Are you frustrated that your students aren't understanding or retaining what you teach?

A frustrated teacher says,

Well, maybe you should improve your lessons with learning theory!

A man holding a light bulb points to his head as if to say,

Start with dual-coding theory to design lessons that enhance cognitive processing.

What is dual-coding theory?

In 1971, Allan Paivio hypothesized that visual and verbal associations are the two ways we process information.

An ear listening

An eye

Since sight can not be used to learn the sound of a word and hearing cannot be used to form a mental image, it became evident that these are separate channels.

The dual-coding process

Paivio theorized that by processing both the verbal and visual associations simultaneously, the information is more likely to be understood and retained.

Diagram breaking down the dual-coding process. A text description is available below Image Source: Dkahng. Wikimedia Commons

  1. Pictures are stimuli that are sensed by our ears and processed non-verbally.

  2. Words are stimuli that are sensed by our ears and processed verbally.

  3. The two stimuli enter the working memory, which has a limited capacity for processing.

  4. Connections are made between the pictures and the words, and then their integration is moved into the long-term memory as knowledge.

Where's the evidence?

Many researchers agree that only images and words, when heard, form mental representations. The other senses (taste, smell, touch) can't be recalled mentally.

Additionally, evidence shows that combining verbal and visual information can mutually reinforce each other, facilitating better retention in memory. For example, a language instructor points at an item while saying the item.

A teacher points to his eyes and says,

Finally, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and event-related potentials (ERPs) to identify separate brain regions involved in visual perception and imagery.

Studies using positron emission tomography (PET) scans and fMRI revealed improved memory for spoken words when paired with images, along with increased brain activity for processing abstract words (e.g., freedom, humor, grace).

A doctor is talking to a woman entering an MRI machine. Photo by Accuray on Unsplash

How can I apply it?

Here are some ideas to enhance your lesson plans using dual-coding theory:

  • Complement verbal explanations with visuals such as diagrams, charts, graphs, and illustrations. For example, while explaining data, show a visual that emphasizes the story being told from the data.

A pie chart shows that all crazy things happen in Florida.

  • Use multimedia resources such as videos, animations, and interactive games and simulations to provide visual and verbal explanations of concepts. Think "show and tell" instead of just telling.

  • Pair spoken explanations with corresponding images or visual cues. Imagine that the dude in the picture below is an English teacher speaking to students.

The Dos Equis Man sits at a table with a  bottle of beer. He says,

  • Provide opportunities for hands-on activities, experiments, or demonstrations that allow students to interact with and visualize abstract concepts. Don't just tell students that a chemical reaction will happen. Have them do an experiment that shows it happening!

Scientists in hazmat suits pour a pink substance into a large vat. The substances pours out like a volcano.

  • Use mnemonic devices, such as acronyms, to help students remember information more effectively. Think PEMDAS.

A man doesn't like a long explanation of the order of operations. He prefers PEMDAS.

Let's practice applying it!

Which of these activities are effective applications of dual-coding theory?

Classroom with empty board

  1. A language teacher has students repeat new vocabulary words as she says them. The teacher doesn't show any accompanying images to show what the words mean.

Classroom with words on the board

  1. The teacher writes the words on the board, says the words, and has the students repeat the words.

A person performing CPR

  1. An instructor pretends to perform CPR on a student while explaining what they're doing and why they're doing it.

Flaticon Icon

  1. The teacher presents an infographic that includes pictures and a graph while the teacher explains the topic in detail.


Select all the activities that demonstrate effective applications of dual-coding theory:

Take Action

Now your students will more easily process your lessons and better retain information.

A dog teacher points at a chalf board that shows the solar system.


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