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Blog serie 'How learning happens' #4: Episodic and semantic memory according to Tulving

The distinction between two long-term memory systems
Prof. dr. Carl Hendrick
Auteur Prof. dr. Carl Hendrick
Laatst gewijzigd 23 February 2024
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In previous blogs, we have looked at differences between working and long-term memory This week, we focus on specific aspects of long-term memory, namely Endel Tulving’s distinction between episodic and semantic memory.


In 1972, Endel Tulving wrote a chapter titled Episodic and semantic memory, which would become a seminal work in the field of cognitive psychology and lay the groundwork for understanding how memory is not simply a monolithic entity, but rather a complex system with vastly different components that can be independently studied and understood. His distinction between these two memory systems has since guided subsequent understanding of how memory operates, providing a framework for exploring how we encode, store, and retrieve different kinds of information.


Essentially, Tulving’s theory theorizes that our long-term memory is split into two distinct types: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory is a lot like a personal diary; it's where we store our lived experiences, with all the contextual details such as when and where these events occurred. Episodic memory is inextricably linked with time and space and represents the narrative of our life through a system that enables individuals to remember past experiences as a unique sequence. On the other hand, semantic memory functions more like an encyclopedia, in the sense that it holds a more objective knowledge of the world. The facts, concepts, and skills we've learned throughout our lives, detached from the personal experiences associated with learning them. Tulving saw both elements as information processing stores which as he put it:


  • selectively receive information from perceptual systems or their cognitive systems;
  • retain various aspects of this information, and;
  • upon instructions transmit specific retained information to other systems, including those responsible for translating it into behaviour and conscious awareness.

(p. 385)


Tulving described semantic memory as being akin to a "mental thesaurus," which constitutes the structured knowledge an individual has regarding words and verbal symbols, their meanings and references, the interrelationships between them, and the rules and processes for manipulating these elements (p. 386). Essentially, semantic memory is our repository for world knowledge that is not linked to specific events or contexts, encompassing facts, concepts, and ideas that stand alone, separate from personal experiences. This system enables us to access information that wasn't explicitly stored within it, such as generating new understanding through reasoning. Furthermore, the retrieval process within semantic memory tends to be more stable, being less prone to accidental alteration or loss than its episodic counterpart.


The two memories in practice

What is the educational import and how can educators leverage Tulving's insights into episodic and semantic memory for instructional design? Here are a few takeaways:


  1. Storytelling: narrative is a huge important part of human sense-making. Utilizing storytelling in teaching can help to bridge episodic and semantic memory. Stories can turn abstract concepts into vivid narratives, making it easier for students to remember and relate to the material.
  2. Elaborative encoding techniques: encourage students to form vivid mental pictures of material they are studying, to enhance the consolidation and retrieval of memories.
  3. Real-world connections: when teaching new concepts, it's helpful to link them to real-world scenarios. This not only helps in understanding, but also in forming episodic memories that are interconnected with semantic knowledge.
  4. Scaffolded learning: one of the key lessons from cognitive science is that knowledge functions only to the extent to how well organized and structured it is. Semantic memory thrives on well-organized information. Scaffolded lessons that build on prior knowledge help students integrate new facts into their existing semantic framework, enhancing recall and understanding.
  5. Reflective practices: encouraging students to reflect on what they've learned and how they learned it can solidify both types of memory. Reflection can turn a semantic memory into an episodic one by adding personal context.


A lasting legacy of Tulving’s formulation of episodic and semantic memory is that it challenged the concept of learning. Prevalent in the field that was often behaviour-based in nature, namely that memory or learning is simply a question of reinforcing and/or punishing exhibited behaviours, whereby links between stimuli are created. Tulving encouraged us to see that our memories are more than a collection of isolated facts and experiences but are organized and structured in a meaningful way. Tulving also emphasized the importance of organizing and structuring memories, with episodic memories being organized in a temporal sequence (e.g. proximity between/contiguity of events in time) and semantic memories according to meaning.


A crucial takeaway from Tulving’s work for educators is the fact that while it's commonly suggested that to enhance students' recall abilities, educators should craft more episodic memories through engaging or memorable activities, this approach holds value for various reasons, many of these reasons may not directly relate to the learning process itself. Often when students remember something from a lesson they are recalling an experience rather than what the teacher wanted them to learn.


Works cited:

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and Semantic Memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory (pp. 381–403). Academic Press.


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