How to Ace Your First College Exams With Dual-Coding

By Rachel Bagha and Theresa Santos

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? We’re not sure – but (mental) pictures can help you pass exams!

College exams are a lot different than the ones you took in high school. This means the methods you use to study for these exams should be different, too. Chances are, in high school, you took a lot of tests that didn’t really require a whole lot of studying. College tests more material over a shorter period of time, which throws off many incoming college freshman who think they can use the same tactics to study for exams than they did in high school. Many students get a wake-up call when they get their first college exam back and don’t do as hot as they thought. Lucky for you, a lot of research has been done on ways to study effectively, so that you can retain information and later apply this information in the future on an exam. You don’t have to wait until you bomb your first exam to start studying effectively. You can start right away – with some of the the dual-coding methods listed below!

Overview of Dual Coding

Dual coding is a term used in cognitive psychology, created by Allan Paivio in 1963, to explain how people process and represent verbal and nonverbal information in separate memory systems (5). Through the use of mental imagery, facts can be more easily remembered. Mental imagery is the ability to recreate pictures and visual representations in the mind in the absence of physical stimuli (a.k.a. the environment.) Imagery helps to recall material because, when a word evokes an associated image, two separate but linked memory traces occur (5). The chances that memory will be retained and retrieved are better if it is stored in more than one location (5).

Let’s look at an example. Imagine that you are trying to remember the word “pig.” You should try to remember a picture of a pig versus trying to remember the word “pig.” This is because visual (nonverbal) stimuli are easier to remember than their printed names (verbal stimuli) (2). When a picture of something is presented, this activates both the nonverbal and verbal channels of memory processes—you will remember both the picture and the word “pig” (2). This saves you time and energy– something completely necessary in college!

Dual coding can be accomplished through the use of multiple methods, but today we will focus on the Method of Loci and multimedia learning (1). Now that you know the facts behind the concept, let us explore how these methods work.


There are a bunch of different methods you can employ to use dual- coding to help with your studying. One of these methods is called the Method of Loci. The process is simple. Refer to the diagram below.

But, wait…. does this actually work? Research says it does! Students who used this method of learning did significantly better on a quiz than those who didn’t use this method—in fact, the majority of them even stated that they planned on using the method for future exams (4).

Another effective study technique related to Dual coding is multimedia learning. Seeing verbal and visual stimuli at the same time increases your chances of remembering the information later, compared to just seeing the information verbally, such as in a textbook (3). This is a fun one—watching videos (like the one below) that presents facts with text alongside visuals will make you more likely to remember the information. This has also been proven by research—by seeing visual and verbal stimuli presented together, your brain builds connections between the visual and the verbal. This makes the information easier to remember because your brain has two places to retrieve the information from – both your visual and verbal store, as opposed to just one. Plus, videos that present both visual and verbal stimuli at the same time are usually fun and colorful, like the one below, which will keep you engaged! This method provides a nice change of pace from just reading your boring textbook all day!


As you can see, the use of dual coding and mental imagery make studying habits much more efficient. The difficult demands of college make proper studying techniques a necessity. Remembering material for exams will be significantly easier if the material is stored in your memory using a method of dual coding. Information will be more simple to retrieve, and life will be easier. This is sure to help you on your way to a successful first year!


(1) Goldstein, Eugen Bruce. (2015). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Stamford: Cengage Learning.

(2) Kerr, Barbara. (2009). Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

(3) Mayer, R.E., & Sims, V.K. (1994). For Whom Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Extensions of a Dual-Coding Theory of Multimedia Learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(3), 389-401.

(4) Qureshi, A., Rizvi, F., Syed, A., Shahid, A., & Manzoor, H. (2014). The method of loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate learning in endocrinology leads to improvement in student performance as measured by assessments. Advances in Physiology Education, 38(5), 140-144.

(5) Thomas, Nigel J.T. (2014). “Mental Imagery.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Web. 25 Apr, 2017.

One Reply to “How to Ace Your First College Exams With Dual-Coding”

  1. I really liked the pictures and video example used in this blog. Not only are they will placed but they make complete sense as you are talking about visual imagery and how it helps more than just text. Adding crash course was an excellent idea too, i have always found it helpful in college. Well done.

    – Maddy Rockhold

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