Dual Coding Strategies Boost Learning and Retention

It likely won’t come as a surprise here that drawing – to represent vocabulary, concepts, and skills – boosts learning and retention. Drawing has been investigated as a memory aid for several decades. Alan Pavio, a professor and cognition expert, developed dual coding theory to describe how we process both words and images for learning and retention. His research has appeared in over 200 research papers and chapters, and it consistently demonstrates that images and words – together – support memory.

Dual-coding theory posits that nonverbal and verbal information are stored separately in long-term memory thereby providing multiple pathways for accessing information. Paivio’s work has implications in many areas including human psychology, learning theory, interface design, and the development of educational materials. Dual coding theory is also complemented by the theoretical work of Alan Baddeley, in which working memory is divided into a visuospatial sketchpad and a phonological loop. We think in pictures and words!

Recently, Frances Fernandes, Jeffrey Wammes, and Melissa Meade – experts in the science of memory at the University of Waterloo – conducted a study to better understand how visual modes improve students’ abilities to retain and remember information. Their experiment compared two strategies for note-taking: writing words by hand compared to illustrating words with a hand-drawn picture.

The researchers found that drawing enhances memory relative to writing. Participants in their study recalled 20 percent of the words that were written by hand compared to 45 percent of the words that were represented by drawing. They found “drawing to be an effective and reliable encoding strategy” and one that is “far superior to writing.”

Teachers that I work with often express concern that they aren’t artists or that their students don’t have artistic ability. Research repeatedly has found that drawing boosts retention for all students – not just those who have observable artistic ability.

Drawing is active. Drawing requires decision making for how best to represent concepts and ideas. Applying dual coding approaches that incorporate even simple sketches along with words employs three types of learning – visual, verbal, and motoric. Learning takes place with the hand and the eye.

In this vein, middle school teacher Jason Gacek, who has used dual coding methods throughout his twenty plus years of teaching, has observed that the use of even simple doodles or sketches improve learning. He said that doodling as a simple drawing skill can be learned and that by creating doodles and simple drawings, students can take notes, document their learning, and “convey to others [both] complex ideas and complex emotions in a deceptively simple series of dots, lines, squiggles, shapes and flourishes.” Most of Mr. Gacek’s assignments provide for demonstrating learning both visually and verbally, and most of these assignments are created by hand.

Dual coding can be applied as at a basic level to aid in comprehension and recall. Integrating words and images can be achieved through even simple note-taking strategies. Students can fold their papers in half vertically and then designate one column for words and one column for pictures. At higher levels of thinking and learning, students can design projects to demonstrate their understanding of a particular subject area or topic. These may include illustrated books, one-pagers, posters, web pages, and more.

Take away: Verbal and visual modes boost learning when used together. Incorporate hands-on drawing, and the potential for learning and retention is even greater!

Related References

  • Fernandes, M., Wammes, J., & Meade, M. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302-308.
  • Wammes, J., Meade, M., Fernandes, M., Greene, Robert L., & Benjamin, Aaron S. (2018). Creating a Recollection-Based Memory Through Drawing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44(5), 734-751.

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