Over the last decade there’s been a steep increase in the use of comics-format material for non-fiction and even textbooks. Coupled with the rise of graphic novels in libraries and increased use as an aid to lure reluctant readers, it’s given comics much more academic respect. But a new study out of the University of Oklahoma showing how students retain knowledge presented in graphic novel format may have even more implications for the educational use of comics—and the study’s creator hopes it will break down remaining barriers.

In the study, to be published in a future issue of Business Communication Quarterly, 140 graduate students in a strategic management class were given two books covering the same subject. One set read an excerpt from the graphic novel Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure, the second read material from a traditional textbook covering the same topics. A short quiz showed that while both groups had absorbed the concepts of the texts equally, students who had read the graphic novel excerpt had better verbatim recall of the material.

In a companion study, 80% of the students felt that the graphic novel treatment of the business topic “compared favorably” with the text-only treatment.

The study’s creator, Jeremy Short, strategic management chair of OU’s Price College of Business, says it’s the first ever peer reviewed study to examine how students absorb knowledge in comics format as opposed to traditional textbooks.

Short is the author of the Atlas Black books (profiled by PW here), which teach management concepts to grad students via a graphic novel narrative, and will be co-authoring the revision of the text-only textbook used in the study; thus he’s in a rare position to evaluate whether both books were equivalent. “I’m not biased to one format or another,” he told PW Comics World. His own experiences with graphic novels as teaching tools go back to reading Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to Statistics during his grad school years and subsequently noting the high level of engagement for books like Fables among his comics reading siblings. He was also impressed when books like The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation came out, covering weighty matters in comics form.

“It was exciting to verify what some would say was common sense but some naysayers would say was the opposite of commons sense,” he says of the study. Although the Atlas Black books have found an audience, they have also drawn many critics of the form. “I was shocked at how opposed a certain minority seemed to be to this format. The pencil, ball-point ben, chalkboard, and computer are all innovations that educators scoffed at when they were first introduced. I hope the graphic novel can be added to that list of educational tools that seem foolish to bemoan in hindsight.

“Our study suggests that graphic story telling can serve as a powerful tool in higher education compared to the traditional textbook,” he continues. “My experiences suggest that such evidence is useful in convincing folks in higher education that can be slow to warm to somewhat unorthodox instructional methods.”

Although Short’s study is the first of its kind, it is part of an emerging field of study on how verbal/visual blends affect learning and cognition. Although few studies have directly looked at comics and cognizance, an increasing amount of research is being done on many levels. Prof. David Rapp of Northwestern University has conducted ongoing studies in reading comprehension, some in conjunction with Reading With Pictures, an advocacy groups for the use of comics as teaching tools. There’s also Neil Cohn, whose emaki.com is a repository of research in visual communication.

Josh Elder, founder of Reading With Pictures, says the OU study is the first of its kind, although he notes that professor/cartoonist Jay Hosler (Clan Apis) has done some research on how the comics format teaches science. “Every year, more comics are in more classrooms than the year before to great result,” Elder told PW Comics World. “Even the newly implemented Common Core Standards explicitly call for the use of alternative media – including comics–in the curriculum. That being said, the biggest obstacle remains one of credibility. This study represents an impossible-to-dismiss data point for our side in that debate.”

Cartoonist and media observer Scott McCloud, author of the pioneering Understand Comics, has also noted the increasing interest in comics as a teaching aid. “It’s in the air, there’s no question about it. It’s like when the ship’s masts start to glow a little and you know that lightning is about to hit,” he said of the growing attention. “I go to conferences about this stuff and I see all these people who feel that there’s this thing in the room if only they could get their hands on it they could change education forever.”

He cautions that non-fiction comics are still learning the most effective ways to get their stories across. “The results vary. I’m seen some really terrible non-fiction comics explaining subjects that desperately need explanation. And I’ve seen some really good ones.” Although declining to name the failures, he mentioned The Influencing Machine by NPR’s Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld as a book that got across its message—the way media spreads knowledge—in a very effective way.

Short sees many ramifications of his study’s findings, including the use of his specific works with less bias. But beyond that, “It holds a lot of implications for how we convey information to people. I can see it used for HR training. The more graphic format may resonate with people more in terms of what they should and shouldn’t do.”

While it remains to be seen what specific discussions the OU study spark, on a practical level many are moving forward. Short himself is doing a MOOC (massive online open course) on business management using his graphic novel text books. It starts June 10th and is open to all.

Elder’s first Graphic Textbook—a supplemental reader for grades 3-6, with subject matter drawn from the list of Common Core Standards accompanied by an extensive Teacher’s Edition—will be out later this year, and he expects it to do very well. His ornaginzation is also planning a large research project. “Prof. Rapp will also be heading up a research team (including Dr. Bucky Carter and Dr. Katie Monnin) to oversee a study tied to The Graphic Textbook. It will cover a lot of the same ground as the OSU study—comparing retention rates, comprehension rates, etc.—but on a much larger scale. Our goal is to have a test sample consisting of tens of thousands of students nationwide across multiple grades and content areas.”

As for McCloud, he’s even more inspired—and how verbal/visual communication works may very well be the subject of his next book, following his massive fictional graphic novel for First Second, which has the working title of The Sculptor and no set release date. But “visual communication is the thing I’m most excited about but other than finishing my graphic novels which has consumed me for years,” he says. “The ways in which visual communication in all the disciplines seems to be knocking on a lot of the same doors. I want to see if I can distill some of those fundamental principles in all that.”