Over the past few decades, cognitive psychologists have found evidence for the following 6 strategies for effective learning:
Today, in our last of the 6 learning strategy podcasts, we are talking about dual coding, which involves combining words and pictures while learning. Dual coding can help learning in the following ways:
1) Adding images to verbal explanations can make ideas more concrete
It is easier for us to remember concrete information than abstract information (1). (You can listen to the Concrete Examples episode for more than this.) It is harder to visually depict abstract concepts, so by engaging in the process of expressing an idea in a picture, you are effectively making it more concrete.
2) Images can provide additional cues at retrieval
According to the original dual coding theory, the combination of words with visuals provides us with two different channels for later recall (2). Another way to think about this is that we are adding another retrieval cue by representing the information as a picture in addition to words. For example, a student could forget the verbal description of a process, but still remember a diagram and reconstruct their understanding of the process on the exam from their memory of that picture.
The difference between Learning Styles and Dual Coding
Learning Styles is the idea that each individual has a "style" of learning, such as auditory, kinesthetic, etc., and that it is a good idea to identify that style for each student and teach them accordingly (the "matching hypothesis) (3). However, there is very little evidence that this hypothesis plays out. Instead, we all learn best when we combine these formats. Of course, students do have preferences! But, that does not mean that students will perform better when they study in their preferred style. On the other hand, certain information certainly lends itself better to one presentation style than another. Instead of focusing on which student requires which type of format, we should be focusing on providing all students with multiple relevant representations of the information they are trying to learn.
Too much of a good thing?
It is important not to overdo it by including numerous pictures, as they may distract from learning instead of enhancing it. This is particularly an issue when pictures are not relevant to the information being learned, and are just included for decoration.
At this point, images can become distracting "seductive details" (4). See this post for more on the pitfalls of overusing dual coding.
We end the episode by highlighting some ways that teachers and students can combine words with visuals during learning.
The Learning Scientists Podcast is funded by The Wellcome Trust.
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(1) Gorman, A. M. (1961). Recognition memory for nouns as a function of abstractedness and frequency. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61, 23–39.
(2) Paivio, A., & Csapo, K. (1973). Picture superiority in free recall: Imagery or dual coding? Cognitive Psychology, 5, 176–206.
(3) Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.
(4) Harp, S. F., & Mayer, R. E. (1998). How seductive details do their damage. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 414–434.