Russell Stannard: Why are images so important in learning? Dual Coding

If you open any teaching and learning book on languages these days, the likelihood is that it will be full of pictures, diagrams, drawings, and graphs. In other words, nearly all textbooks make use of visual elements to support learning. You would think this is obvious but I have ELT books on my shelves published in the 20th Century that hardly have any visuals at all. There is an intuitive feeling that visuals support learning and the research would suggest that is true [1]. This month’s blog post tries to describe how the role of visuals changes in the different stages of the learning process.

A lot of
the most interesting research into the impact of visuals on learning is not in
the area of ELT but often in areas such as educational psychology. Richard
Mayer [2], is one of my favourites and amongst the most famous researchers in
the area of visuals and learning. 
Richard Mayer argues that we receive information through 2 main
channels, ie the visual and auditory. This is known as dual coding and the brain
receives and processes the information from these two channels
differently.  It is very easy to overload
one of these channels (known as cognitive overload). For example, if you were
quickly shown 7-8 pictures one after the other, you might not be able to
immediately recall them. Similarly, if someone reads out more than about 7
words, you might not be able to immediately repeat them. This is because when
we see or hear something, it goes into our sensory
and our sensory memory is
only able to hold a limited amount of information.  Think about when someone reads you a telephone
number and you try to repeat what they have said. That is your sensory memory and it is very limited.
Another example would be when something gives you directions and you try to
follow what they are saying.

One obvious
way of reducing cognitive overload is to deliver information through both
channels. So looking at a picture while it is described to you or seeing some
pictures of objects on an IWB with the audio being played is likely to reduce cognitive
overload. So images can play a very powerful role in helping avoid cognitive
overload, especially if audio is also used.

information moves from the sensory
almost immediately into the
working memory
. This is where it gets interesting. If information is
delivered both visually and orally, then there is cross fertilisaton between
the visuals and the audio. So some of the pictures may help us to understand
the auditory information and some of the auditory information may help us to
remember the visual information.

You can think about the working memory as what you do with information when you first receive it. You start to think about it, organise it, make sense of it and understand it. However, that does not mean you have ‘learnt it’. When you truly learn something, it means you are able to recall it. It becomes connected with your other knowledge. It becomes knowledge that you can recall and use at any time. You can think about the working memory as ‘trying to make sense of the information you have received.’ You are trying to understand and organise it.  This is often the point in the class, when you see the faces of the students and you can see that the ‘penny has dropped’. They have received the information and made sense of it. Visuals have a role in working memory. It is often at this stage that we do exercises and very controlled type activities that simply help students to understand and get things clear in their mind. These types of activities concentrate on the new material learnt rather than link the new material to previous knowledge.

So how do we take information from our working memory into our long term memory? Well, we have to process and use it. So, for example, let’s imagine that the teacher has done an activity to present new vocabulary to the students. This information was presented in a dual coded way, perhaps by using the IWB to present the new words along with auditory support. At this stage, the students have the vocabulary in their working memory. We might have done a few very controlled activities to help memorise and practice the new information and to help students to understand it. Now we need to do a series of activities that begin to process and use this vocabulary in a wider context. We need to link it to their previous learning, we need to set up activities that will get the students to process and use the new vocabulary. These activities should be varied in nature. Students might see the new vocabulary in a reading, hear the new words in a listening and use the new vocabulary in speaking activities. The role of the visuals at this stage is to support activities that encouraging the processing of language.

Richard Mayers work really helped me to understand how to approach my teaching and learning. It made me aware of the importance of how new information should be presented to students.  We need to make the presentation of new information as varied and as interesting as possible but we should always be aware that dual coded information is likely to help with cognitive overload. The sensory memory is very limited and so we need to stage and organise the delivery of new material.  We also need to understand that just because we have delivered new concepts and ideas to our students, it doesn’t mean they have learnt them. We first need to help students’ working memory by doing exercises and activities that work with the new information. At this stage, we are essentially helping them to understand it. Once students have ‘understood’ something, we then need to do the types of activities that will help students convert something they have understood into knowledge. This is when information goes into their long term memory. At each stage, images can play a different role.

In many ways, I have described what is known as a PPP model of learning (Presentation, Practice, Production).  As we become more experienced teachers we begin to modify and adapt this basic approach. For example, we use discovery techniques as a way of presenting new language to students. We may for example set up a whole task or project that is crafted in such a way that it facilitates this learning process. However, essentially and perhaps intuitively we understand that learning does seem to go through these stages, though it is more complicated than I have described above. However, understanding these stages can help you think about the role the use of visuals can play at each stage and how they can support learning.


A picture is worth a thousand words


[2] Richard
Mayer Multimedia learning


[3] Dual coding boosts memory


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