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Educational psychology is the study of how humans learn in educational settings, the effectiveness of educational treatments, the psychology of teaching, and the social psychology of schools as organizations. Although the terms "educational psychology" and "school psychology" are often used interchangeably, researchers and theorists are likely to be identified as educational psychologists, whereas practitioners in schools or school-related settings are identified as school psychologists. Educational psychology is concerned with the processes of educational attainment among the general population and sub-populations such as gifted children and those subject to specific disabilities.

Educational psychology can in part be understood through its relationship with other disciplines. It is informed primarily by psychology, bearing a relationship to that discipline analogous to the relationship between medicine and biology. Educational psychology in turn informs a wide range of specialities within educational studies, including instructional design, educational technology, curriculum development, organizational learning, special education and classroom management. Educational psychology both draws from and contributes to cognitive science and the learning sciences. In universities, departments of educational psychology are usually housed within faculties of education, possibly accounting for the lack of representation of educational psychology content in introductory psychology textbooks (Lucas, Blazek, & Raley, 2005).

Social, moral and cognitive development

An abacus provides concrete experiences for learning abstract concepts.

To understand the characteristics of learners in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, educational psychology develops and applies theories of human development. Often cast as stages through which people pass as they mature, developmental theories describe changes in mental abilities (cognition), social roles, moral reasoning, and beliefs about the nature of knowledge.

For example, educational psychologists have researched the instructional applicability of Jean Piaget's theory of development, according to which children mature through four stages of cognitive capability. Piaget hypothesized that children are not capable of abstract logical thought until they are older than about 11 years, and therefore younger children need to be taught using concrete objects and examples. Researchers have found that transitions, such as from concrete to abstract logical thought, do not occur at the same time in all domains. A child may be able to think abstractly about mathematics, but remain limited to concrete thought when reasoning about human relationships. Perhaps Piaget's most enduring contribution is his insight that people actively construct their understanding through a self-regulatory process.

Piaget proposed a developmental theory of moral reasoning in which children progress from a naive understanding of morality based on behavior and outcomes to a more advanced understanding based on intentions. Piaget's views of moral development were elaborated by Kohlberg into a stage theory of moral development. There is evidence that the moral reasoning described in stage theories is not sufficient to account for moral behavior. For example, other factors such as modeling (as described by the social cognitive theory of morality) are required to explain bullying.

Developmental theories are sometimes presented, not as shifts between qualitatively different stages, but as gradual increments on separate dimensions. Development of epistemological beliefs (beliefs about knowledge) have been described in terms gradual changes in people's belief in: certainty and permanence of knowledge, fixedness of ability, and credibility of authorities such as teachers and experts. People develop more sophisticated beliefs about knowledge as they gain in education and maturity (Cano, 2005).

Individual differences and disabilities

An example of an item from a cognitive abilities test.

Each person has an individual profile of characteristics, abilities and challenges that result from learning and development. These manifest as individual differences in intelligence, creativity, cognitive style, motivation, and the capacity to process information, communicate, and relate to others. The most prevalent disabilities found among school age children are attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability, dyslexia, and speech disorder. Less common disabilities include mental retardation, autism, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and blindness.

Although theories of intelligence have been discussed by philosophers since Plato, intelligence testing is an invention of educational psychology, and is coincident with the development of that discipline. Continuing debates about the nature of intelligence revolve on whether intelligence can be characterized by a single factor (Spearman's general intelligence), multiple factors (as in Sternberg's triarchic theory of intelligence and Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences), or whether it can be measured at all. In practice, standardized instruments such as the Stanford-Binet IQ test are widely used in economically developed countries to identify children in need of individualized educational treatment. Children classified as gifted are often provided with accelerated or enriched programs. Children identified with specific deficits may be provided with education in specific skills such as phonological awareness.

Learning and cognition

Two fundamental assumptions that underly formal education systems are that students (a) retain knowledge and skills they acquire in school, and (b) can apply them in situations outside the classroom. But are these assumptions accurate? Research has found that, even when students report not using the knowledge acquired in school, a considerable portion is retained for many years and long term retention is strongly dependent on the initial level of mastery (Semb & Ellis, 1994). When tested 10 years later, university students who took a child development course and attained high grades showed average retention scores of about 30%, whereas those who obtained moderate or lower grades showed average retention scores of about 20% (Ellis, Semb, & Cole, 1998). There is much less consensus on the crucial question of how much knowledge acquired in school transfers to tasks encountered outside formal educational settings. Some psychologists claim that research evidence for this type of far transfer is scarce (Perkins & Grotzer, 1997; Detterman, 1993), while others claim there is abundent evidence of far transfer in specific domains (e.g., Halpern, 1998).

Several perspectives have been established within which the theories of learning used in educational psychology are formed and contested. These include Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Social Cognitivism, and Constructivism. This section summarizes how educational psychology has researched and applied theories within each of these perspectives.

Behavioral perspective

Applied behavior analysis, a set of techniques based on the behavioral principles of operant conditioning, is effective in a range of educational settings (Alberto & Troutman, 2003). For example, teachers can improve student behavior by systematically rewarding students who follow classroom rules with praise, stars, or tokens exchangable for sundry items (McGoey & DuPaul, 2003; Theodore, Bray, Kehle, & Jensen, 2001). However, the use of rewards in education has been criticized by proponents of self-determination theory, who claim that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. There is evidence that tangible rewards decrease intrinsic motivation in specific situations, such as when the student already has a high level of intrinsic motivation to perform the goal behavior (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). But the results showing detrimental effects are counterbalanced by evidence that, in other situations, such as when rewards are given for attaining a gradually increasing standard of performance, rewards enhance intrinsic motivation (Cameron, Pierce, Banko, & Gear, 2005).

Cognitive perspective

Among current educational psychologists, the cognitive perspective is more widely held than the behavioral perspective perhaps because it flexibly admits causally related mental constructs such as traits, beliefs, memories, motivations and emotions. Cognitive theories posit memory structures that are thought to determine how information is perceived, processed, stored, retrieved and forgotten. Among the memory structures theorized by cognitive psychologists are separate but linked visual and verbal systems described by Paivio's dual coding theory. Educational psychologists have used dual coding theory and cognitive load theory to explain how people learn from multimedia presentations (Mayer, 2003).

Three experiments reported by Krug, Davis & Glover (1990) demonstrated the advantage of delaying a second reading of a text passage by one week (distributed reading) compared with no delay between readings (massed reading). The bars show the average number of recalled idea units with 95% confidence intervals.

The spaced learning effect, a cognitive phenomenon strongly supported by psychological research, has broad applicability within education (Dempster, 1989). For example, students have been found to perform better on a test of knowledge about a text passage when when a second reading of the passage is delayed rather than immediate (Krug, Davis & Glover, 1990, see figure). Educational psychology research has confirmed the applicability to education of other findings from cognitive psychology, such as the benefits of using mnemonics for immediate and delayed retention of information (Carney & Levin, 2000).

Problem solving, regarded by many cognitive psychologists as fundamental to learning, is an important research topic in educational psychology. A student is thought to interpret a problem by assigning it to a problem schema held as prior knowledge. When the problem is assigned to the wrong schema, the student's attention is subsequently directed away from features of the problem that are inconsistent with the assigned schema (Kalyuga, Chandler, Tuovnen & Sweller, 2001). The critical step of finding a mapping between the problem and a pre-existing schema is often cited as supporting the centrality of analogical thinking to problem solving.

Social cognitive theory

Social cognitive theory is a highly influential fusion of behavioral, cognitive and social elements that was initially developed by educational psychologist Albert Bandura. In its earlier, neo-behavioral incarnation called social learning theory, Bandura emphasized the process of observational learning in which a learner's behavior changes as a result of observing others' behavior and its consequences. The theory identified several factors that determine whether observing a model will affect behavioral or cognitive change. These factors include the learner's developmental status, the perceived prestige and competence of the model, the consequences received by the model, the relevance of the model's behaviors and consequences to the learner's goals, and the learner's self-efficacy. The concept of self-efficacy, which played an important role in later developments of the theory, refers to the learner's belief in his or her ability to perform the modeled behavior.

An experiment by Schunk and Hanson (1985), studying grade 2 students who had previously experienced difficulty in learning subtraction, illustrates the type of research stimulated by social learning theory. One group of students observed a subtraction demonstration by a teacher and then participated in an instructional program on subtraction. A second group observed other grade 2 students performing the same subtraction procedures and then partipated in the same instructional program. The students who observed peer models scored higher on a subtraction post-test and also reported greater confidence in their subtraction ability. The results were interpreted as supporting the hypothesis that perceived similarity of the model to the learner increases self-efficacy, leading to more effective learning of modeled behavior. It is supposed that peer modeling is particularly effective for students who have low self-efficacy.

Over the last decade, much research activity in educational psychology has focused on developing theories of self-regulated learning (SRL) and metacognition. These theories work from the central premise that effective learners are active agents who construct knowledge by setting goals, analysing tasks, planning strategies and monitoring their understanding. Research has indicated that learners' who are better at goal setting and self-monitoring tend to have greater intrinsic task interest and self-efficacy (Zimmerman, 1998); and that teaching learning strategies can increase academic achievement (Hattie, Biggs & Purdie, 1996).

Constructivist perspective

Constructivism refers to a category of learning theories in which emphasis is placed on the agency and prior knowledge of the learner, and often on the social and cultural determinants of the learning process. Educational psychologists distinguish individual (or psychological) constructivism, identified with Piaget's learning theory, from social constructivism. A dominant influence on the latter type is Lev Vygotsky's work on sociocultural learning, describing how interactions with adults, more capable peers, and cognitive tools are internalized to form mental constructs. Elaborating on Vygotsky's theory, Jerome Bruner and other educational psychologists developed the important concept of instructional scaffolding, in which the social or information environment offers supports for learning that are gradually withdrawn as they become internalized.

Vygotsky's version of constructivist theory has led to the view that behavior, skills, attitudes and beliefs are inherently situated, that is, bound to a specific sociocultural setting. According to this view, the learner is enculturated through social interactions within a community of practice. The social constructivist view of learning has spawned approaches to teaching and learning such as cognitive apprenticeship, in which the tacit components of a complex skill are made explicit through conversational interactions occurring between expert and novice in the setting in which the skill is embedded (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989).


Motivation is an internal state that arouses, guides and sustains behavior. Educational psychology research on motivation is concerned with the volition or will that students bring to a task, their level of interest and intrinsic motivation, the personally held goals that guide their behavior, and their belief about the causes of their success or failure.

A form of attribution theory developed by Bernard Weiner describes how students' beliefs about the causes of academic success or failure affect their emotions and motivations (Weiner, 2000). For example, when students attribute failure to lack of ability, and ability is perceived as uncontrollable, they experience the emotions of shame and embarrassment and consequently decrease effort and show poorer performance. In contrast, when students attribute failure to lack of effort, and effort is perceived as controllable, they experience the emotion of guilt and consequently increase effort and show improved performance.

Motivational theories also explain how learners' goals affect the way that they engage with academic tasks (Elliot, 1999). Those who have mastery goals strive to increase their ability and knowledge. Those who have performance approach goals strive for high grades and seek opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. Those who have performance avoidance goals are driven by fear of failure and avoid situations where their abilities are exposed. Research has found that mastery goals are associated with many positive outcomes such as persistence in the face of failure, preference for challenging tasks, creativity and intrinsic motivation. Performance avoidance goals are associated with negative outcomes such as poor concentration while studying, disorganized studying, less self-regulation, shallow information processing and test anxiety. Performance approach goals are associated with positive outcomes, and some negative outcomes such as an unwillingness to seek help and shallow information processing.

Research methods

The research methods used in educational psychology tend to be drawn from psychology and other social sciences. There is also a history of significant methodological innovation by educational psychologists, or psychologists investigating educational problems. Research methods address problems in both research design and data analysis. Research design informs the planning of experiments and observational studies to ensure that their results have internal, external and ecological validity. Data analysis encompasses methods for processing both quantitive (numerical) and qualitative (non-numerical) research data. Although, historically, the use of quantitative methods was often considered an essential mark of scholarship, modern educational psychology research uses both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Perhaps first among the important methodological innovations of educational psychology was the development and application factor analysis by Charles Spearman.

Meta-analysis, the combination of individual research results to produce a quantitative literature review, is another methodological innovation with a close association to educational psychology. In a meta-analysis, effect sizes that represent, for example, the differences between treatment groups in a set of similar experiments, are averaged to obtain a single aggregate value representing the best estimate of the effect of treatment (Lipsey & Wilson, 2001). Although early versions of meta-analysis are found in work by Karl Pearson, Gene Glass (1976) published the first application of modern meta-analytic techniques and triggered their broad application across the social and biomedical sciences. Today, meta-analysis is among the most common types of literature review found in educational psychology research.

Educational psychology for teaching

A class-size experiment conducted in the U.S. state of Tennessee demonstrated that attending small classes (13 to 17 students) for three or more years in the early grades substantially increased the high school graduation rate of lower socioeconomic status students (Finn, Gerber, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2005).

Research on classroom management and pedagogy is conducted to guide teaching practice and form a foundation for teacher education programs. The goals of classroom management are to create an environment conducive to learning and to develop students' self-management skills. More specifically, classroom management strives to create positive teacher-student and peer relationships, manage student groups to sustain on-task behavior, and use counselling and other psychological methods to aid students who present persistent psychosocial problems (Emmer & Stough, 2001).

Educational psychology for instructional design and technology

Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives: Quasi-ordered categories in the cognitive process dimension of the revised taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001)

In task analysis, often regarded as a behavioral approach to designing learning materials and activities, complex performance goals are analyzed into simpler, subsidiary objectives that are arranged in an instructional sequence. Behavioral objectives include descriptions of: (1) the target behavior; (2) the conditions under which the target behavior is to be performed; and (3) the performance criteria (Mager, 1975). An example of a behavioral objective is:

The student will be able to read aloud from a list of common words with the "-tion" suffix, correctly pronouncing 90% of the listed words.

History of educational psychology

Educational psychology cannot claim priority in the systematic analysis of educational processes. Philosophers of education such as Democritus, Quintilian, Vives and Comenius, had examined, classified and judged the methods of education centuries before the beginnings of psychology in the late 1800s. Instead, aspirations of the new discipline rested on the application of the scientific methods of observation and experimentation to educational problems. Even in the earliest years of the discipline, educational psychologists recognized the limitations of this new approach. In his famous series of lectures Talks to Teachers on Psychology, published in 1899 and now regarded as the first educational psychology textbook, the pioneering American psychologist William James commented that:

Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediate inventive mind must make that application, by using its originality. (James, 1899/1983, p. 15)

Careers in educational psychology

A person may be considered an educational psychologist if he or she has completed a graduate degree in educational psychology or a closely related field. Universities establish educational psychology graduate programs in either psychology departments or, more commonly, faculties of education. Psychologists that work in a k-12 school setting are usually trained at either the masters or doctoral (PhD or EdD) level. In addition to conducting assessments, school psychologists provide services such as academic and behavioral intervention, counseling, teacher consultation, and crisis intervention.

In recent decades the participation of women as professional researchers in North American educational psychology has risen dramatically (Evans, Hsieh & Robinson, 2005). The percentage of female authors of peer-reviewed journal articles doubled from 1976 (24%) to 1995 (51%), and has since remained constant. Female membership on educational psychology journal editorial boards increased from 17% in 1976 to 47% in 2004. Over the same period, the proportion of chief editor positions held by women increased from 22% to 70%.

Influential educational psychologists and theorists

Research journals

Journal Impact*
Educational Psychologist 3.72
Journal of the Learning Sciences 2.28
Learning and Individual Differences 2.17
Review of Educational Research 1.96
Journal of Educational Psychology 1.69
Learning and Instruction 1.62
Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics 1.35
Educational Psychology Review 1.23
American Educational Research Journal 1.10
British Journal of Educational Psychology 0.92
Cognition and Instruction 0.80
Contemporary Educational Psychology 0.75
Journal of Experimental Education 0.73
Instructional Science 0.66
Educational Technology Res and Dev 0.20
European Journal of Psychology of Education 0.18
Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology 0.08
* Citations per article from 2004 ISI JCR

Although not exhaustive, the table to the right lists peer-reviewed journals in educational psychology and related fields. The impact factor is the average number of citations per article in each journal.

See also

References & Bibliography

Alberto, P., & Troutman, A. (2003). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (6th ed.). Columbus, OH, USA: Prentice-Hall-Merrill.

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, USA: Addison-Wesley Longman.

Cameron, J., Pierce, W. D., Banko, K. M., & Gear, A. (2005). Achievement-based rewards and intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 641-655.

Cano, F. (2005). Epistemological beliefs and approaches to learning: Their change through secondary school and their influence on academic performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 203-221.

Carney, R. N., & Levin, J. R. (2000). Fading mnemonic memories: Here's looking anew, again! Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 499-508.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick, (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 453-494.

Dempster, F. N. (1989). Spacing effects and their implications for theory and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 1, 309-330.

Detterman, D. K. (1993). The case for the prosecution: Transfer as an epiphenomenon. In D. K. Detterman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction (pp. 1-24). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Evans, J., Hsieh, P. P., & Robinson, D. H. (2005). Women's Involvement in educational psychology journals from 1976 to 2004. Educational Psychology Review, 17, 263-271.

Elliot, A. J. (1999). Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals. Educational Psychologist, 34, 169–189.

Ellis, J. A., Semb, G. B., & Cole, B. (1998). Very long-term memory for information taught in school. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23, 419-433.

Emmer, E. T., & Stough, L. M. (2001). Classroom management: A critical part of educational psychology with implications for teacher education. Educational Psychologist, 36, 103-112.

Finn, J. D., Gerber, S. B., Boyd-Zaharias, J. (2005). Small classes in the early grades, academic achievement, and graduating from high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 214-233.

Gijbels, D., Dochy, F., & Van den Bossche, P. (2005). Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis from the angle of assessment. Review of Educational Research, 75, 27-61.

Glass, G. V. (1976). Primary, secondary, and meta-analysis of research. Educational Researcher, 5, 3-8.

Gronlund, N. E. (2000). How to write and use instructional objectives (6th ed.). Columbus, OH, USA: Merrill.

Halpern, D. F. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains. American Psychologist, 53, 449-455.

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 99-136.

James, W. (1983). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life's ideals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1899)

Jimerson,S.R., Oakland,T.D. and Farrell,P.T. (2004). The Handbook of International School Psychology. Sage. ISBN 9781412926690

Kaluyuga, S., Chandler, P., Tuovinen, J., & Sweller, J. (2001). When problem solving is superior to studying worked examples. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 579-588.

Krug, D., Davis, T. B., Glover, J. A. (1990). Massed versus distributed repeated reading: A case of forgetting helping recall? Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 366-371.

Lucas, J. L., Blazek, M. A., & Raley, A. B. (2005). The lack of representation of educational psychology and school psychology in introductory psychology textbooks. Educational Psychology, 25, 347-351.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D. & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

Lipsey, M. W., & Wilson, D. B. (2001). Practical meta-analysis. London: Sage.

Mager, R. F. (1975). Preparing instructional objectives. Belmont, CA, USA: Fearon.

McGoey, K. E., & DuPaul, G. J. (2000). Token reinforcement and response cost procedures: Reducing the disruptive behavior of preschool children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. School Psychology Quarterly, 15, 330-343.

Perkins, D. N. & Grotzer, T. A. (1997). Teaching intelligence. American Psychologist, 52, 1125-1133.

Purdie, N., Hattie, J., & Carroll, A. (2002). A review of the research on interventions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: What works best? Review of Educational Research, 72, 61-99.

Schunk, D. H., & Hanson, A. R. (1985). Peer models: Influence on children's self-efficacy and achievement behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 313-322.

Semb, G. B., & Ellis, J. A. (1994). Knowledge taught in schools: What is remembered? Review of Educational Research, 64, 253-286.

Theodore, L. A., Bray, M. A., Kehle, T. J., & Jenson, W. R. (2001). Randomization of group contingencies and reinforcers to reduce classroom disruptive behavior. Journal of School Psychology, 39, 267-277.

Weiner, B. (2000). Interpersonal and intrapersonal theories of motivation from an attributional perspective. Educational Psychology Review, 12, 1-14.

Woolfolk, A. E., Winne, P. H., & Perry, N. E. (2006). Educational Psychology (3rd Canadian ed.). Toronto, Canada: Pearson.

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 99-136.

Zimmerman, B. J. (1998). Developing self-fulfilling cycles of academic regulation: An analysis of exemplary instructional models. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.) Self-regulated learning: From teaching to self-reflective practice (pp. 1-19). New York: Guilford.

Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (Eds.)(2003). Educational psychology: A century of contributions. Mahwah, NJ, US: Erlbaum.

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