A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

By Emma Overton

Picture this: you’re sitting in your first final of the semester. You can hear your heartbeat in your ears, you have no idea what to expect on the exam your professor is carrying towards you. You take a glance at the first question: What are the three categories of depressants? Immediately an image of a dark, fluttering bat invade your mind. BAT! That’s the image you used to remember this topic; Barbiturates, Alcohol, and Tranquilizers. Your fear dissipates, because you realize your studying habits have achieved just what you need to ace the final.

Dual Coding

Image  and sound association probably aren’t a new thing to you, given that is a common practice among many people, but you probably didn’t realize there was a name for it. This exercise is referred to as dual coding. According to the Psychology Dictionary, its clinical definition is as follows: “Theory that an input represented in memory as a word and a picture is more readily recalled than a word we can’t put a image with” [1]. The theory itself is not a generally new topic, in fact it was theorized in 1971 by Paivio in response to the effects that resulted from mnemonic devices [2] He based his experiments off of the knowledge that humans think in a series of pictures and sounds. This is something you can analyze at home, on your own. Sit back and think about something, for example a lion. You tend to immediately picture the image in your mind, so long as it is something you’ve experienced before. This tendency of humans to do this inspired Paivio to formulate a method by which you can increase your memory. His answer came in the form of picture and sound association towards words your attempting to commit more readily to memory.

So what does this mean for you as a student?

Well, this is definitely something your professors/teachers have used before, in the classroom. Diagrams and pictures themselves are snippets of dual coding happening all the time. If a biology professor is trying to explain to you the logistics of a cells and its organelle placement, they are most likely going to offer a visual image of the cell in order to help you remember what and where appears throughout the cell. This diagram is probably something you look back on to help study, and during a test in which your memory recall is test, you most likely will bring the image out of long term memory rather than the paragraph of information you read about the cell structure.

Use to your Advantage

    Dual coding isn’t only for professors and teachers to use in the classroom. It is an extremely useful tool for students to practice in day to day studying habits. Reading a long chapter of a textbook to study can make you feel like you’re getting nowhere, however, incorporating images can make studying not only easier, but more enjoyable. Empirical evidence is also supportive of the theory; in studies done by Paivio, it was collected that words with a common image associations (dog, fish, ect.) were remember in a 2:1 ratio with words with no common image association (justice, linguistics,ect.) [3]Repetition is also key! Studies have shown that repetitive visuals of the image you want to remember are a big help when it comes to recall and reintroducing the topic to your “mind’s eye.” The more rehearsal the better[4]


Let’s feel out the ways in which dual coding can save your grades. Take a seat at your desk (no other stimuli allowed!), and open up your latest assignment or notes. Let’s say for discussion sake you’re learning about the circulatory system of a human body. Draw yourself a nice picture of a heart in the center of the page, followed by arteries with arrows pointing away from the heart, veins returning to it. Maybe draw a set of lungs to remember the pulmonary vessels and their pathways, and so on and so forth. A very ROUGH image of the idea is located to the right. Make sure your study the image for a bit, it definitely helps to leave and come back to look at it again later. Do your best to burn the image of that drawing in your mind. Then, when your anatomy test rolls around, you’ll find yourself imagining that piece of art you created with some very necessary information on it. You can refer to it when you need a little help remembering where the Superior Vena Cava goes!


    This idea isn’t only for drawing pictures; you can also create timelines, create mnemonic devices that create imagery in your mind, or even use it when learning another language! Secondary research done by Pavio, Clark, and Lambert found that when participants were learning another language, it was much easier for the participants to remember words of the second language that were associated with images, meaning words like house or bird were much more readily recalled than more abstract language without images to associate it to [5]. This means dual coding is a highly usable tool for any class! Memory recall is the basis of any schooling experience, why not improve it with a little dual coding action?


[1] Nuget, P. (April, 2013) DUAL CODING THEORY. Psychology Dictionary

Retrieved From: https://psychologydictionary.org/dual-coding-theory/

[2] Thomas, Nigel J.T. (2014) Dual Coding and Common Coding Theories of Memory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Retrieved From: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-imagery/theories-memory.html

[3] Clark, Jame. (1991) DUAL CODING THEORY AND EDUCATION. Educational Psychology Review

[4] Brunye, Tad T. (September, 2007) Repetition and dual coding in procedural

Retrieved From: http://www.csuchico.edu/~nschwartz/paivio.pdf

[5] Soh, Kay Cheng. (2010) Bilingual Dual-Coding and Code-Switching: Implications for the L1 in L2 Learning. The Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching. 1(2) 271-296.



2 Replies to “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”

  1. I really liked this article. It was very to the point. My only thought is on the bold-ing headers, you may want to change the font. Sometimes the “i” gets lost and shows as an “L” (lowercase, but you get my point.) Other than that incredibly nit-picky, well done!

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