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PHYSIOLOGY COMICS: POTENTIAL OF GRAPHIC NARRATIVE RESOURCES FOR THE TEACHING-LEARNING PROCESS IN HEALTH SCIENCES

Health sciences students, at the university level, face a difficult challenge when it comes to understand the basics of cell biology, biochemistry and physiology. These subjects include a very broad spectrum of abstract concepts that involve chemical reactions, molecular structures and interactions, and regulatory mechanisms. Part of this challenge is due to the intrinsic complexity of images used in most textbooks. To overcome such complexity, teaching of many subjects in health sciences degrees relies strongly in simplified diagrams, schemes and illustrations that require an effort of imagination and interpretation from the student. In this regard, implementation of a narrative dimension in the form of animated videos or infographics is nowadays becoming a very common resource. Likewise, implementing dynamic comic strips, which combine text and images, facilitates description of complex processes, and has shown to be a valuable tool to enhance comprehension of basic science concepts, mechanisms and public health-related issues.

As a visual language, graphic narratives represent an undeniably effective form of engagement and science communication which has a tremendous potential even for easily transmitting complex research advances of health issues. This graphic communication strategy applied to health sciences, an approach also known as ‘graphic medicine’, has gained popularity and provides a link between text, visual diagrams and storytelling that promotes public engagement and efficient mass dissemination. These materials and methodologies may be used as valuable resources either in face-to-face, hybrid or virtual teaching strategies, and easily adapted to any health science degree in which human physiology and cell biology bear a strong relevance, such as medicine or physiotherapy.

With this background, we have developed a series of graphic narrative-based activities during the course 2019-2020:
1) critical commentary of non-academic comic book materials to reinforce teaching of cellular physiology;
2) challenging the students to create their own comics to represent and explain critical physiological concepts.

The idea behind these two initiatives was twofold: to stimulate critical thinking and creativity to solve complex problems, and, to promote the teaching-learning process by making the students explain the concepts themselves, choosing the best metaphors and selecting critical details in order to explain complex molecular concepts.

Given the sudden outburst of the COVID19 pandemic, we combined initial face-to-face sessions with a fully-integrated virtual course within the moodle platform at the University of València to follow-up on their comic-based activities, to provide virtual lectures on the use of comics and graphic narrative to teach physiology, to compile external resources, and to gather feedback on the project’s impact. Finally, students were encouraged to participate in the “Physiology Comic Challenge 2020”, an initiative of the Department of Physiology at the University of Malaysia. Four final proposals, that we reproduce in this communication, were created by our students with this aim.

Altogether, these activities suggest that there is a strong potential for comic-supported teaching of physiology that can be approached by different methods, with positive effect on the motivation of students as the most obvious outcome, that could significantly improve the teaching-learning process in health sciences education.