Semantic memory, Episodic memory, and Teaching

I stumbled across this wonderful article by Claire Sealy at just the right time. I’ve been thinking about semantic vs. episodic encoding and how it might fit into some conversations with teachers.

Some of my favorite parts of the article:

“All of which leads to us making the entirely reasonable hypothesis that if we want students to remember what we teach them, then we need to … involve something specially selected because it’s exciting and possibly unusual. Memorable events, in this view, should form the template for creating memorable lessons.”

I remember this exact feeling as a young teacher. The “teacher as hero” movies (Mr. Holland’s opus, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poet’s Society, etc.) taught many of us that the best teachers inspire students through drama and passion. Setting up exceptional experiences for students is one of the most satisfying parts of teaching, and I love crafting a dramatic experience for students (and it can definitely help with motivation and “hooking” students). But Sealy goes on to explain some limitations of these dramatic “memorable lessons.”

“The two forms of memory are known as episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory is the memory of the ‘episodes’ of our life—our autobiographical memory. This takes no effort on our part, it simply happens…Those memories just happen automatically. But there is a downside. Episodic memory is “easy come, easy go.” … A Semantic memory, on the other hand, involves much harder work. We have to expend effort to create semantic memories. This is the kind of memory we use when we consciously study something because we want to remember it. Unlike episodic memory, it does not just happen. The upside, however, is that the effort involved results in a long lasting memory.”

This important difference between Semantic and Episodic memory is something every teacher (and administrator, and instructional coach, and curriculum/instruction director, and assessment developer, etc.) should know and use in their work. If our goal is long-lasting learning – knowledge and skills that students will be able to use in different contexts in the future – then we need to set up learning experiences that help students semantically encode rather than just episodically encode. In some ways “long-term transfer” is the holy grail of our work: we want students to be able to generalize the knowledge and skills they learn and apply them to answer important questions in their lives. That requires semantic memory, not just episodic memory. When I need to figure out how to best think about the relationships between achievement data from local schools and statewide data, it doesn’t do me any good to remember the fantastic, funny story my stats teacher told me. I need to be able to recall the meaning of group comparisons and determine what kinds of analyses are appropriate.

This one, fairly simple understanding – that the goal of our lessons should be to help students semantically encode rather than episodically encode – should influence the choices we make as teachers.

“Forming semantic memories requires work and practice. Unlike episodic memories, they don’t just happen. If you want to remember something, you need to think about it, not just experience it. The cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ The more you have thought about something, the more likely it is that you will remember it. So teachers have to make sure that lessons give students the opportunity to think the things we actually want them to remember, rather than some extraneous other thing… This is where “fun” lessons can unintentionally prevent learning happening. If the medium chosen to deliver the lesson is too obtrusive, it is that the students will think about, rather than whatever it is we actually want them to learn”

I took a swing at summarizing what I think is the most important implication of cognitive load theory for teachers, and I tried to do it in one sentence: “What students do in their working memory determines what they will remember and recall later.” I’m sure there are limitations to that short summary, but I think it’s true in some important ways. Thinking about lessons through the lens of semantic/episodic memory should help remind us that our goal is to get students doing SEMANTIC thinking in their working memory, rather than episodic encoding. If what we’re doing doesn’t help students encode the meaning/utility/applications/etc. of the topic at hand, we’re probably engaging in a “Grecian Urn” project. They may be having fun and they may remember the story, but they aren’t thinking about what it all means and it won’t transfer to future thinking.

“It is also possible to overstate the separateness of episodic and semantic memory. There is a degree of overlap between the two. They are not water-tight compartments. For example, in one experiment, people were asked to list kitchen utensils. First, participants drew on the contents of their semantic memory, but when that ran out they turned to thinking specifically about their own kitchens and remembering what was there. They augmented their recall from semantic memory with context-specific episodic memories.”

I appreciate that Sealy acknowledges the “overlap.” I think there is (or can be) opportunities for teachers to use episodic encoding as a bridge to help students understanding meaning (semantic encoding). Sealy’s example highlights this, and many great teachers use the power of stories to help students think about meaning and application. But we have to make sure we leave time for that connection: it is very tempting to spend all our time on the fun, engaging story and believe that students glean meaning from that activity or story. They probably won’t unless we deliberately create ways for them to think about the meaning of what they heard or were doing, and practice applying those meanings.

It is not a simple binary choice between always only doing one or the other. Nor is it the case that episodic memory is in some way “bad” or inferior. It’s just different. The deliberate building of semantic memory is much more likely to result in long lasting, flexible and transferable memory than putting most of your energies into the episodic basket, so should form the bulk of what we spend our time on.”

This is where Sealy ends her article, and this may be the most important punchline. As teachers we’re not choosing between good and bad, semantic and episodic, etc. We know that our goal is for students to encode knowledge and skills that they can apply in future situations, which means that they need tasks that encourage them to do thinking in their working memories that encourage semantic encoding. And stories, activities, and simulations that students will remember help hook students and motivate them to engage in the deep processing they need to do in order to semantically encode.

UPDATE: this video from Jared Cooney Horvath is worth watching. The way he talks about the relationship between episodic and semantic memory (around 1:10) is new to me and fascinating. “Do Schools Really Kill Creativity? (2020 Research)”

UPDATE (Dec. 2020): this post – “TWO NEW WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT MEMORY” by @learningandtheb and @AndrewWatsonTTB helps me think about this idea – “that the goal of our lessons should be to help students semantically encode rather than episodically encode” – in a different way. Andrew points out that “episodic memories gradually turn into semantic memories: general knowledge of abstract facts.” So my thinking may have been a bit off in this blog post: as teachers, we don’t want to AVOID teacher moves that encourage episodic encoding. It may be a better idea (and more realistic) to think about what teacher moves we can make that might help students turn episodic memories into semantic memories (as Andrew says: “we want our students to semanticize most of their learning.”)

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