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Drawing Graphic Lessons: Comics Teach, Evaluate Difficult Concepts

June 20, 2018

Though illustrations have been used to convey ideas and information since before language existed, after Benjamin Franklin published the world’s first editorial cartoon in 1754, comics emerged a distinct avenue for visual storytelling.

Now, comic art has come into classrooms at UC Merced and abroad, as educators are using illustrations in new ways — to teach complex concepts and assess whether students grasp those lessons.

Inspired to try an educational experiment by the diversity and newness of UC Merced, then-graduate student Chris Fradkin asked his upper-division abnormal psychology students to draw comic panels as exam answers to questions about schizophrenia, depression and other difficult topics.

“Especially for students whose first language isn’t English, this was a way for them to show me they understood,” he said. “Often, the first-generation students are insecure because they don’t have the same vocabulary as other students, but they are very bright, and they found this way of answering questions empowering. Plus, with the visuals, I could tell in five seconds if the student really grasped the concepts.”

It’s not a matter of convenience, said Fradkin, who now teaches in Brazil as part of his Fulbright Scholarship, though it did cut the time he spent grading tests. Visuals can help students communicate across languages or communicate touchy subjects.