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6 common Dual Coding mistakes (and how to avoid them)

6 common Dual Coding mistakes (and how to avoid them)

5 min read
  • The science of learning

At InnerDrive, we’re aware of how exciting new and useful psychological theories and concepts can be. But we also know that in the rush to embrace new concepts, the subjects sometimes become confused and distorted, or the lack of understanding needed to use them effectively can cause some misuse. We’ve seen it happen with growth mindset, resilience, metacognition, and many more.

Dual coding is no exception. This is the process of blending both words and pictures while learning (for example: in a diagram or a flow chart) to enable students to learn and recall information better. While it sounds pretty simple, there are some common dual coding mistakes that people make, which can render a potentially brilliant technique pretty useless. So, we’ve taken the time to tell you about 6 of these common mistakes, to help you and your students get the true benefits out of dual coding.

6 common dual coding mistakes

Mistake #1: Not learning how to do it

One of the key mistakes many people make with dual coding is learning all about why and how dual coding works, and then thinking they’re set to go. For example, you might know that students who revise using both words and pictures together remember more and perform better than students who revise with just words (or words and pictures separately). You might also know that this is because revising with words and pictures gives two representations of the same information, which the brain can process simultaneously and form a connection between, cementing the information into long term memory. 

But, how do you actually know how to go about doing it? After all, “using both words and pictures together” is pretty vague. To learn more about how you or your students can actually use dual coding in practice, have a read of our blog on 5 different ways to use dual coding.

Mistake #2: Using only pictures you like

It’s all too tempting to draw or use only “pretty” images, or images that you like, when making resources with dual coding. Often, people focus on this, or using entertaining pictures, rather than choosing pictures that will aid learning the best.

The most important thing when finding or drawing images for teaching and learning is that the image has meaning. If it’s entertaining too, then great, but that shouldn’t be the priority. Pictures need to in some way represent the information students need to remember, otherwise it’ll be a waste of space on the page, and a waste of time.

Mistake #3: Spending too much time making it look pretty

One of the 6 common mind mapping mistakes is that students can spend way too long making a mind map, using elaborate colour schemes, and agonising over it being “perfect”.

The same goes for dual coding. We’re not saying that learning should be rushed, far from it. But making a dual coding resource is only the first step. After this, to gain the full advantage of dual coding, students need to study it, again and again, and this is where the bulk of their time should be spent. 

This is particularly true when hand drawing pictures and visuals for dual coding; students need to try and lose their sense of perfectionism. At the end of the day, we’re not all artists, and students shouldn’t spend ages on adding colours and highlighting. In fact, these are most effective when used sparingly, to emphasise only the most key concepts.

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Mistake #4: Overdoing it

Pictures and visuals are great for enhancing memory. But, just as too many words are detrimental to learning, so are too many pictures. Using too many pictures when doing dual coding will be overwhelming, and when students come to revise from the resource, they won’t know where to look.

With too many pictures, it’s also unlikely that all of them will be relevant to the topic at hand. Irrelevant images can clog up working memory and lead to cognitive overload, meaning students won’t be able to remember what’s actually important. For example, research suggests that adding visuals to text when they’re not needed, can reduce learning by 52%. 

So, when using dual coding, make sure your visuals complement and expand upon the written information, rather than be an explosion of images on the page. As with most things in life, it’s about getting a balance.

Mistake #5: Failing to organise it

Oliver Caviglioli, a particular expert in dual coding (who even wrote a whole book on it), suggests some key principles for when using dual coding. One of these is “align”, meaning that to ensure resources are easy to read, the words and pictures on them should be neatly ordered. This is because poorly organised information is much more difficult to remember.

So, when making resources with dual coding, you and your students should: 

  • Include visuals within a structured framework of information
  • Chunk information into meaningful groups
  • Organise these groups neatly.

This is much easier to achieve if you have avoided mistake #4, and not used too many pictures.

Mistake #6: Assuming that’s it

As mentioned in mistake #3, making a resource with pictures and words is only the first step. Beautiful resources that get lost under a pile of textbooks are a missed trick. After making or receiving a resource with pictures and words, there are a multitude of further things students can do to enhance their learning. They should re-study it, re-read and think deeply about the information, make memory connections, try to jot it down from memory, or even go on to make new resources from it, all of which make use of the Production Effect.

Final thoughts

Used effectively, dual coding can have some great advantages for student learning. If you and your students can develop practical strategies to use dual coding and avoid the mistakes listed in this blog, then you’ll be well on your way to reaping the benefits of this powerful technique.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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