Dual Coding in the Classroom

Let me begin by saying that dual coding, or at least my initial understanding of this learning strategy, is completely foreign to me.  I am the antithesis of creative.  While others were playing with action figures and creating distant galaxies to be conquered in their mind, I was outside playing some sport.  Add to this my horrible drawing skills.  Today, after living 33 years on this planet, I still am unable to write on my board in a manner allowing all students comprehension.  My 5 year old son, Eli, has mastered the art of drawing people, rockets, and dinosaurs; I’d settle for being able to draw a really cool stick person. 

Best rocket ever drawn by a 5 year old 🙂

Eli Rocket.JPG

All-in-all, I don’t fancy myself a learner ready to dive into dual coding as my go-to learning strategy.  However, I certainly know that we’re not all the same learner.  While not advocating for the myth of learning styles, I notice my students have preferred methods of studying and want to provide an outlet for those who enjoy and have positive interaction with creating images that can help explain and describe terms and concepts.

This is where https://teachinghow2s.com, http://www.learningscientists.org, and Oliver Caviglioli (@olivercavigliol) enter.  Through twitter and the above websites, I became somewhat more familiar with dual coding, sketchbook, and Mr. Caviglioli’s work. I soon found out that my assumptions about dual coding were quite incorrect.  Mr. Caviglioli graciously answered any and all questions I had about dual coding and even offered praise and constructive criticism for some of my student’s work.

Here’s a brief summary of what I’ve learned to be true of dual coding from Mr. Caviglioli:

-Alan Paivio, in the 1970s, had a theory that the verbal and visual channels work separately and simultaneously.  He tested his theory for decades and it has held, for the most part.  This research led to the dual coding as a learning strategy.

-Dual coding is not about drawing; it is about the spatial qualities of the notes that allow meaning to be created.  The arrangement and organization of the text and accompanying images create the meaning, not the depth and intricacies of the drawing.

-There are a few dangers with dual coding:

  • Be careful with the use of photographs.  This can create too much background detail that can obscure the main points.  Make sure the main point is evident as students can focus on the wrong material.
  • Do not use decorative images, like clipart, that can divert away from the main points.
  • Try not to use videos.  Like the use of photographs, this can create too much information that can distract students from the main points. 

This information certainly changed my opinion of my own ability with dual coding.  Shifting from the belief that the most important aspect of dual coding is the drawing/image to knowing it is much more about the organization of the information on the paper was quite the eye opener.  I can only imagine what this new information and understanding could do for my students who were also apprehensive about their drawing ability.

Application in the Classroom

At the beginning of this term, I made a conscious effort to focus much more with my students on learning strategies, while also covering the course material.  I began by focusing on retrieval practice and dual coding.  (Here is a prior post on retrieval practice.)  After an initial introduction into dual coding, I began with my lessons not really thinking too much about it.  Even after the first day, I was blown away by what my students were creating and how dual coding ‘spoke’ to some of them.  


With some of my students, there was a real shift from compliance in the classroom to actual interaction and a greater interest in the material.  This translated to better questions being asked in class, better classroom discussions, and higher assessment scores.  I know, for myself, this is what I’m looking for as their teacher…not necessarily the higher test grade, but the increased ability to individually interact with material and control their own learning.  As I’ve written about before (Are Our Teaching Methods Hindering Our Learners?), I believe most of my AP students are great memorizers,  but not so great at actually studying and practicing on their own.  Learning strategies, such as retrieval practice and dual coding, give them the tools to do so and lessen the shock as they transition from high school to college.  They’re researched and proven to increase cognition and retention of material.  Usually, this equals higher grades which equals happier students which equals students more likely to study which equals higher grades which equals happier students which equals students more likely to study…you get the point.


23 thoughts on “Dual Coding in the Classroom

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  1. Great post. You wrote…

    ” Dual coding is not about drawing; it is about the spatial qualities of the notes that allow meaning to be created. The arrangement and organization of the text and accompanying images create the meaning, not the depth and intricacies of the drawing ”

    I’m going to try and illustrate this and build on Oliver’s work.

    For 15 years we ( @olivercavigliol and @imjharris ) worked with teachers in schools looking at their use of Graphic Organisers aka Visual Tools, Knowledge maps. When working with teachers in their classrooms we noticed variations in terms of their behaviours when explaining or discussing subject knowledge with their students. Pretty much all the teachers were subject knowledge experts knowledge and as far as I could tell were able to engage their students in questioning / discussion. (I realise any judgement I have as to the effectiveness of this is purely subjective)

    Here’s the behaviour I want to focus on.

    X% of teachers did not capture the essence of the content of their discussions (on a board, or flip chart). They relied purely on linear speech (either one-way for explanation or two-way for discussion) for the communication.

    Y% captured the essence of the content on a board or flip chart — effectively using a space as a class memory system (a cognitive prosthetic if you like) Of the y% of teachers using a cognitive prosthetic a smaller % used the prosthetic to further interact with students in order to clarify / summarise the content. And of this % (!) a % posed the Q “how can we best organise this?”


    P% of students in the classes without the prosthetic succeeded in independent practice.

    Y% of students taught in classes where a prosthetics was present succeeded.

    So what? Before I go on I need to state that I know there is an opportunity cost to creating cognitive prosthetics in the classroom. The p% referenced above illustrates this. Indeed I would go so far as to argue that for those students from language rich backgrounds, those that grow up practiced in the use of grammar and visual metaphors to communicate and gauge meaning, the use of prosthetics is indeed unnecessary. However let me tell you a story…

    A class of 11 year olds are working with their teacher as she gathers ideas. The teacher is clarifying and summarising them with the class before adding them to the board. They are about to do a piece of independent writing. The ideas on the board are all relevant to the task in hand and are there to help the students remember the discussion. No time has been spent asking or addressing the question “how best can we organise these ideas” (more on this later). The students start the task and after a few minutes my attention is drawn to a boy (lets call him Sid) who seems agitated. He’s shifting around in his seat as if he is uncomfortable. I watch more closely. He is looking at the boy next to him (lets call him Amir) who is occasionally glancing up at the board, presumably for a reminder or two, and writing fluently. Sid is also glancing up at the board but little if anything is going down on his piece of paper. Sid looks at Amir again, then Amir’s writing and then, again, at the board. This cycle continues until after a few moments he rips up his paper and runs from the classroom. Later the teacher tells me that when Sid had calmed down he’d tried to explain his behaviour by saying “I don’t know how Amir did that…”

    One more story. Alex now works for BMW. When he was 6 years old I taught him and his younger sister how to DOM — how to Dump their ideas, then Organise them, then Map them (no colour felt tips or images to be seen anywhere). 12 years on Al got 5 x straight A*s at “A” level. Out walking on the South Downs I ask Alex if DOM had helped him. Imagine my face when he said “Not a lot really”. He paused before adding “I only use it when things get difficult”.

    Alex for the most part didn’t need his teachers to show him how to organise his thoughts. But the Sids of this world do. Amir, unlike Sid, was able to take the ideas off the board and, in his head, organise them into hierarchies and sequences before spilling them out as linear text. Our gift as teachers is that we are pretty good at organising our thoughts. The problem as I see it is that we don’t really know how we do it. For the most part it’s automated. This gift allows us to explain things to students via a long string of words. But this long string of words does not reveal from whence these words came. These words do not come from our larynx but from our schema and we create our schema not by ‘having’ thoughts, but through ‘organising’, them. Sid’s teacher did not work with her students to organise them, not because she was a poor teacher, but because she didn’t know (that she didn’t know) this would help. It was a total blind spot. Hopefully, maybe, things have changed?

    Yes there is an opportunity cost to using cognitive prosthetics in the classroom – especially if we go beyond simply dumping ideas. My question is this — is the opportunity cost outweighed by the opportunity lost? Yes some (many? most?) students won’t need any prosthetic; at least not until things get tricky — remember Alex? But wouldn’t it be a good idea for teachers to know how to go beyond simply dumping ideas, using a few colours and images to create an visual and then calling it dual coding? I appreciate I’m on difficult ground here. From what I’ve gleaned from working with the Learning Scientists there is comparatively little evidence to go on as to what equates to ‘good’ dual coding.

    Much of what I see depicted as examples of dual coding remind me of what Sid’s teacher had up on the board. It was meaningful to her but not obviously so to her class. Next time you see someone putting forward an example of dual coding see if it makes sense to you. In other words is it, assuming you know the meaning of the individual elements, meaningful? Would this be a good rule of thumb to apply to examples of dual coding? If not, as Oliver will have explained, chances are it’s just a series of images. Dumped but not organised and certainly not mapped.

    1. Mr. Ian Harris,

      My name is Hannah, and I’m one of Harvard’s students. I have taken an interest in using dual coding in my note-taking techniques and I hav ea couple of questions about your comment, if you wouldn’t mind answering them.

      1) By using the word “hierarchy,” do you mean organizing the information so that the notes go from an overarching idea to increasingly more detailed ideas within the big-picture? (I hope that made sense)

      2) Is this also what you’re referring to when you wrote about how many teachers naturally organize their thoughts?

      3) What exactly is a cognitive prosthetic?

      Thank you!

      1. Hello Hannah,

        You asked…

        1) By using the word “hierarchy,” do you mean organizing the information so that the notes go from an overarching idea to increasingly more detailed ideas within the big-picture? (I hope that made sense)

        Yes exactly so

        2) Is this also what you’re referring to when you wrote about how many teachers naturally organize their thoughts?

        Yes and I should have been clearer. All humans make sense of the world by organising language into hierarchies.

        As young children we gradually move from knowing what a chair and table (concrete words) are to knowing that they are both items of furniture (abstract words). We can put furniture into any number of hierarchies — office , home , airport etc or bathroom , living room , kitchen etc.

        3) What exactly is a cognitive prosthetic?

        Apologies for using the term. Its a term coined by my colleague Oliver Caviglioli to collectively describe different tools we can use for thinking. Here’s a pinpoint that refers to some of them


        Visual representations don’t have to follow a set of rules. See Daniel Goleman’s diagram of his mental model on seeing a snake. https://extra.teachinghow2s.com/workspace/uploads/resources/pinpoint-mental-models_1.pdf?dl=1

        When teaching I’d weigh the opportunity cost of creating them against my perceived benefit of having them present. This pinpoint explains further https://extra.teachinghow2s.com/workspace/uploads/resources/pinpoint-four-learning-dynamics_1.pdf?dl=1

        Heres an pinpoint Oliver wrote that may also help. https://extra.teachinghow2s.com/workspace/uploads/resources/pinpoint-schemas-and-memory.pdf?dl=1

        Hope this helps. Please feel free to pose further questions. I am happy to help if I can.


  2. Mr. Ian Harris,

    Thank you for your reply. It definitely answered my questions and the links you included were very helpful!


  3. Excellent post, thanks! That example work looks stunning, what level do you work at? Secondary?
    How would you approach dual coding techniques at primary level?

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I teach in the U. S. Most of my students are 10th – 12th graders. This particular student’s notes are unbelievable. Her notes, every day, look like this. I almost want to take them, put them in a nice frame, and hang them around my classroom. I would assume, at the primary level, that the mental aspect of dual coding would be the same, but I would defer to Ian Harris and Oliver Caviglioli.

  4. I’m going to weigh in here if for no other reason than to test my own thinking on this topic. I freely admit the tenuous nature of all my beliefs stated herein.

    Because there’s been so much on Twitter lately, I’ve spent the last six days re-reading Sadoski and Paivio’s “Imagery and Text,” the book in which they explain Dual-Coding Theory at some length. I had first read it at least five or six years ago – it might have been the first book I ever read that had the word ‘cognitive” in it. I sort of understood some of it then, but I’ve read a lot more books and articles since then, and this time it seemed . . . surprisingly simple.

    Which is not to say it’s not important or profound.

    Dual-coding is, at least in part, a reaction to analytic philosophy, rationalism, and idealism. According to Lakoff and Johnson, in their book “Philosophy in the Flesh,” one of the tenets of analytic philosophy is that “to analyze language is to analyze thought.” (p.443) In other words, thought is the disembodied manipulation of symbols. In the introduction to their book, Sadoski and Paivio express agreement with Lakoff and Johnson that “all knowledge and reason are inherently embodied.” (p.17)

    So, stop a moment and think about how much we, as teachers, have tended to unconsciously assume that thought is linguistic. That an incomplete thought is a word or a phrase, a complete thought is a complete sentence, and “getting your thoughts together” means arranging words in your mind or on paper.

    What’s simple, and yet profound, about Dual-Coding Theory, then, is Sadoski and Paivio’s observation that we think not just in language, but also in images. It is well worth noting that by images, they didn’t just mean pictures – they meant the full spectrum of sensory input humans experience: vision, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and emotion.

    So, some information is stored in our brains as words, and some is stored as images. Because the two codes, verbal and non-verbal, are connected, activating information in one code can activate information in the other.

    In a chapter on the implications of Dual-Coding for education, they make no grandiose claims for their the effects use of their theory could have in the classroom. As I read it, their strongest claim is that we best understand and remember information that is concrete, and by concrete they mean imagery connected to our motor/perceptual/emotional neural circuitry. They do make a point of warning that the two codes can interfere with each other – that it’s difficult, and sometimes impossible, for both systems to process information simultaneously. That’s why you should let students process new a visual before you start talking at them (this seems to relate directly to Cognitive Load Theory, to state what may be obvious).

    On the other hand, the more abstract an idea is, the more difficult it is to understand and remember. Teachers will say, well, that’s obvious. My guess is Sadoski and Paivio might reply something like, “We didn’t say the it wasn’t obvious, we’re just telling you why that is. The more some piece of information relates to basic physical experience (that’s what makes something concrete, after all) the easier it is to understand.”

    In effect, we think with our visual/motor/auditory/haptic/gustatory/olfactory/emotional neural circuitry. The more immediately we can relate some new information to information already stored in those circuits, the quicker we’ll “get it” and the more likely we are to remember it.

    I think it’s really as simple as that. The organization of written notes is, by my reading of the book, beyond the scope of their theory. Yes, they point out a major difference between the two codes The verbal code is sequential – graphemes and phonemes have to be in a certain order to make sense, as do syllables, words, phrases, paragraphs, etc. The non-verbal system is non-sequential, so there is less constraint on how our brain retrieves and connects that information.

    Bottom line, DCT is saying, teachers, make things as concrete as you can. In my opinion, that’s where well-thought metaphor and analogy come into play in teaching.

  5. Just saw your re-share of this on Twitter, and came over to take a look. I like to think about dual coding within the bigger framework of “encoding variability” – the general premise that the more “routes in” the more likely it is that you can find a suitable cue when you try to retrieve it later. Something I know you’ll find interesting – when I teach about encoding variability in my cognitive classes I always bring up learning styles to say that when “LS” is followed it undermines encoding variability and actually hurts rather than helps. I then encourage students to think about meaningful ways to blend sensory-motor-semantic cues together.

    As I am thinking about all this, I am reminded of a post I wrote several years ago that is in the zone of encoding variability and why learning styles hurts students… a little removed from the dual-coding theme of your post here, but something I thought you might find intriguing, nonetheless: https://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/

  6. This is all quite new and interesting to me. My son is Dysgraphic. How can children with dysgraphia improve their learning? Taking notes is often impossible. Softwares for cognitive mapping are available but are not much help in the classroom for note taking. Any help on this? Thank you!

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