technique compared with traditional textual and auditory methods.

We created a series of comic books to explain and simplify complex legal principles in core law and non-law tertiary programs. This supplementary learning tool incorporates innovative visualization and narrative techniques scientifically proven to enhance the student learning experience. Our students enjoyed the novelty of reading comics to support their learning as well as improve their academic performance. We surveyed our students over the two years of using this approach and 89 per cent reported that the comics had significantly improved their understanding of the target legal concepts.

Importantly, this resource is supplementary to traditional teaching methods and materials such as lectures, prescribed readings and presentation slides. This ensures that your teaching is catering for diversity by enabling all learners to engage with the concepts through multiple means.

How to use and adapt this technique

If your course covers difficult topics, this approach has enormous potential to create a more effective and inclusive learning experience. The visualization can be developed using a relatively simple method.

  1. Generate a rough storyline and characters to form the basis of the comic.
  2. Consider ways to thread the topic principles into the storyline and character narratives.
  3. Either write a script with dialogue between characters or try to storyboard the comic with panels indicating each fragment of the story (as with traditional comic books).
  4. Find someone who can draw! We engaged a professional to generate refined versions of our scripts and storyboards. Alternatively, your institution may have educational technologists who could suggest a tool to create the final product or production teams who could animate the visualisation.
  5. Review for flow, accuracy, interest and length. Edit as required.
  6. Finalize comics and promote as supplementary learning resources within your course.

You don’t need to be overly creative or a good artist to come up with a draft comic idea. You can apply the same thought process that you use to come up with scenarios for problem-based questions. The difference is that you are now trying to create a visual version. Pictures can replace many of the words that would have been needed to explain the scenario.

More tips to make your comics more effective

Students told us the following features made our comics successful:

  • simple, easy-to-follow storylines that strategically incorporate legal terms and principles
  • frequent use of humor
  • occasional inclusion of novel but unrelated facts that relate to the character dialogue
  • vibrant color schemes
  • realistic scenarios that might plausibly arise in practice but which are distinct from one another.

It is little wonder that the legal industry is starting to experiment with visualisation, particularly converting traditional, text-based contracts to picture-based contracts. This technique has enormous potential in the tertiary education space.

Our resource proved to be a successful supplementary learning tool, and we are in the process of making more. We strongly encourage you to consider trialling this technique. It might just be the difference for students grappling with complex legal principles.

Mark Giancaspro is a lecturer and practicing commercial lawyer at the University of Adelaide Law School.

David Brown is an expert in insolvency and personal property securities law and is associate dean of learning and teaching at the University of Adelaide Law School.

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