Be Your Own Teacher: How To Study With Pictures

Be Your Own Teacher: How To Study With Pictures

By: Rachel Adragna

Hey! Let's play a little game. Read the two sentences below:

A. Lar gibbons have white fur around the perimeter of their faces.

B. Mandrills have blue, red, and yellow coloring on their faces.

Both of these statements are of similar detail and importance. However, if this was your first encounter with the color of these primates, there is a better chance of you remembering one of these bits of information over the other. Can you guess which one?

It is the second one, about the mandrill's coloring. This is due to a process called dual coding. Dual coding refers to the idea that we create separate memory traces for pictures and words (1). In the case of the mandrill above, not only did you read sentence B, but you were also exposed to an image of its meaning. This creates an additional mental pathway to the information, helping you remember it later. In addition to reading the words and understanding their meaning, seeing a photo of the idea is an additional cue to the target information.

The addition of an image to text can strengthen your memory of the to-be-learned material (2). Using this knowledge, we can deliberately increase the chance that we will remember a piece of information by practicing dual coding while we learn. This works as an effective study method: in one study, students who saw images while learning concepts performed better on memory and problem-solving tasks than those who did not see the images (3). On top of this well-established research, a paper just came out demonstrating that drawing in particular could help students remember more information (4). How can we make this useful?

Here are a few ways to use pictures to enhance your own studying: 

1. Pick any term or concept and draw it in as many different ways as you can on one piece of paper:

2. Practice retrieval* with images

  • Grab a stack of flash cards and write a terms or concepts on one side of each card.
  • Go through the stack and draw a picture or diagram that depicts that term or concept, on the other side of the card.
  • Practice testing yourself on the pictures and concepts, switching off by using both sides of the flash card as a cue to guess the concept/picture on the other side. Make sure to explain the concept/picture to yourself during this step to make sure you know how and why they are related.

*This technique is based on the idea that pulling information memory increases one's memory of that information (5). For more information on retrieval practice, check out our concept map on it here: Retrieval Practice Concept Map.

3. If the concepts you are learning are highly interrelated, make one picture that includes as many concepts as you can incorporate. They can interact with each other or overlap here and there; any visual image of the information will do! This is for your own benefit, not for a grade – so be creative and give it a try! 

You might also like:

Be Your Own Teacher: How To Study With Flashcards

Be Your Own Teacher: How To Study A Textbook


(1) Hartland, W., Biddle, C., & Fallacaro, M. (2008). Audiovisual facilitation of clinical knowledge: A paradigm for dispersed student education based on Paivio's dual coding theory. AANA Journal, 76(3), 194-198.

(2) Luzón, J. M., & Letón, E. (2015). Use of animated text to improve the learning of basic mathematics. Computers & Education, 88, 119-128

(3) Mayer, R. E., & Anderson, R. B. (1992). The instructive animation: Helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 4, 444-452.

(4) Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2015). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69, 1-62.

(5) Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.