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Learning Out Loud (LOL): How Comics Can Develop the Communication and Critical Thinking Abilities of Engineering Students

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Communication as Performance

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Caitlin Donahue Wylie University of Virginia Orcid 16x16

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Caitlin Wylie is an assistant professor of Science, Technology and Society in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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Kathryn A. Neeley University of Virginia

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Kathryn Neeley is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Engineering & Society Department of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. She is a past chair of the Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division of ASEE and is particularly interested in the role of liberal education in developing engineering leaders and in the connections between the arts and engineering.

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Learning Out Loud (LOL): How Comics Can Develop the Communication and Critical Thinking Abilities of Engineering Students

Previous studies and our own experiences in the classroom suggest that images and humor can attract undergraduate students’ attention, promote discussion, and improve comprehension of complex concepts, especially for low-achieving students. Here we investigate possible explanations for the power of images – in particular, one-frame cartoons and short comic strips – in helping engineering students develop communication and critical thinking skills.

We hypothesize that the power of comics as a pedagogical tool derives from several sources, including engagement by entertainment (using humor to increase motivation and decrease defensiveness) and their capacity to convey complex concepts using few words, which promotes access for students with low literacy. In addition, comics encode specific messages and arguments while simultaneously allowing for multiple interpretations. This feature allows students to practice identifying authors’ arguments from images and text, while also encouraging them to be creative about what they see because there is no one “right” answer.

In this study, we consider the skills that students practice when they interpret comics and thereby suggest valuable academic skills that in-class image analysis can promote. For example, image interpretation relies on highly valued undergraduate research skills, including considering an author’s perspective and reliability, interpreting cultural and symbolic information embedded in a text (or an image), and identifying an author’s intended argument or message. Practicing these skills in class also encourages students to verbally communicate their ideas, learn from their peers, and recognize that there are multiple ways to understand an image and an argument. Thus learning through in-class image analysis may be particularly valuable for engineering students who struggle with ABET-valued skills of communication, considering multiple perspectives on an issue, and thinking about engineering in broader social contexts.

We will conduct an analysis of previous studies on topics that relate to comics in the classroom – i.e., strategies for engaging students in class topics and discussions, the impact of humor on teaching and learning, images as symbols whose meaning is embedded in assumed social knowledge, and comics as texts that require critical thinking and cultural awareness to interpret. These topics are currently best studied by scholars of education, science and technology studies, and anthropology. By studying published research, we will investigate how these topics intersect to produce the positive outcomes that have been documented – both in print and in our classrooms – from students’ analysis of comics. By understanding what students learn from interpreting images in a class discussion, we can suggest teaching techniques to help improve students’ development of crucial career skills for engineering as well as arguably any other field.

Wylie, C. D., & Neeley, K. A. (2016, June), Learning Out Loud (LOL): How Comics Can Develop the Communication and Critical Thinking Abilities of Engineering Students Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25542

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