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. 


Mark Isham, ABD

Visiting Professor, Department of English and Writing Consultant, College of Engineering

Rachel Williams, PhD

Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning and Art Education


Use cartooning to encourage deep learning.


0:00 – 0:10

[Mark Isham] You can’t bring out as much asking people to reflect by writing as you can by asking them to draw. Partly because we're so used to being asked for feedback in writing.

0:10 – 0:29

[Mark Isham] We're so used to using formulas – pet phrases that we’re rewarded to use in academia. And we're not very good at editing, partly because I don't think we can see it as clearly as we can in comics, that this has to go, and this needs to stay.

[Rachel Williams] I think that’s one of the other things that’s really nice about comics: is it is a wonderful sort of entry into drawing and writing.

0:29 – 1:00

[Rachel Williams] There's something that is reached in your brain when you draw it, that I think, you know, isn’t as easy to articulate through language in that way, sort of written and spoken language.

[Mark Isham] And they do complement one another. Not only are you writing for a person, a specific audience. But you’re thinking about what they'll do with the document.

[Rachel Williams] Right.

[Mark Isham] And because you’re thinking about what they’ll do with the document, you’re designing a document, you’re not just writing a document.

[Rachel Williams] It really does help people understand a story, in a way that just writing alone doesn't.

1:00 – 1:22

[Rachel Williams] I think there's also so much, you know, the whole saying of “a picture's worth a thousand words” is really true. You can be part of that story as sort of a voyeur. Or in some instances the narrator will address you personally, you know, which is it a completely different thing, as though you're sitting across from that person having a cup of coffee and they're telling the story to you, which is, you know, a very different feel when you're reading something.

1:22 – 1:52

[Mark Isham] And it really does help you be analytical and evaluative about yourself. I have certain cartoons about me saying foolish things in class. And then I have the students there with thought balloons, you know either “blah blah blah,” you know, or just “Zzzzs” for they’re falling asleep. Or they’re thinking, you know, “yeah, right.”

[Rachel Williams] Well that’s the other thing about comics is you can have the unsaid as well as the said.

1:52 – 2:43

[Mark Isham] They all said, as they usually do, “I can't draw.” And once I got them drawing, it just opened up all kinds of things for them. They became very fluent in talking about themselves. And they learned the things you want them to know about writing. Which partly is writing concise documents. To use a lot of visual cues in the documents. The importance of white space. I had some of my freshman, in my freshman seminar say “I learned the importance of silence.” You know the pause, so that you can then have a gap in between the next thing that happens. And then you learn pacing.

[Rachel Williams] Oh absolutely! Time, this is something we haven't even talked about. You have to be very precise in how you do it, and so when you have a comic and you limit people and you say, “six panels one-page,” you know, that's a real tight structure to work within.

2:43 – 3:28

[Mark Isham] Part of this is helping to accommodate different learners. We realize some people are verbal, and I don’t mean to cut that off. But they're also visual, and then they're also collaborative, and they're also aural and the thing is that we’re widening all that.

[Rachel Williams] You know the other thing is comics in the classroom are really great for reaching students who English is not their first language, because they can still follow what's going on. I think drawing causes you also to slow down, and really get to know the subject that you’re drawing. Two stick figures communicate just as well as two photographic portraits.

[Mark Isham] And it’s not a gimmick that we’re talking about; it’s the fact that every document should say “I'm talking to you.” It's really about human interaction and that's really the kind of writing I’m interested in, and that's why I’m interested in cartoons.