What Is Educational Psychology? 6 Examples and Theories

What is Educational PsychologyEducational psychology is one of the oldest branches in the field, with roots dating back at least to Plato.

Plato believed that learning is based on the mind’s innate capacity to receive information and judge its intellectual and moral value.

Plato’s foremost pupil, Aristotle, emphasized how learning involves building associations such as succession in time, contiguity in space, and similarities and/or contrasts.

Later thinkers would devote considerable attention to learning and memory processes, various teaching methods, and how learning can be optimized.

Together, these thinkers have formed the growing and diverse body of theory and practice of educational psychology, and this intriguing topic is what we will discuss below.

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What Is Educational Psychology and Why Is It Important?

Educational psychology is dedicated to the study and improvement of human learning, across the lifespan, in whatever setting it occurs.

Such settings include not only schools, but also workplaces, organized sports, government agencies, and retirement communities – anywhere humans are engaged in instruction and learning of some type.

Educational psychology is important because of its focus on understanding and improving the crucial human capacity to learn.

In this mission of enhancing learning, educational psychologists seek to assist students and teachers alike.

 

A Brief History of the Field

Educational PsychologyAs noted above, early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the learning process, for factual and moral knowledge.

However, it was not until later in history that educational psychology emerged as a field in its own right, distinct from philosophy.

John Locke (1632–1704), the influential British philosopher and “father of psychology,” famously described the human mind as a tabula rasa (blank slate) that had no innate or inborn knowledge, but could only learn through the accumulation of experiences.

Johann Herbart (1776–1841) is considered the founder of educational psychology as a distinct field. He emphasized interest in a subject as a crucial component of learning.

He also proposed five formal steps of learning:

  1. Reviewing what is already known
  2. Previewing new material to be learned
  3. Presenting new material
  4. Relating new material to what is already known
  5. Showing how new knowledge can be usefully applied

Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was an Italian physician and educator who started by teaching disabled and underprivileged children. She then founded a network of schools that taught children of all backgrounds using a hands-on, multi-sensory, and often student-directed approach to learning.

Nathaniel Gage (1917–2008) was an influential educational psychologist who pioneered research on teaching. He served in the U.S. Army during WWII, where he developed aptitude tests for selecting airplane navigators and radar operators.

Gage went on to develop a research program that did much to advance the scientific study of teaching.

He believed that progress in learning highly depends on effective teaching and that a robust theory of effective teaching has to cover:

  1. The process of teaching
  2. Content to be taught
  3. Student abilities and motivation level
  4. Classroom management

The above is only a sample of the influential thinkers who have contributed over time to the field of educational psychology.

For an excellent and concise history of educational psychology from Plato and Aristotle through behaviorism and other modern movements, please see Grinder (1989).

 

Job Description and Roles of an Educational Psychologist

Educational psychologists have typically earned either a master’s degree or doctorate in the field.

They work in a variety of teaching, research, and applied settings (e.g., K–12, universities, the military, and educational industries like textbook and test developers).

Those with a doctorate often teach and do research at colleges or universities.

They teach basic courses such as Introduction to Educational Psychology and more advanced seminars such as Professional Ethics in Educational Psychology, or Research Methods in Educational Psychology.

They conduct research on topics such as the best measure of literacy skills for students in secondary education, the most effective method for teaching early career professionals in engineering, and the relationship between education level and emotional health in retirees.

Educational psychologists also work in various applied roles, such as consulting on curriculum design; evaluating educational programs at schools or training sites; and offering teachers the best instructional methods for a subject area, grade level, or population, be it mainstream students, those with disabilities, or gifted students.

 

3 Real-Life Examples

Mamie Phipps ClarkHoward Gardner, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is known for having developed the theory of multiple intelligences.

This theory states that besides the traditionally measured verbal and visual–spatial forms of intelligence, there are also forms that include kinesthetic or athletic intelligence, interpersonal or social–emotional intelligence, musical or artistic intelligence, and perhaps other forms we have not yet learned to measure.

Dr. Gardner teaches, conducts research, and publishes. His many books include Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) and The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, the Education That Every Child Deserves (2000).

Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–1983), shown above, was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. She and her husband Kenneth Clark (1914–2005) were interested in development and self-esteem in African-American children.

Her doctoral work illustrated the dehumanizing effect of segregated schools on both African-American and white children, in the well-known “doll study” (Clark & Clark, 1939). She found that both African-American children and white children imputed more positive characteristics to white dolls than to Black dolls.

This work was used as evidence in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that decided that schools separated by race were not equal and must be desegregated.

She and her husband founded several institutions dedicated to providing counseling and educational services for underprivileged African-American children, including the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project.

Irene Marie Montero Gil earned her master’s degree from the Department of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.

Ms. Montero Gil had been balancing subsequent doctoral studies with her role as the youngest member of Spain’s Congress of Deputies, representing Madrid. She later postponed her studies to become Spain’s Minister of Equality, an office that advocates for equal opportunity regardless of age, gender, or disability.

The above examples show just some contributions that educational psychologists can make in research, teaching, legal, and advocacy contexts.

 

3 Popular Theories

Various theories have been developed to account for how humans learn. Some of the most enduring and representative modern-day theories are discussed below.

 

1. Behaviorism

Behaviorism equates learning with observable changes in activity (Skinner, 1938). For example, an assembly line worker might have “learned” to assemble a toy from parts, and after 10 practice sessions, the worker can do so without errors within 60 seconds.

In behaviorism, there is a focus on stimuli or prompts to action (your supervisor hands you a box of toy parts), followed by a behavior (you assemble the toy), followed by reinforcement or lack thereof (you receive a raise for the fastest toy assembly).

Behaviorism holds that the behavioral responses that are positively reinforced are more likely to recur in the future.

We should note that behaviorists believe in a pre-set, external reality that is progressively discovered by learning.

Some scholars have also held that from a behaviorist perspective, learners are more reactive to environmental stimuli than active or proactive in the learning process (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).

However, one of the most robust developments in the later behaviorist tradition is that of positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS), in which proactive techniques play a prominent role in enhancing learning within schools.

Such proactive behavioral supports include maximizing structure in classrooms, teaching clear behavioral expectations in advance, regularly using prompts with students, and actively supervising students (Simonsen & Myers, 2015).

Over 2,500 schools across the United States now apply the PBIS supportive behavioral framework, with documented improvements in both student behavior (Bradshaw, Waasdorp, & Leaf, 2012) and achievement (Madigan, Cross, Smolkowski, & Stryker, 2016).

 

2. Cognitivism

Cognitivism was partly inspired by the development of computers and an information-processing model believed to be applicable to human learning (Neisser, 1967).

It also developed partly as a reaction to the perceived limits of the behaviorist model of learning, which was thought not to account for mental processes.

In cognitivism, learning occurs when information is received, arranged, held in memory, and retrieved for use.

Cognitivists are keenly interested in a neuronal or a brain-to-behavior perspective on learning and memory. Their lines of research often include studies involving functional brain imaging (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging) to see which brain circuits are activated during specific learning tasks.

Cognitivists are also keenly interested in “neuroplasticity,” or how learning causes new connections to be made between individual brain cells (neurons) and their broader neuronal networks.

From the cognitivist perspective, individuals are viewed as very active in the learning process, including how they organize information to make it personally meaningful and memorable.

Cognitivists, like behaviorists, believe that learning reflects an external reality, rather than shaping or constructing reality.

 

3. Constructivism

Constructivism holds that from childhood on, humans learn in successive stages (Piaget, 1955).

In these stages, we match our basic concepts, or “schemas,” of reality with experiences in the world and adjust our schemas accordingly.

For example, based on certain experiences as a child, you might form the schematic concept that all objects drop when you let them go. But let’s say you get a helium balloon that rises when you let go of it. You must then adjust your schema to capture this new reality that “most things drop when I let go of them, but at least one thing rises when I let go of it.”

For constructivists, there is always a subjective component to how reality is organized. From this perspective, learning cannot be said to reflect a pre-set external reality. Rather, reality is always an interplay between one’s active construction of the world and the world itself.

 

Educational Psychology Research Topics

Educational CollegeRecent research in educational psychology has included an emphasis on how social–emotional factors affect student achievement.

For example, Zysberg and Schwabsky (2020) examined the relationships between positive school culture or climate, students’ sense of self-efficacy, and academic achievement in Israeli middle and high school settings.

They found that school climate was positively associated with students’ sense of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, in turn, was positively associated with academic achievement in math and English.

This study reflects a constructivist approach, emphasizing how students create meaning out of their educational experiences.

Other recent research has focused on behavioral interventions to support online learning, which is increasingly prevalent as an educational option.

For example, Yeomans and Reich (2017) found that sending learners regular prompts to complete online work resulted in a 29% increase in courses completed. They concluded that sending regular reminder prompts is an inexpensive and effective way to enhance online course completion.

This study reflects a proactive behaviorist approach to improving educational outcomes.

Another current research domain in educational psychology involves the use of brain imaging techniques during learning activity.

For example, Takeuchi, Mori, Suzukamo, and Izumi (2019) studied brain activity in teachers and students while teachers provided hints for solving a visual–spatial problem (assembling puzzles).

They found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, involved in planning and monitoring of complex cognitive activities, was significantly activated in teachers, not when they planned hints to be given, but only when they actually gave the hints.

For the student participants, the prefrontal cortex was significantly activated when they had solved the puzzle with hints provided.

This study emphasizes a cognitivist approach, focused on brain activity during learning.

For cognitivists, understanding how the brain converts instructional inputs into learning can lead to improved teaching strategies and better learning outcomes.

 

Educational Psychology vs School Psychology

Educational and school psychologists overlap in their training and functions, to some extent, but also differ in important ways.

Educational psychologists are more involved in teaching and research at the college or university level. They also focus on larger and more diverse groups in their research and consulting activities.

As consultants, educational psychologists work with organizations such as school districts, militaries, or corporations in developing the best methods for instructional needs.

Some school psychologists are involved in teaching, research, and/or consulting with large groups such as a school district. However, most are more focused on working within a particular school and with individual students and their families.

About 80% of school psychologists work in public school settings and do direct interventions with individuals or small groups.

They help with testing and supporting students with special needs, helping teachers develop classroom management strategies, and engaging in individual or group counseling, which can include crisis counseling and emotional–behavioral support.

 

A Look Into Vygotsky’s Ideas

Lev VygotskyLev Vygotsky (1896–1934) was a Russian psychologist who developed certain ideas fundamental to the constructivist movement in education.

One idea central to Vygotsky’s learning theory is that of the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

The ZPD is the area between what a learner (student, adult trainee, rehabilitation patient, etc.) can already do on their own and what the learner can readily accomplish with the help of teachers or more advanced peers.

For example, a five-year-old might already know how to perform a given three-step manual task, but can they be taught to complete a four- or five-step task?

The ZPD is a zone of emerging skills, which calls for its own kind of exploration and measurement, in order to better understand a learner’s potential (Moll, 2014).

Vygotsky was also interested in the relationship between thought and language. He theorized that much of thought comprised internalized language or “inner speech.” Like Piaget, whose work he read with interest, Vygotsky came to see language as having social origins, which would then become internalized as inner speech.

In that sense, Vygotsky is often considered a (social) constructivist, where learning depends on social communication and norms. Learning thus reflects our connection to and agreement with others, more than a connection with a purely external or objective reality.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources

As mentioned in the discussion of Nathaniel Gage’s theory of effective teaching, student motivation is an important component to assess and encourage.

The Internalized Motivation in the Classroom form from our toolkit helps students and their teachers become more aware of a student’s motivation for a given class. This knowledge can help both teachers and students find ways to enhance motivation in specific cases.

As noted above, the cognitivist approach to educational psychology includes understanding how the brain learns by forming new connections between neurons. The Teaching a Growth Mindset activity inspires adults to learn by referencing their inherent neuroplasticity.

The idea is that with enough effort and repetition, we can form new and durable connections within our brains of a positive and adaptive nature.

For parents and teachers, we recommend Dr. Gabriella Lancia’s article on Healthy Discipline Strategies for Teaching & Inspiring Children. This article offers basic and effective strategies and worksheets for creating a positive behavioral climate at home and school that is pro-social and pro-learning.

17 Positive Psychology Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

 

A Take-Home Message

The field of educational psychology has ancient roots and remains vibrant today.

Today, there are many programs across the world providing quality training in educational psychology at the master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral levels.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, career opportunities in psychology will grow at a healthy rate of about 14% over this decade, and educational psychology is expected to keep pace.

In addition, job satisfaction in educational psychology and related fields such as school psychology has traditionally been high, including as it concerns social impact, independence, and compensation (Worrell, Skaggs, & Brown, 2006).

Those with a doctorate in educational psychology have potential for a broad impact on learners of any and every type. They often teach at the college or university level, conduct research and publish on various topics in the field, or consult with various organizations about the best teaching and learning methods.

Researchers in educational psychology have made important contributions to contemporary education and culture, from learning paradigms (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructionism) and the theory of multiple intelligences, to proactive school-wide positive behavioral supports.

We hope you have learned more about the rich field of educational psychology from this brief article and will find the resources it contains useful. Don’t forget to download our free Positive Psychology Exercises.

If you wish to access more exercises, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

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  • Clark, K., & Clark, M. (1939). The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology10(4), 591–599.
  • Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43–71.
  • Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books.
  • Gardner, H. (2000). The disciplined mind: Beyond facts and standardized tests, the education that every child deserves. Penguin Books.
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  • Madigan, K., Cross, R. W., Smolkowski, K., & Stryker, L. A. (2016). Association between schoolwide positive behavioural interventions and supports and academic achievement: A 9-year evaluation. Educational Research and Evaluation, 22(7–8), 402–421.
  • Moll, L. C. (2014). L. S. Vygotsky and education. Routledge.
  • Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
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  • Simonsen, B., & Myers, D. (2015). Classwide positive behavior interventions and supports: A guide to proactive classroom management. Guilford Publications.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. B. F. Skinner Foundation.
  • Takeuchi, N., Mori, T., Suzukamo, Y., & Izumi, S. I. (2019). Activity of prefrontal cortex in teachers and students during teaching of an insight problem. Mind, Brain, and Education, 13, 167–175.
  • Worrell, T. G., Skaggs, G. E., & Brown, M. B. (2006). School psychologists’ job satisfaction: A 22-year perspective in the USA. School Psychology International, 27(2), 131–145.
  • Yeomans, M., & Reich, J. (2017). Planning prompts increase and forecast course completion in massive open online courses. Conference: The Seventh International Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference, pp. 464–473.
  • Zysberg, L., & Schwabsky, N. (2020). School climate, academic self-efficacy and student achievement. Educational Psychology. Taylor & Francis Online.

About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey Gaines earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from SUNY/Stony Brook in 1992, and a further Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 2001. He sees clinical psychology as a practical extension of philosophy and specializes in neuropsychology – having been board-certified in 2011. Jeffrey is currently Clinical Director at Metrowest Neuropsychology in Westborough, MA.

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