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Dual coding and learning styles – are they the same?


Dual coding, which consists of providing students with both words and pictures to help them learn a piece of information, is an increasingly popular teaching & learning technique. Sometimes it is associated and confused with learning styles. This is probably due to both talking about ways that people learn and process new information.

Both dual coding and learning styles, for example, talk in part about presenting information in visual form. So how similar or different actually are they? Let’s take a look at the research supporting them – or, for one of them, lack thereof…

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What is dual coding?

Dual coding is the process of blending words and pictures together whilst learning. This allows students to be given two different representations of the same piece of information.

Why is this useful? Well, since we process verbal and visual information differently, providing students with both allows them to engage with the information more deeply and gives them more chances to remember it.

What are learning styles?

Learning styles are based on the belief that students have a particular way of learning that works best for them. These styles are often referred to as VAK, with students being categorised as visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learners.

You’re probably familiar with this – research in 2012 found that a whopping 93% of teachers in the UK believe in learning styles. However, despite its popularity, there is no evidence to support it. This is not to say that students don’t have a preferred way of learning, but just that this preference might not be the best way for them to learn.

What’s the difference between dual coding and learning styles?

With both ideas resting on the fact that presenting information in different forms influences how effectively students learn it, it might seem at first that dual coding and learning styles are the same.

However, this is not the case.

The first difference is that while learning styles suggests that only some students benefit from a certain way to present information, dual coding is thought to benefit all students.

This is supported by research. In one study, researchers pitted the two strategies against each other. They had students listen to 20 statements and then divided them into two groups:

  • Auditory only group – This group only listened to the statements, using an “auditory learning style”.
  • Dual Coding Group – This group was asked to form mental pictures while listening to the statements, therefore using a form of dual coding.

After testing the students on their recall of the information, the researchers found that learning styles didn’t affect performance: in the first group those who had described themselves as “auditory learners” did not outperform the “visual learners”. On the other hand, those in the second group recalled twice as much thanks to dual coding.

Not only does this show that unlike learning styles, dual coding actually offers some potential, it also supports the idea we mentioned earlier: what students think benefits them is not always the best strategy.

How to use dual coding

Dual Coding with Teachers author, Oliver Caviglioli suggests that there are 4 key principles to follow to use dual coding effectively:

  • Cut ­– Reduce the amount of content you provide and only include the most important information to avoid causing a cognitive overload which will harm your students’ learning.
  • Chunk – Divide the content into groups of related information.
  • Align – Ordering words and pictures neatly makes it easier to read.
  • Restrain – Don’t go crazy with different colours and fonts.

Keeping these principles in mind, let’s look at some ways to use dual coding

  1. Drawings

As simple as it sounds, research suggests that drawing information is very effective. This helps students elaborate on the meaning of the material, as they need to really consider the information at hand and decipher how to best represent it. Read more about this strategy here.

  1. Diagrams

Thanks to their ability to represent a lot of information in a small space, diagrams are a useful way to learn complex concepts that need breaking down. Some ways to use diagrams for effective dual coding include:

  • Using signalling to draw attention to the most important aspects.
  • Using integrated diagrams rather than separating text and visual information.
  • Leaving diagram labels blank to fill out at a later time.
  1. Posters

Posters help combine writing, pictures and diagrams into one page. However, it can be easy to go overboard with them and accidentally creating a cognitive overload, so make sure to use a clear hierarchy with titles and subtitles and to be consistent with the colours and fonts you use.

Final thoughts

Learning styles continue to be popular despite an absence of research supporting them. This is worrying in and of itself, but especially when we see how it may reflect on actually effective learning strategies that look similar at first, like dual coding. Hopefully, this blog does its part in helping dispel that myth, and providing educators with better options to use in their classrooms.

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