Dual Coding: Exploring opportunities to deliver learning content in NOW | Nottingham Trent University
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Dual Coding: Exploring opportunities to deliver learning content in the NTU Online Workspace (NOW)

Elena Khabarova considers Dual Coding – the process of combining visual  and verbal elements to convey information.

Introducing Dual Coding

Thumbnail for dual coding blog representing the teaching process

In this blog post I am going to briefly explain the Dual Coding theory and provide several practical tips on how it can be incorporated into delivery of online learning. I will also demonstrate a couple of easy solutions for implementing Dual Coding in the NTU Online Workspace (NOW) - the digital learning platform that supports delivery of all courses and modules at NTU.

Dual Coding is a strategy used in traditional classroom teaching to improve learner engagement and knowledge retention. It refers to the process of combining visual (image-based) and verbal (language-based) elements to convey information. The theory of Dual Coding was developed by Allan Paivio in 1971, who recognised that the human brain processes knowledge more effectively when multiple sensory modalities are simultaneously engaged.

The basis of Paivio’s theory is built on the premise that we have two cognitive processing systems – a verbal system that is responsible for processing language and a non-verbal system that deals with image-based information.

Pavio's theory

According to Paivio, when our brain receives a verbal stimulus, it forms cognitive structures in the verbal system, and when it receives a non-verbal stimulus, it forms cognitive structures in the non-verbal system. The creation of these structures establishes what Paivio called representational connections (see diagram). He claimed that these representational connections are activated when we are exposed to the same or a similar stimulus again. For example, when we see a cello, our mind constructs a mental image of a cello, and when we see another sting instrument, we use our pre-existing mental image of a cello to differentiate it from a cello.

He also proposed that when the brain responds to external stimuli, it forms another type of connection, which he called referential connection. These are created between the verbal and non-verbal systems. For example, when we hear the word ‘cello’, we can associate it with the shape of the instrument, the sound that it makes, our emotional response to its sound, etc.

The more referential connections our brain creates, the better we can remember and recall information. Existing referential connections also make it easier for us to interpret new stimuli and to develop further connections that associate this new information with cognitive structures we have already created.

In the field of education, Paivio claims, when teachers explain new concepts or use activities that engage both verbal and non-verbal cognitive systems, they are enabling students to create more complex interconnected memories of the content. These interconnections help them retain the information better, as well as keeping them engaged, and leading to improved learning outcomes. (Paivio, 2007).

Other research into cognitive processes has also supported the idea that a multimodal presentation of information enhances the learning process, for example:

  • Cognitive Load theory: proposes that using multiple modalities - visual, auditory and kinesthetic - helps learners to reduce the strain on working memory; this enables them to process information more efficiently and facilitates deeper understanding (Sweller, 2011).
  • Multimedia Learning Principles: suggests that presenting information through both visual and auditory channels leads to better learning outcomes compared to using a single modality (Mayer, 2014).

Dual Coding in face-to-face learning

In face-to-face environments, Dual Coding is often one of the key elements in the design and delivery of learning. For example, it occurs when educators

  • use whiteboards, charts, concept maps or props to supplement their verbal explanations
  • draw diagrams, write keywords or display images that visually represent the taught content
  • actively involve students in verbal discussions around a visual resource
  • ask students to perform tasks that involve manipulation of objects or materials while receiving verbal instruction.

Dual Coding can also happen spontaneously when students interact with educators face-to-face – almost all verbal communication is accompanied by non-verbal elements: gestures, facial expressions and body language. These non-verbal stimuli serve as visual cues that help students to understand and remember new concepts.

Dual Coding in online learning

Research strongly supports the idea that online learning is most successful when educators use a variety of tools and techniques (Mayer, 2014; Hattie & Yates, 2014; Marzano, 2007). Dual Coding can be one of such techniques – it has proven to be an effective method to enhance learning, and Paivio's theory suggests that its effectiveness is based on the core principles of how our brain processes information.

Unlike in face-to-face learning, where Dual Coding can occur naturally as a result of the physical environment or spontaneous interactions, in the online learning context it requires careful design and planning. There are additional aspects that educators need to consider, for example:

  • Technical constraints: Online learning relies on digital interfaces and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) platforms, which may impose constraints when it comes to effectively integrating visual representations with verbal content.
  • Cognitive load: Implementing Dual Coding strategies can potentially increase cognitive load for students who struggle with the subject matter. This challenge is amplified when they lack immediate feedback from tutors or the opportunity to validate their understanding.
  • Accessibility: Ensuring equal access to visual and verbal information can be a complex task in online learning environments. Addressing accessibility issues and providing inclusive learning experiences for all students requires careful attention and consideration.
  • Design and development: Online instructors may face challenges in designing visually appealing and pedagogically sound materials that effectively combine visual and verbal elements. They may require additional support or training to use the digital tools to create effective multimedia resources.

Tips for using Dual Coding in online learning

Here are some practical tips that educators can easily implement in online learning to incorporate Dual Coding successfully.

Combine visual and verbal (text- or speech-based) elements in your online resources

This is the main principle of Dual Coding. Apart from using images and illustrations in your online resources, you can also supplement language-based information with diagrams, process charts, timelines and infographics.

Chunk your content

Chunking content helps learners scan and process the information. Make sure to categorise your content and add sections to divide it visually.

Create conceptual associations

Creating conceptional associations helps with retention of knowledge.

Incorporate visuals that directly relate to the content and add descriptive language to help learners make connections. For example, create images with text labels.

Add vivid mental images that learners can use to recall key information. For example, if they need to remember a process or a categorised list, add meaningful images to each key step or item.

Incorporate consistent visual cues

This highlights important information. Use the same or similar visuals to establish connections within the key information.

Provide interactive activities

Interactive activities connect visual cues with verbal responses to reinforce students’ learning. For example, matching, drag and drop activities and interactive diagrams and timelines.

Optimise cognitive load

Be careful of creating excessive cognitive load and ensure visuals are as clear and simple as possible.

  • For example, use images with focus on the main subject, with minimal background detail and distracting elements.
  • Avoid using too many images or images that take a lot of screen space.
  • Avoid intense colours and artistic fonts.
  • Provide alternative text (alt text) that describes images. When creating quizzes, make sure the alt text doesn’t reveal the answers.

Implementing Dual Coding in NOW

At NTU, we have a wide range of technologies that can be easily used to integrate Dual Coding into online learning delivered on NOW. For inspiration, take a look at the examples of learning resources from different NTU online and blended modules via the link below.

These examples show how the Dual Coding theory principles can be put into action simply and successfully, explain which technologies were used to create them and provide guidance for creating similar resources.


  • Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. R. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Routledge
  • Mayer, R. E. (2014). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Marzano, Robert J. (2007). Art and Science of Teaching : A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development
  • Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and Verbal Processes. Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  • Paivio, A. (2007). Mind and its Evolution: A Dual Coding Theoretical Approach. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers
  • Sadoski, M. & Paivio A. (2012) Imagery and Text : A Dual Coding Theory of Reading and Writing, Taylor & Francis Group
  • Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive Load Theory. Cambridge University Press

About the author

Elena Khabarova works within the Flex team as a Learning Designer. The Flex team supports NTU’s University Reimagined strategy to deliver personalised, flexible and online learning to students.

Contact Elena Khabarova by email if you have any questions and would like to discuss approaches to implementing Dual Coding in online learning on your modules.