Study Strategy: Dual Coding

When you think back to your own learning and studying patterns in school, what jumps to mind? Is it the lengthy paragraphs in your subject textbook or is it your own handwritten notes, images and visual cues? Maybe it’s the teacher talking, telling a story, and engaging your emotions or perhaps more a mix of some or all of the above formats.

When we were at school much less thought was put into the impact of multiple delivery formats on student engagement and motivation, and perhaps even less time was targeted at what the evidence said about what helps make information ‘stick’.

The Science Bit

According to the Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, the Dual Coding theory of cognition was proposed first by Allan Paivio in 1971 in order to explain the significant effects of imagery on recall.

The core concept of Dual coding is quite simple – the “human mind operates with two distinct classes of mental representation (or “codes”), verbal representations and mental images, and … human memory thus comprises two functionally independent (although interacting) systems or stores, verbal memory and image memory.” Imagery aids the recall of verbal material because when a word evokes a related image (either spontaneously, or through deliberate effort), two separate but linked memory traces are laid down, one in each of the two memory stores. The chances of retention and retrieval are much greater when stored in two (rather than one) distinct functional locations.


The Practical Application

Put simply, Dual Coding is the process of combining visual and verbal material. By using both formats your memory has a much better chance of retaining information. Why? Because information is processed through two separate but linked channels.

Most of us have undoubtedly used ‘dual coding’ when we were studying but didn’t necessarily have the scientific name for it. More than likely we did so based on an intuitive hunch of what might work! What’s exciting in the present day (and particularly so for students) is that there is now concrete evidence from cognitive psychology that, if used correctly, the technique is highly effective for studying.

In practical terms, students might decide to use a range of visual formats for the purpose of studying e.g. sketchnotes, mind maps, infographics, diagrams, photos or even videos. The format might also vary depending on the subject. Diagrams, for example, might work best for biology or geography and sketchnotes for history.

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A Picture Speaks 1,000 Words: Sketchnotes

Sketchnoting is becoming increasingly popular with students. Sketchnotes are essentially visual summaries of text that include both handwritten notes and drawings/images. If we really think about it, the whole point of notetaking is to capture ideas for future reference. Unsurprisingly then, combining graphics and words during note-taking will make the information more memorable. Added to this is emerging evidence that sketchnotes make notes more interesting and may help engage students more thoroughly with the material.

A short word of caution on dual coding however. Keep it simple, keep all images relevant (otherwise they become a distraction), study in small manageable chunks and avoid using too many formats for the one concept. You want to avoid cognitive overload (having too much information to process). Tune in to future blogs for more on cognitive overload and other learning concepts.

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.