Teaching with Cartoons

Featured Instructors:

Mark Isham, A.B.D., adjunct lecturer of English and writing consultant at the College of Engineering

Rachel Williams, Ph.D., associate professor of education and art


Use cartooning to encourage deep learning


  • Helps students synthesize information
  • Helps students retain information
  • Engages students


Mark Isham and Rachel Williams describe how they ask students to cartoon as a means of encouraging synthesis, deep learning, and creative reflection. 


Teaching with Cartoons: Details & Examples

Practitioners and scholars have identified many potential benefits of cartooning in the classroom:  

  • Cartooning engages various cognitive domains identified by Bloom’s Taxonomy.
    • Bloom’s original Taxonomy and its revisions outline educational objectives, all of which can potentially be tapped through cartooning.  
  • Cartooning encourages students to concentrate on big ideas and to evaluate how certain details contribute to the broader picture.  
  • Making poetry into cartoons can lead to storyboarding, drafting, use of image, space, personification, tone, and the creation of multiple versions of the same story.
  • Longer storytelling using pictures and text leads thinking about narrative arcs, pace, characters, and effective sentences.
  • Cartoons may be organized in non-linear ways, highlighting the complexity of concepts.
  • Cartooning can appeal to students’ intrinsic motivation because they may be more fun for students to share and review.
  • Cartooning may help students retain information because it uses both words and pictures (dual coding theory).
  • Cartooning can help prepare students for certain kinds of work.  Engineering firms use images and pictures to storyboard proposals, telling a convincing story about the value of a project.  Scientific reports can use word and image to create a good story about possible solutions.
  • Students can use cartooning:
    • to record information, take notes, and reflect by defining steps in a process, putting information into context, and applying it to new uses.  
    • to document the visual history of a place;
    • to create a daily journal of new ideas and experiences;
    • to analyze or critique information;
    • to compose, telling stories and discovering attitudes and ideas; and
    • as a visual minute paper (potentially as an assessment of student understanding).

Teaching With Cartoons: Best Practices

Cartooning is appropriate for any discipline, from engineering to art to medicine to journalism.

Explain to students how cartooning will help them meet course objectives.

Reassure students that beautiful art is not the primary goal.  Stick figures can convey significant information.

Explain to students that new ideas will emerge as they sketch.

Help students to understand how visual assignments will be graded.  See Derek Bruff’’s blog post “A Crowdsourced Rubric for Evaluating Infographics” for suggestions.

Cartooning can be collaborative, which allows for the development of partnership and an opportunity to explore how change or unconscious elements might develop the story.  Schedule a “comics jam” in which students work together to create one complete comic.

  • Provide grid sheets for each student and give them five minutes to complete one panel before moving on.
  • If you like, add rules such as carrying over an image from the previous panel, using only one word in each panel, using no words at all, starting from the last panel, and more.

A simple online search for “Comic Template” will yield many sources for printable comics templates on which students can draw.

The practice of cartooning can involve little more than pen and paper, but many people enjoy cartooning on a tablet computer. Penultimate is one of many iPad apps popular for drawing.

Teaching With Cartoons: Bibliography & Related Content


Abel, J. & Madden, M. (2008) Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond. New York: First Second.

Barry, L. (2014) Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly.

Brown, S. (2014) The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently.  New York: Portfolio.  

Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. (2016) Comics, Creativity, and Culture. The University of Iowa. Retrieved from https://international.uiowa.edu/funding/faculty-funding-and-services/projects/major-projects/comics

McCloud, S. (2006) Making Comics: Story Telling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels. New York: Harper Collins.

Rohde, M. (2013) The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking. San Francisco, CA: Peachpit Press. 

Rohde, M. (2016) The Sketchnote Handbook & The Sketchnote Workbook Group. Flickr. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/groups/thesketchnotehandbook/

Trovillion, M. C. & Renard, H. E. (1917) Cartooning Grammar. The English Journal, 6(7): 472-73.

Williams, R. M. (2008) Image, Text, and Story: Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom. Art Education, 61(6): 13-19.

Related Content

A simple online search for “Comic Template” will yield many sources for printable comics templates on which students can draw. The practice of cartooning can involve little more than pen and paper, but many people enjoy cartooning on a tablet computer. Penultimate is one of many iPad apps popular for drawing.

Concept Maps: Learning Made Visible -- Help students think about meaning and connections among course concepts.

Obermann Center for Advanced Studies
​The University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies encourages innovation, cross-disciplinary and collaborative scholarship and teaching, and engagement with local and global communities.
The University of Iowa Writing Center
The University of Iowa Writing Center provides writing guidance for all members of the University of Iowa community. The Writing Center’s online resources include a collection of links to guides on citation.