Dual coding: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Dual coding in the classroom: A teacher's guide for taking theory into practice.

What is Dual Coding?

The process of providing students with verbal and visual materials at the same time is called Dual Coding. Cognitive Psychologists have identified the six most effective learning strategies for improving long-term memory and dual coding is one of those strategies. Learning materials can be visually represented in many ways such as graphic organisers, flow charts, diagrams, cartoon strips, editable timeline and infographics. Having the same information in both formats - visual images and words - offers two ways to remember the information. This domain of research has received a lot of interest as a learning technique. With the rise of evidence-informed education, teachers are beginning to drop outdated ideas like learning styles. Institutions like the education endowment foundation are providing accessible resources that have been shown to improve student learning. Dual coding offers an opportunity for teachers to confidently advance their classroom practice.

How can teachers use Dual Coding?
How can teachers use Dual Coding?

History of Dual-Coding Theory

Allan Paivio (1971), proposed that individuals process visual and verbal information individually and at the same time. This theory is called ‘dual coding’. This is a human cognition theory, which claims that combining both verbal material and visuals is a useful learning technique.

According to the Dual-Coding Theory, if a teacher will share visual and verbal explanations simultaneously, the students are more likely to process the knowledge and retain knowledge more effectively.

The educational phenomena of Dual coding are based on scientific evidence. It is different from learning styles, which deals with students deciding how they believe they learn best. Dual coding primarily relates to how the brain processes information.

The Working Memory Model of Alan Baddeley also supports the concept of complementary audio and visual processing routes inside the brain to benefit detailed memories.


Using Dual Coding in the Classroom

When an instructor is using the most effective learning strategies for dual coding, students can understand and remember the details later on. Even it might help to draw something on the classroom board alongside the explanations.

Following are some of the things students must do:

  • Firstly, students must be encouraged to find some visuals in their course material and they must assess how the words are narrating what’s in the pictures. Then they need to do the other way around and assess how these pictures represent the text.
  • Next, the students must describe what they mean in their words.
  • Finally, the teacher would ask students to consider those words and draw an image based on such words. Information can be represented in different ways.

Dual coded lesson plans
Dual coded lesson plans

How should we embed Dual Coding?

When students are looking over their class materials, they must find pictures that complement the information and correlate the pictures to the words. Students need to check, how these words explain what is present in the pictures? How do the representative images depict what is given in the text?

There are specific kinds of visuals, that go very well with specific kinds of materials. For instance,  a diagram may help very well with concepts of biology and a timeline may do very well to remember history. The students must show creativity while drawing the visual materials. They do not have to reproduce the same visuals they have seen in their class materials. However, the representative images must depict what they saw in words in their class materials.

After using the dual coding, the students need to do the following:

After comparing words with the visual, the students must explain the concept they are trying to learn. This is the time to retrieve the details on their own. Students must continue to practice until they reach a point where they can put away their class material and write their class material in words and draw visuals, representative images and other graphics according to the class material.

Graphic organisers for dual coding
Graphic organisers for dual coding

Role of Technology in Dual Coding

The effectiveness of digital technology can help the production and distribution of audio and visual resources. Therefore, interactive lessons and technology tools can significantly improve and enhance dual coding activities in many ways:

  • It is quick and easy to allocate scaffolds and templates to students
  • There are many apps, that help students to record or play audio and video explanations.
  • Technology tools can be used for remote learning, asynchronously or synchronously.
  • It may become very cost-effective to use technology tools across several groups/multiple classes.
  • It saves significant amounts of time when students annotate or fill blank charts and diagrams, rather than drawing representative images on paper.

Design dual coded resources
Dual coding using diagrams

Significance of Using Dual Coding in the Classroom

Cognitive Psychologists Clark & Paivio (1991) state that it is a common practice to teach students through discussion or asking them to read text. However, adding visual materials can make the information even clearer.

For instance, if a teacher says the word ‘tree’ to the students. When the students will hear the word, they will also create a mental image of what a tree looks like. Both word and visual images can be used to remember the information stored in the brain.

Cognitive Phenomena explain that a teacher's students try to remember everything said by the teacher in the classroom. However, our brains are created to only hold a small fraction of knowledge at one time. A lot of information delivered verbally is immediately forgotten. Dual coding enables students to remember a large amount of information. Following are some of the dual coding examples that can be used to teach students:

  • Diagrams
  • Icons and symbols
  • Graphic organisers
  • Sketch noting
  • Posters
  • Timelines
  • Cartoon strips
  • Infographics
  • Graphs and tables of information


Getting Started with Dual Coding

Many effective teachers are already using dual coding in their classrooms. For instance, while teaching history many teachers create history timelines to help students remember important dates.

Also, an English Teacher must look at the lesson plan and decisions about the key concept for the next class. It is always better to simplify the topic as much as possible.

Teachers need to select a visual representation supporting a particular concept. They must remove any unwanted background distractions and give students time to look at the visuals before starting to speak.

Putting dual coding into the hands of students
Putting dual coding into the hands of your students

How to create a Perfect Visual Representation?

One may paste an image on a PowerPoint slide and call it dual coding. In reality, it is not dual coding.

For Dual coding, the visual representations must be meaningful and must directly associate with the verbal material.

Photographs and videos are considered to be less effective in dual coding, as they hold too much background detail. According to the theories of Cognitive Science, these might make students overwhelmed. For dual coding, visual images should be very clear with little background information.

Dual coding diagram by Oliver Caviglioli
Dual coding diagram by Oliver Caviglioli

To be perfect for dual coding, visual images must be:

  • Easy to understand;
  • Directly connected to the verbal material;
  • Surrounded with white space;
  • more meaningful.
  • With simple pattern and colours;

Students must not worry about their artistic skills. Dual coding with teachers is more about illustrating information clearly, not artistically. Teachers are suggested to encourage students to create and compare their visual representations with other students' representations. Extraordinary differences between the written text and the visual representations will put a mental workload on the students. It must be avoided to

  • Use a different key with graphs
  • Put visual materials and text on separate pages.
  • Share a large number of different visuals (it is better to use just one visual at a time).

Allan Paivio's dual-coding theory
Allan Paivio's dual-coding theory


Final thoughts on dual coding

Dual coding is not a new phenomenon. It has a huge impact on students' performance in memory, in associative processes, autophagy processes, linguistic processes, cognitive tasks, naming task and description task.

If it is applied properly, dual coding will improve students’ retention of information and decreases the cognitive load while learning new concepts. If facilitated strategically, it won't add to the teacher workload, if anything it might reduce it. Secondary school teachers are seeing the benefit as well. The pedagogy provides an accessible way into even the most complex of curriculum content. Using visuals alongside a well-crafted teacher exclamation means that students have a greater chance of grasping the underlying concept.

It may take some time to find or create the perfect visuals, but you will be amazed to see its impact. Use dual coding and take benefit from its application in learning. If you are interested in exploring a new theory of cognition, make sure you explore the universal thinking framework's webpage