What Is Educational Psychology

  • Jialu Li Master of Science in Language Sciences (Neuroscience) UCL

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Educational psychology delves into the intricacies of learning, encompassing teaching methodologies, instructional procedures, and variations in individual learning. It investigates the cognitive, behavioural, emotional, and social factors influencing the learning journey. The insights gained from this study are employed by educational psychologists to formulate effective instructional approaches, fostering student success. This article aims to explore diverse perspectives within educational psychology and delve into the subjects studied by educational psychologists.

History of educational psychology

Educational psychology, a relatively recent subfield, has undergone substantial expansion. Psychology only emerged as a distinct science in the late 1800s, leading to an early interest in educational psychology primarily driven by educational philosophers.1 Johann Herbart, often considered the father of educational psychology, emphasised the substantial impact of a student's interest in a subject on the learning outcome.2 Herbart advocated for teachers to take this into account when determining the most suitable instructional approach.

During the same era, French psychologist Alfred Binet developed the renowned IQ tests in 1905.3 Originally designed to assist the French government in identifying children with developmental delays, these tests led to the creation of special education programs. In the United States, John Dewey played a pivotal role in shaping education. Embracing progressive ideas, Dewey advocated for a student-centric approach, emphasising active learning and the importance of hands-on experience. In more recent times, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom introduced a significant taxonomy aimed at categorising and describing various educational objectives.4 In his taxonomy he included cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning domains as the top-level classifications.

Different perspectives in educational psychology

While concentrating on the learning processes of early childhood and adolescence, educational psychology also investigates the lifelong involvement of social, emotional, and cognitive elements in learning. A multidisciplinary field, it integrates developmental psychology, behavioural psychology, and cognitive psychology. Different perspectives, such as behavioural, developmental, cognitive, constructivist, and experiential, contribute to the comprehensive understanding of educational psychology.

The behavioural perspective

The Behavioral Perspective posits that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning. Psychologists embracing this viewpoint heavily rely on the principles of operant conditioning to elucidate the learning process.5

For example, educators may reinforce learning by providing students with tokens that can later be exchanged for desirable items like candy or toys. The behavioural perspective operates on the premise that students will acquire knowledge when rewarded for positive behaviour and penalised for negative behaviour.

While these methods can prove effective in certain situations, the behavioural approach has faced criticism for its perceived limitation in considering attitudes, emotions, and intrinsic motivations for learning.

The cognitive perspective

Cognitive psychology seeks to explore the intricacies of how people think, learn, remember, and process information. This approach asserts that individuals learn through their internal motivation rather than external rewards. This perspective has gained extensive popularity, primarily due to its consideration of factors like memories, beliefs, emotions, and motivations in shaping the learning process.6

Educational psychologists adopting the cognitive perspective aim to unravel the processes of children's motivation for learning, their retention of acquired knowledge, and their problem-solving abilities, among other aspects.

The developmental perspective

This perspective concentrates on the process through which children gain new skills and knowledge during their growth. An example of a significant developmental theory within this perspective is Jean Piaget's stages of cognitive development, which explores how children evolve intellectually.7

By comprehending the cognitive processes at different developmental stages, educational psychologists can gain insights into the capabilities of children at each phase of their growth. This understanding facilitates educators in tailoring instructional methods and materials specifically for different age groups.

The constructive perspective

This perspective centres on the active construction of our understanding of the world.8 Constructivism takes into consideration the impact of social and cultural factors on the learning process. Adherents of the constructivist approach contend that an individual's existing knowledge plays a paramount role in shaping how they acquire new information. According to this view, new knowledge can only be integrated and comprehended in relation to pre-existing knowledge.

The experiential perspective

 This perspective highlights the impact of an individual's life experiences on their comprehension of new information.9 Similar to the constructivist and cognitive perspectives, this approach acknowledges the significance of the learner's experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

This method enables individuals to derive personal meaning from their learning experiences, fostering a sense of relevance and connection to the information, rather than perceiving it as unrelated to their own lives.

Subjects explored in educational psychology

Some of the areas of study in educational psychology encompass:

  • Educational technology: Analyzing the impact of various technologies on student learning
  • Instructional design: Crafting effective learning materials to enhance educational outcomes.
  • Special education: Providing tailored instruction for students with specific needs10
  • Curriculum development: Designing coursework to optimize learning experiences
  • Organizational learning: Investigating how people learn in organizational settings, such as workplaces
  • Gifted learners: Supporting the educational needs of students identified as gifted learners11

Professional paths

Professionals in the field of Educational Psychology collaborate with educators, administrators, teachers, and students to analyse optimal learning approaches. Their responsibilities often include identifying students requiring additional support, developing programs for those facing challenges, and innovating new teaching methods.

Many educational psychologists directly engage with schools, assuming roles such as teachers, professors, or collaborators with educators to implement innovative learning techniques and create updated course curricula. Some may also serve as counsellors, aiding students in overcoming learning obstacles. Another avenue for educational psychologists is research, where they may be employed by government organisations like the U.S. Department of Education, influencing national decisions on effective educational strategies. Furthermore, educational psychologists may pursue roles in school or university administration.12 Respective of their position, these professionals play a pivotal role in shaping educational methods and fostering an environment that suits individual student learning needs.

Summary 

Educational psychology delves into learning intricacies, encompassing teaching methods, individual differences, and cognitive, behavioural, emotional, and social influences. Key contributors, like Johann Herbart, Alfred Binet, John Dewey, and Benjamin Bloom, have shaped its history. Various perspectives, including behavioural, cognitive, developmental, constructivist, and experiential, offer diverse insights. The behavioural approach relies on conditioning, while the cognitive perspective focuses on internal motivation. The developmental view emphasises children's growth, and constructivism highlights active knowledge construction. Experiential learning considers life experiences. Subjects studied include educational technology, instructional design, special education, curriculum development, organisational learning, and support for gifted learners.

Educational psychologists collaborate with educators, administrators, and students, assuming roles like teachers, professors, counsellors, or engaging in research to influence national education strategies. They play a vital role in shaping methods and fostering environments aligned with individual student needs.

References

  • Greenfield PM. The changing psychology of culture from 1800 through 2000. Psychol Sci [Internet]. 2013 Sep [cited 2024 Jan 25];24(9):1722–31. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797613479387
  • Johanningmeier EV. Herbart, johann friedrich. In: Rieber RW, editor. Encyclopedia of the History of Psychological Theories [Internet]. New York, NY: Springer US; 2012 [cited 2024 Jan 25]. p. 508–10. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0463-8_134
  • Sutinen A. William james’s educational will to believe. In: Siljander P, Kivelä A, Sutinen A, editors. Theories of Bildung and Growth: Connections and Controversies Between Continental Educational Thinking and American Pragmatism [Internet]. Rotterdam: SensePublishers; 2012 [cited 2024 Jan 25]. p. 213–26. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6209-031-6_14
  • Anderson LW. Benjamin S. Bloom: His life, his works, and his legacy. In: Educational psychology:  A century of contributions. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers; 2003. p. 367–89.
  • Parsonson BS. Evidence-based classroom behaviour management strategies. Kairaranga [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2024 Jan 25];13(1):16–23. Available from: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ976654
  • Roediger HL. Applying cognitive psychology to education: translational educational science. Psychol Sci Public Interest [Internet]. 2013 Jan [cited 2024 Jan 25];14(1):1–3. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1529100612454415
  • Babakr Z, Mohamedamin P, Kakamad K. Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory: critical review [Internet]. Rochester, NY; 2019 [cited 2024 Jan 25]. Available from: https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3437574
  • Dennick R. Constructivism: reflections on twenty five years teaching the constructivist approach in medical education. Int J Med Educ [Internet]. 2016 Jun 25 [cited 2024 Jan 25];7:200–5. Available from: https://www.ijme.net/archive/7/constructivist-approach-in-medical-education/
  • Binson B, Lev-Wiesel R. Promoting personal growth through experiential learning: the case of expressive arts therapy for lecturers in thailand. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Jan 25];8. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02276
  • Duque E, Gairal R, Molina S, Roca E. How the psychology of education contributes to research with a social impact on the education of students with special needs: the case of successful educational actions. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Jan 25];11. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00439
  • Barbier K, Donche V, Verschueren K. Academic (Under)achievement of intellectually gifted students in the transition between primary and secondary education: an individual learner perspective. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Jan 25];10. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02533
  • https://www.apa.org [Internet]. [cited 2024 Jan 25]. Psychology careers guide. Available from: https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/careers

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Styliani Tsolka

MSc, Health Psychology, University of Surrey, UK
BSc, Psychology, University of Surrey, UK

Stella is dedicated to promoting Mental Health Awareness, among people of all backgrounds and knowledgeable in applying theoretical concepts with real-life scenarios. In the future, Stella aspires to qualify as a Counselling Psychologist, focusing on individualized holistic care.

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