Traditional Textbooks Are Boring!

I can count on one hand the number of textbooks that I made it all of the way through in my undergraduate studies. Actually, scratch that. You don’t need hands to count that high – I’m not sure I made it all the way through any of them. And I was a motivated student who eventually became an academic.

If my undergraduate self could not sustain enough motivation to struggle through business textbooks, that doesn’t bode well for the average student. Indeed, this plays out in my experience, I often find that a good number of students routinely don’t read the textbook. But really, is it that surprising? Does reading a text-and-pictures traditional textbook sound like fun to you?

“The graphic novel format is a powerful, yet underutilized, tool for business and professional communication.”

At the same time, we need our students to come to class prepared. Whatever preparatory materials we assign needs to provide a foundation of knowledge that we can build from in class. We know that traditional textbooks do that. Do we dare deviate from what we know works?

Graphic Novels in Business Education

In our 2013 article Graphic Presentation: An Empirical Examination of the Graphic Novel Approach to Communicate Business Concepts, Jeremy Short, Brandon Randolph-Seng, and I explore whether graphic novels might provide a viable alternative to boring text-and-pictures textbooks. Graphic novels are book-length narratives that tell their story through sequential art (Eisner, 2008). While the uninitiated sometimes associate graphic novels with the Sunday comic strips, graphic novels are routinely used to convey serious material. For instance, Art Spiegelman used the graphic novel format in Maus, a story about the Holocaust presented through the eyes of mice. Similarly, Jacobson and Colón created a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Commission report.

To ascertain whether the graphic novel format may be a viable alternative, in our paper we compared the motivational and learning outcomes of students exposed to material in a traditional textbook versus graphic novel format. Students overwhelmingly (82%) preferred the graphic novel format to traditional textbooks. In terms of performance, students exposed to course contents in graphic novel format performed better at verbatim recognition tasks. Students exposed to graphic novel materials scored slightly lower on recall and transfer tasks; however, this difference was not statistically significant.

Together these findings paint an important picture regarding the potential role of graphic novels in business education. I would argue that recall and transfer is likely more important in business education than verbatim recognition. That is, I would rather my students be able to apply the concepts they learn than to articulate exactly how the materials were presented in the text. So while graphic novels may outperform on verbatim recognition, where it matters more (recall and transfer) there does not seem to be a significant advantage. However, the real story to me is in the motivation. With students indicating a strong preference for the graphic novel format, perhaps we can get more students to actually read the course materials. If so, it doesn’t matter that the learning outcomes do not differ significantly between the two formats. If a student isn’t opening the textbook to read it, it doesn’t matter how good the educational content is… they’re not getting exposed to it.

I applaud academia’s push toward open-source textbooks and electronic delivery. These innovations are valuable, and whatever we can do to reduce the cost of education to our students without sacrificing quality is worth exploring. However, we do ourselves a disservice by not taking the next step to evaluate whether the current format is the most effective way of presenting the material as well. It may be time to take alternative formats more seriously, and graphic novels seem worth exploring further.