Dual Coding and Learning Styles
By Megan Sumeracki
Dual coding and learning styles sound similar, but are not quite the same thing. While dual coding has scientific evidence backing its use, learning styles has been repeatedly tested and shown not to improve learning.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post (see here), I have been working with a team of learning scientists and teachers throughout the country to apply key evidence-based learning strategies in the classroom. Along with two high school teachers from Memphis Tennessee teaching Biology and English, we have been implementing dual coding.
Dual coding is combining words and visuals such as pictures, diagrams, graphic organizers, and so on. The idea is to provide two different representations of the information, both visual and verbal, to help students understand the information better. Adding visuals to a verbal description can make the presented ideas more concrete, and provides two ways of understanding the presented ideas. Dual coding is about more than just adding pictures. Instead, the visuals should be meaningful, and students should have enough time to integrate the two representations (otherwise, cognitive overload could occur, see this blog). There is scientific evidence backing dual coding, showing that when we combine representations it is easier for students to learn and understand the material.
At this point, the discussion of visual and verbal information likely has at least a few readers thinking, “huh, this sounds like learning styles.” Surveys show that most teachers and those outside of education are familiar with learning styles. In a survey of average Americans, Yana Weinstein and I found that 93% of participants believed in learning styles (1). Surveys of other groups have shown 93% of UK primary and secondary school teachers (2), and 86% of college students believe in learning styles (3). All of this is to say, if you’re thinking about learning styles you’re probably not alone! Unfortunately, scientific research does not support the use of learning styles, and that is not for lack of testing the theory (4)!
Learning styles is the idea that individual people have a specific way or style of learning that best suits them. The most popular styles are verbal, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, though other styles have been suggested. Importantly, according to learning styles, learning instruction must be matched to an individual’s style in order to maximize learning. Yet, time and again, research shows that matching type of instruction to students’ styles does not improve learning.
What’s wrong with learning styles?
Personally, I can completely understand why the idea of learning styles is so popular. It embraces the idea that we as individuals are different from one another, and it allows us to consider our own preferences. Certainly, we all have ways that we prefer to learn; I really enjoy listening and reading, but that does not mean my peers enjoy the same things. People are different; but, the problem is that catering to preference does not help students learn (and can even hurt their mindset about what they can achieve).
Instead, certain topics tend to have “styles” of their own. Even if a student prefers verbal learning, imagine trying to learn how to ride a bike with a book? Or having a surgeon who learned how to perform procedures entirely from a book? These types of things inherently need kinesthetic components during learning. Similarly, it would be more difficult to learn about human anatomy without any sort of visual diagram, and only a verbal description. In a literature class, verbal material is necessary. What seems to be more important for learning is considering what representations, verbal, visual, kinesthetic etc., best match the topic being learned, instead of forcing content to match each student’s style or preference.
It is important to acknowledge that while learning styles suggests that we diagnose individual students and only present material to students in their specific style, this is not typically how instruction via learning styles plays out in real classrooms. Instead, teachers tend to present the material in a bunch of different styles to the whole class. This approach starts to look like dual coding – combining representations – rather than learning styles. This is a good step, but I would argue that this practice of using learning styles is still problematic. In this scenario, students are still under the impression that they have a specific style, and certain representations are “for them” while other representations are “for others.” When students believe that they can only learn in a certain way, they may then reject topic areas that do not conform as much to their own style. The student who believes they are a kinesthetic learner might then say they “can’t do” math or literature because they “only learn by physically doing”. This belief is likely to restrict students, and could foster a fixed mindset. (To read more about this, check out this Psychology Today article.)
A better, evidence-based approach
Staying away from learning styles speak with students and embracing dual coding will avoid these problems, and is backed by science. With dual coding, teachers can combine various representations for the students and explain that having these different modalities helps them learn. Specifically encouraging students to integrate the representations, and going slow enough to make sure they are able to understand both representations and how they fit together helps. For the surgeon, there will definitely be a lot of learning by doing (kinesthetic) and also auditory feedback during practice, along with visual diagrams and verbal descriptions during study. The combination of these modalities is important for learning and we should encourage students to embrace the various modalities as all contributing to learning.
At the high school in Memphis, I worked with the teachers to help integrate dual coding in the classroom. As you might imagine, the Biology teacher was already utilizing visuals and verbal material; Biology tends to be quite visual and those visuals do not make sense to novices without verbal labels and a verbal explanation to go with them. For this teacher, learning about dual coding meant having the scientific evidence to back up what she was already doing. Throughout the last year, she also talked a lot about utilizing dual coding more intentionally; knowing that the two representations should go hand in hand, and that the students should integrate these representations helped her to fine-tune her use of them.
For the English teacher, Mrs. Lauren Mueller, using dual coding seemed more complicated at the beginning. We certainly did not want to just add pictures for the sake of adding them, as that would not help learning and could even hurt it by producing cognitive overload. The English teacher had previously used graphic organizers to help the students plan their writing. We were able to talk about the graphic organizers serving as a visual representation of an essay. This teacher began using graphic organizers more, and emphasizing the structure of the organizers. She was able to scaffold the use of the organizers with the students, first providing full structure and then beginning to take away some of the structure and ask the students to produce it on their own. The goal was to help the students get to a point where they could produce the structure themselves and then use it to write their essay. For this teacher, thinking beyond just pictures and getting creative with visual representations was key.
The feedback from the teachers has been positive, and the result of the project will be a video talking more about what dual coding is, and showing how it can be utilized in live classrooms with insights from the teachers and me! Stay tuned.
To read more about learning styles check out this blog by Carolina Keupper-Tetzel. You can also check out a piece about Learning Styles from The Learning Agency, with quotes from the teachers from Memphis and myself. To read about how to study using dual coding, check out this blog.
(1) Smith, M. A., & Weinstein, Y. (2017). Intuition can be the enemy of instruction: How science can help. Talk presented at ResearchED, Rugby, England.
(2) Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Joles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 429.
(3) Nunes, L. D., Sumeracki, M. A., & Karpicke, J. D. (in prep). Learning strategies and preferences: What do students do when they study.
(4) Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.