The theory of dual coding holds that the formation of mental images, in tandem with verbal processing, is often very helpful for learners. In other words, if we support verbal reasoning with visual representations, then better learning happens.
Many years ago, I was taught the dual coding technique outlined below to help with SUVAT problems. Of course, it wasn’t referred to as “dual coding” back then, but dual coding it most definitely is.
I found it a very useful technique at the time and I still find it useful to this day. And what is more, it is in my opinion a pedagogically powerful procedure. I genuinely believe that this technique helps students understand the complexities and nuances of SUVAT because it brings many things which are usually implicit out into the open and makes them explicit.
SUVAT: “Made darker by definition”?
BOSWELL. ‘He says plain things in a formal and abstract way, to be sure: but his method is good: for to have clear notions upon any subject, we must have recourse to analytick arrangement.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is what every body does, whether they will or no. But sometimes things may be made darker by definition. I see a cow, I define her, Animal quadrupes ruminans cornutum. But a goat ruminates, and a cow may have no horns. Cow is plainer.
— Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791)
As I see it, the enduring difficulty with SUVAT problems is that such things can indeed be made darker by definition. Students are usually more than willing to accept the formal definitions of s, u, v, a and t and can apply them to straightforward and predictable problems. However, the robotic death-by-algorithm approach fails all too frequently when faced with even minor variations on a theme.
Worse still, students often treat acceleration, displacement and velocity as nearly-synonymous interchangeable quantities: they are all lumped together in that naive “intuitive physics” category called MOVEMENT.
The approach that follows attempts to make students plainly see differences between the SUVAT quantities and, hopefully, as make them as plain as a cow (to borrow Dr Johnson’s colourful phrasing).
Visual Symbols for the Dual-coding of SUVAT problems
1.1 Analysing a simple SUVAT problem using dual coding
Problem: a motorcycle accelerates from rest at 0.8 m/s2 for a time of 6.0 seconds. Calculate (a) the distance travelled; and (b) the final velocity.
- We are using the AQA-friendly convention of substituting values before rearrangement. (Some AQA mark schemes award a mark for the correct substitution of values into an expression; however, the mark will not be awarded if the expression is incorrectly rearranged. Weaker students are strongly encouraged to substitute before rearrangement, and this is what I model.)
- A later time is indicated by the movement of the hands on the clock.
So far, so blindingly obvious, some might say.
But I hope the following examples will indicate the versatility of the approach.
1.2a Analysing a more complex SUVAT problem using dual coding (Up is positive convention)
Problem: A coin is dropped from rest takes 0.84 s to fall a distance of 3.5 m so that it strikes the water at the bottom of a well. With what speed must it be thrown vertically so that it takes exactly 1.5 s to hit the surface of the water?
Another advantage of this method is that it makes assigning positive and negative directions to the SUVAT vectors easy as it becomes a matter of simply comparing the directions of each vector quantity (that is to say, s, u, v and a) with the arbitrarily selected positive direction arrow when we substitute values into the expression.
But what would happen if we’d selected a different positive direction arrow?
1.2b Analysing a more complex SUVAT problem using dual coding (Down is positive convention)
Problem: A well is 3.5 m deep so that a coin dropped from rest takes 0.84 s to strike the surface of the water. With what speed must it be thrown so that it takes exactly 1.5 s to hit the surface of the water?
The answer is, of course, numerically equal to the previous answer. However, following the arbitrarily selected down is positive convention, we have a negative answer.
1.3 Analysing a projectile problem using dual coding
Let’s look at this typical problem from AQA.
We could annotate the diagram like this:
Guiding our students through the calculation:
Just Show ‘Em!
Some trad-inclined teachers have embraced the motto: Just tell ’em!
It’s a good motto, to which dual coding can add the welcome corollary: Just show ’em!
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences
The famous phrase is, of course, from physicist Eugene Wigner (1960: 2):
My principal aim is to illuminate it from several sides. The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.
Further exploration of the above problem using dual coding can, I believe, give A-level students a glimpse of the truth of Wigner’s phrase.
This Is The Root You’re Looking For
In the calculation above, we found that when s = -1.8 m, v could have a value of plus or minus 6.90 m/s. Since we were interested in the velocity of the kite boarder at the end of the journey, we concluded that it was the negative root that was significant for our purposes.
But does the positive root have any physical significance? Why yes, it does. It indicates the other possible value of v when s = -1.8 m.
The displacement was -1.8 m at only one point on the real journey. However, if the kite boarder had started their projectile motion from the level of the water surface instead of from the top of the ramp, their vertical velocity at this point would have been +6.9 m/s.
The fact that the kite boarder did not start their journey from this point is immaterial. Applying the mathematics not only tells us about their actual journey, but all other possible journeys that are consistent with the stated parameters and the subset of the laws of physics that we are considering in this problem — and that, to me, borders enough on the mysterious to bring home Wigner’s point.
This information allows us to annotate our final diagram as below (bearing in mind, of course, that the real journey of the kite boarder started from the top of the ramp and not from the water’s surface as shown).
Let me end on a more cheerful note. The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.
Wigner 1960: 9