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Learning styles versus dual coding: which is better for retention?

Written By: Daryn Egan-Simon
5 min read
Researchers tested how the two learning theories affected students' retention.


A test of two alternative cognitive processing models: learning styles and dual coding.

Published in:

Theory and Research in Education, 2018, Vol. 16(1), pp. 40– 64.


Joshua Cuevas and Bryan L. Dawson, University of North Georgia, USA

What did the research explore?

This research explored two cognitive models – learning styles and dual coding. It looked at what impact learning approaches that take these into account have on university students’ learning.

The learning styles theory says that people have a preferred way of processing information and, if they are presented with information in that way, their learning is enhanced (Cuevas and Dawson, 2018). While there are many variations on the learning styles model, the authors chose Visual, Audio, Read-Write, and Kinaesthetic (VARK) for this study. The authors note, however, that there is an overwhelming lack of evidence to say that learning styles work (see Reiner and Willingham, 2010; Mayor, 2011; Rohrer and Pashler, 2012).

Dual coding theory, on the other hand, suggests there are just two ways for people to process information – verbal and visual. While these processes can work together to support learning, they can also work independently. As the authors say, if you ‘flood’ students with information verbally, you can drive them into cognitive overload, which will stop them committing their learning to their long-term memory. If you give them information in a visual way too, however, it is stored separately. This doesn’t just stop them going into cognitive overload, but it also improves their retention because they are absorbing the information in two ways (Cuevas and Dawson, 2018, p. 43).

The research attempted to answer two questions:

  • Whether students would perform better in a retention task if their reported learning style matched the form of instruction they received
  • Whether students with a visual stimulus would perform better in a retention task, compared with those with just an auditory stimulus, regardless of their reported learning style.

The researchers predicted students would perform better with a visual stimulus whatever their learning style. This is because the visual stimulus would make students engage with both their language and visual processing centres, triggering dual coding.

How did they conduct the research?

Students first completed a VARK learning styles questionnaire (developed by Fleming and Mills, 1992) to identify their preferred learning styles. Out of the 204 participants, the results were:

  • 118 (57.8%) preferred auditory learning over visual learning
  • 65 (31.9%) preferred visual learning over auditory learning
  • 21 (10.3%) had equivalent scores for both visual and auditory processing and so showed no preference for one over the other.

The kinaesthetic and read-write preferences were recorded but were not considered in the primary analysis. This is because the design of the study was only for visual and auditory conditions.

Once the learning styles were determined, the students were assessed on their ability to process information in either a visual or auditory condition. Twenty statements were read to students who then had to score how well they could perceive each statement using a Likert scale format. This is a rating scale used to measure attitudes or opinions.

Students were given one of two different sets of instructions – one that prompted them to visualise the statements as they were read out, and one that prompted them to just think about the sounds of the words. They were not asked to remember any of the scenarios. The task then included a brief memory test, with 20 questions that corresponded to the 20 statements, to assess students’ retention.

The authors maintain that as two conditions were applied – auditory and visual – it allowed them to test the learning styles hypothesis against dual coding theory. They prompted participants to process the instructions through imagery or through auditory features so they could work out whether students using visual processing retained more information compared with those who only had the audio processing. The students who were asked to visualise information as well as focusing on auditory features would engage dual coding because they would listen to the statements and visualise them, rather than just listening to the sounds of the words.

Learners who were asked to process viusal information alongside linguistic information retained substantially more information.

What were the key findings?

In regard to whether students performed better if instruction matched their learning style, the researchers found there was no effect. Auditory learners did not show better retention when they were prompted to focus on auditory features, and visual learners did not show better retention when they were prompted to use imagery.

As for the second question, the researchers found that the learners who were asked to process visual information (via imagery) alongside linguistic information (by listening) retained substantially more information. In fact, they retained twice as much as those who were prompted to focus only on linguistic information.

This is consistent with previous studies on dual coding where participants who have visual and auditory stimulus at the same time retain significantly more information. It also suggests that approaches based on dual coding are more effective for learning than those based on learning styles.

What are the limitations?

The researchers identify a number of limitations with the research:

  • The study did not include kinaesthetic and read-write options, only visual and auditory
  • There was a lack of diversity among participants with the majority being white, middle-class females in their early- to mid-20s
  • In the visual condition, participants were asked to visualise the information. This is different to using an image, and begs the question of whether seeing a picture would be more or less effective
  • It resembled a laboratory experiment more than that of a classroom environment which could have affected the results.

What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom from the research?

Given the findings from this study and other research, it would be a good idea to look at developing some practical strategies to embed dual coding in your classroom.

What questions does the research raise for teachers?

  • What does other research suggest about these two cognitive processing models?
  • If, as the authors suggest, there is a growing body of research on the ineffectiveness of learning styles, why are they still used in education?
  • Where can teachers access valuable CPD on the use of cognitive models in the classroom?
  • How might teachers conduct their own research studies on dual coding to evaluate the impact in their own classrooms?

Further reading

Cowan, N. and Morey, C. (2007). How can dual-task working memory retention limits be investigated? Psychological Science, 18(8): 686–688.

Cuevas,  JA. (2016). An analysis of current evidence supporting two alternate learning models: Learning styles and dual coding. Journal of Educational Sciences & Psychology, 6(1): 1–13.

Mayer RE (2011) Does styles research have useful implications for educational practice? Learning and Individual Differences, 21(3): 319–320.

Jessen F, Heun R, Erb M, et al. (2000) The concreteness effect: Evidence for dual coding and context availability. Brain and Language, 74: 103–112.

Riener C and Willingham D (2010) The myth of learning styles. Change 42(5): 32–35.

Rohrer D and Pashler H (2012) Learning styles: Where’s the evidence? Medical Education 46(7): 634–635.

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