Educational psychology

Educational psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the scientific study of human learning. The study of learning processes, from both cognitive and behavioral perspectives, allows researchers to understand individual differences in intelligence, cognitive development, affect, motivation, self-regulation, and self-concept, as well as their role in learning. The field of educational psychology relies heavily on quantitative methods, including testing and measurement, to enhance educational activities related to instructional design, classroom management, and assessment, which serve to facilitate learning processes in various educational settings across the lifespan.[1]

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. It is also informed by neuroscience. Educational psychology in turn informs a wide range of specialities within educational studies, including instructional design, educational technology, curriculum development, organizational learning, special education, classroom management, and student motivation. 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.[2]

The field of educational psychology involves the study of memory, conceptual processes, and individual differences (via cognitive psychology) in conceptualizing new strategies for learning processes in humans. Educational psychology has been built upon theories of operant conditioning, functionalism, structuralism, constructivism, humanistic psychology, Gestalt psychology, and information processing.[1]

Educational psychology has seen rapid growth and development as a profession in the last twenty years.[3] School psychology began with the concept of intelligence testing leading to provisions for special education students, who could not follow the regular classroom curriculum in the early part of the 20th century.[3] However, "school psychology" itself has built a fairly new profession based upon the practices and theories of several psychologists among many different fields. Educational psychologists are working side by side with psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, speech and language therapists, and counselors in attempt to understand the questions being raised when combining behavioral, cognitive, and social psychology in the classroom setting.[3]


Early years

Educational psychology is a fairly new and growing field of study. Though it can date back as early as the days of Plato and Aristotle, it was not identified as a specific practice. It was unknown that everyday teaching and learning in which individuals had to think about individual differences, assessment, development, the nature of a subject being taught, problem solving, and transfer of learning was the beginning to the field of educational psychology. These topics are important to education and as a result it is important to understanding human cognition, learning, and social perception.[4]

Plato and Aristotle

Educational psychology dates back to the time of Aristotle and Plato. Plato and Aristotle researched individual differences in the field of education, training of the body and the cultivation of psycho-motor skills, the formation of good character, the possibilities and limits of moral education. Some other educational topics they spoke about were the effects of music, poetry, and the other arts on the development of individual, role of teacher, and the relations between teacher and student.[4] Plato saw knowledge as an innate ability, which evolves through experience and understanding of the world. Such a statement has evolved into a continuing argument of nature vs. nurture in understanding conditioning and learning today. Aristotle observed the phenomenon of "association." His four laws of association included succession, contiguity, similarity, and contrast. His studies examined recall and facilitated learning processes.[5]

John Locke

John Locke was considered one of the most influential philosophers in post-renaissance Europe in about mid 1600s. Locke was called "Father of English Psychology". One of Locke's most important works was written in 1690, named An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In this essay, he introduced the term "tabula rasa" meaning "blank slate." Locke explained that learning was primarily understood through experience only, and we were all born without knowledge.[6]

He followed by contrasting Plato's theory of innate learning processes. Locke believed the mind was formed by experiences, not innate ideas. Locke introduced this idea as "empiricism," or the understanding that knowledge is only built on knowledge and experience.

In the late 1600s, John Locke advanced the hypothesis that people learn primarily from external forces. He believed that the mind was like a blank tablet (tabula rasa), and that successions of simple impressions give rise to complex ideas through association and reflection. Locke is credited with establishing "empiricism" as a criterion for testing the validity of knowledge, thus providing a conceptual framework for later development of experimental methodology in the natural and social sciences.[7]

Before 1890

Philosophers of education such as Juan Vives, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Fröbel, and Johann Herbart had examined, classified and judged the methods of education centuries before the beginnings of psychology in the late 1800s.

Juan Vives

Juan Vives (1493–1540) proposed induction as the method of study and believed in the direct observation and investigation of the study of nature. His studies focus of humanistic learning, which opposed scholasticism and was influenced by a variety of sources including philosophy, psychology, politics, religion, and history.[8] He was one of the first to emphasize that the location of the school is important to learning.[9] He suggested that the school should be located away from disturbing noises; the air quality should be good and there should be plenty of food for the students and teachers.[9] Vives emphasized the importance of understanding individual differences of the students and suggested practice as an important tool for learning.[9]

Vives introduced his educational ideas in his writing, "De anima et vita" in 1538. In this publication, Vives explores moral philosophy as a setting for his educational ideals; with this, he explains that the different parts of the soul (similar to that of Aristotle's ideas) are each responsible for different operations, which function distinctively. The first book covers the different "souls": "The Vegatative Soul;" this is the soul of nutrition, growth, and reproduction, "The Sensitive Soul," which involves the five external senses; "The Cogitative soul," which includes internal senses and cognitive facilities. The second book involves functions of the rational soul: mind, will, and memory. Lastly, the third book explains the analysis of emotions.[10]

Johann Pestalozzi

Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827), a Swiss educational reformer, emphasized the child rather than the content of the school.[11] Pestalozzi fostered an educational reform backed by the idea that early education was crucial for children, and could be manageable for mothers. Eventually, this experience with early education would lead to a "wholesome person characterized by morality."[12] Pestalozzi has been acknowledged for opening institutions for education, writing books for mother's teaching home education, and elementary books for students, mostly focusing on the kindergarten level. In his later years, he published teaching manuals and methods of teaching.[12]

During the time of The Enlightenment, Pestalozzi's ideals introduced "educationalisation." This created the bridge between social issues and education by introducing the idea of social issues to be solved through education. Horlacher describes the most prominent example of this during The Enlightenment to be "improving agricultural production methods."[12]

Johann Herbart

Johann Herbart (1776–1841) is considered the father of educational psychology.[13] He believed that learning was influenced by interest in the subject and the teacher.[13] He thought that teachers should consider the students' existing mental sets—what they already know—when presenting new information or material.[13] Herbart came up with what are now known as the formal steps. The 5 steps that teachers should use are:

  1. Review material that has already been learned by the student[13]
  2. Prepare the student for new material by giving them an overview of what they are learning next[13]
  3. Present the new material.[13]
  4. Relate the new material to the old material that has already been learned.[13]
  5. Show how the student can apply the new material and show the material they will learn next.[13]


There were three major figures in educational psychology in this period: William James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey. These three men distinguished themselves in general psychology and educational psychology, which overlapped significantly at the end of the 19th century.[14]

William James (1842–1910)

William James

The period of 1890–1920 is considered the golden era of educational psychology where aspirations of the new discipline rested on the application of the scientific methods of observation and experimentation to educational problems. From 1840 to 1920 37 million people immigrated to the United States.[8] This created an expansion of elementary schools and secondary schools. The increase in immigration also provided educational psychologists the opportunity to use intelligence testing to screen immigrants at Ellis Island.[8] Darwinism influenced the beliefs of the prominent educational psychologists.[8] Even in the earliest years of the discipline, educational psychologists recognized the limitations of this new approach. 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".[15]

James is the father of psychology in America but he also made contributions to educational psychology. In his famous series of lectures Talks to Teachers on Psychology, published in 1899, James defines education as "the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior".[15] He states that teachers should "train the pupil to behavior"[15] so that he fits into the social and physical world. Teachers should also realize the importance of habit and instinct. They should present information that is clear and interesting and relate this new information and material to things the student already knows about.[15] He also addresses important issues such as attention, memory, and association of ideas.

Alfred Binet

Alfred Binet published Mental Fatigue in 1898, in which he attempted to apply the experimental method to educational psychology.[8] In this experimental method he advocated for two types of experiments, experiments done in the lab and experiments done in the classroom. In 1904 he was appointed the Minister of Public Education.[8] This is when he began to look for a way to distinguish children with developmental disabilities.[8] Binet strongly supported special education programs because he believed that "abnormality" could be cured.[8] The Binet-Simon test was the first intelligence test and was the first to distinguish between "normal children" and those with developmental disabilities.[8] Binet believed that it was important to study individual differences between age groups and children of the same age.[8] He also believed that it was important for teachers to take into account individual students strengths and also the needs of the classroom as a whole when teaching and creating a good learning environment.[8] He also believed that it was important to train teachers in observation so that they would be able to see individual differences among children and adjust the curriculum to the students.[8] Binet also emphasized that practice of material was important. In 1916 Lewis Terman revised the Binet-Simon so that the average score was always 100.[13] The test became known as the Stanford-Binet and was one of the most widely used tests of intelligence. Terman, unlike Binet, was interested in using intelligence test to identify gifted children who had high intelligence.[8] In his longitudinal study of gifted children, who became known as the Termites, Terman found that gifted children become gifted adults.[13]

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) supported the scientific movement in education. He based teaching practices on empirical evidence and measurement.[8] Thorndike developed the theory of instrumental conditioning or the law of effect. The law of effect states that associations are strengthened when it is followed by something pleasing and associations are weakened when followed by something not pleasing. He also found that learning is done a little at a time or in increments, learning is an automatic process and all the principles of learning apply to all mammals. Thorndike's research with Robert Woodworth on the theory of transfer found that learning one subject will only influence your ability to learn another subject if the subjects are similar.[8] This discovery led to less emphasis on learning the classics because they found that studying the classics does not contribute to overall general intelligence.[8] Thorndike was one of the first to say that individual differences in cognitive tasks were due to how many stimulus response patterns a person had rather than a general intellectual ability.[8] He contributed word dictionaries that were scientifically based to determine the words and definitions used.[8] The dictionaries were the first to take into consideration the users maturity level.[8] He also integrated pictures and easier pronunciation guide into each of the definitions.[8] Thorndike contributed arithmetic books based on learning theory. He made all the problems more realistic and relevant to what was being studied, not just to improve the general intelligence.[8] He developed tests that were standardized to measure performance in school related subjects.[8] His biggest contribution to testing was the CAVD intelligence test which used a multidimensional approach to intelligence and the first to use a ratio scale.[8] His later work was on programmed instruction, mastery learning and computer-based learning:

If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.[16]

John Dewey

John Dewey (1859–1952) had a major influence on the development of progressive education in the United States. He believed that the classroom should prepare children to be good citizens and facilitate creative intelligence.[8] He pushed for the creation of practical classes that could be applied outside of a school setting.[8] He also thought that education should be student-oriented, not subject-oriented. For Dewey, education was a social experience that helped bring together generations of people. He stated that students learn by doing. He believed in an active mind that was able to be educated through observation, problem solving and enquiry. In his 1910 book How We Think, he emphasizes that material should be provided in a way that is stimulating and interesting to the student since it encourages original thought and problem solving.[17] He also stated that material should be relative to the student's own experience.[17]

"The material furnished by way of information should be relevant to a question that is vital in the students own experience"[17]

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was one of the most powerful researchers in the area of developmental psychology during the 20th century. He developed the theory of cognitive development.[8] The theory stated that intelligence developed in four different stages. The stages are the sensorimotor stage from birth to 2 years old, the preoperational state from 2 years old to 7 years old, the concrete operational stage from 7 years old to 10 years old, and formal operational stage from 11 years old and up.[8] He also believed that learning was constrained to the child's cognitive development. Piaget influenced educational psychology because he was the first to believe that cognitive development was important and something that should be paid attention to in education.[8] Most of the research on Piagetian theory was carried out by American educational psychologists.


The number of people receiving a high school and college education increased dramatically from 1920 to 1960.[8] Because very few jobs were available to teens coming out of eighth grade, there was an increase in high school attendance in the 1930s.[8] The progressive movement in the United State took off at this time and led to the idea of progressive education. John Flanagan, an educational psychologist, developed tests for combat trainees and instructions in combat training.[8] In 1954 the work of Kenneth Clark and his wife on the effects of segregation on black and white children was influential in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.[13] From the 1960s to present day, educational psychology has switched from a behaviorist perspective to a more cognitive based perspective because of the influence and development of cognitive psychology at this time.[8]

Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner is notable for integrating Piaget's cognitive approaches into educational psychology.[8] He advocated for discovery learning where teachers create a problem solving environment that allows the student to question, explore and experiment.[8] In his book The Process of Education Bruner stated that the structure of the material and the cognitive abilities of the person are important in learning.[8] He emphasized the importance of the subject matter. He also believed that how the subject was structured was important for the student's understanding of the subject and it is the goal of the teacher to structure the subject in a way that was easy for the student to understand.[8] In the early 1960s Bruner went to Africa to teach math and science to school children, which influenced his view as schooling as a cultural institution. Bruner was also influential in the development of MACOS, Man a Course of Study, which was an educational program that combined anthropology and science.[8] The program explored human evolution and social behavior. He also helped with the development of the head start program. He was interested in the influence of culture on education and looked at the impact of poverty on educational development.[8]

Benjamin Bloom

Benjamin Bloom (1903–1999) spent over 50 years at the University of Chicago, where he worked in the department of education.[8] He believed that all students can learn. He developed taxonomy of educational objectives.[8] The objectives were divided into three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. The cognitive domain deals with how we think.[18] It is divided into categories that are on a continuum from easiest to more complex.[18] The categories are knowledge or recall, comprehension application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.[18] The affective domain deals with emotions and has 5 categories.[18] The categories are receiving phenomenon, responding to that phenomenon, valuing, organization, and internalizing values.[18] The psychomotor domain deals with the development of motor skills, movement and coordination and has 7 categories, that also goes from simplest to complex.[18] The 7 categories of the psychomotor domain are perception, set, guided response, mechanism, complex overt response, adaptation, and origination.[18] The taxonomy provided broad educational objectives that could be used to help expand the curriculum to match the ideas in the taxonomy.[8] The taxonomy is considered to have a greater influence internationally than in the United States. Internationally, the taxonomy is used in every aspect of education from training of the teachers to the development of testing material.[8] Bloom believed in communicating clear learning goals and promoting an active student. He thought that teachers should provide feedback to the students on their strengths and weaknesses.[8] Bloom also did research on college students and their problem solving processes. He found that they differ in understanding the basis of the problem and the ideas in the problem. He also found that students differ in process of problem solving in their approach and attitude toward the problem.[8]

Nathaniel Gage

Nathaniel Gage (1917 -2008) is an important figure in educational psychology as his research focused on improving teaching and understanding the processes involved in teaching.[8] He edited the book Handbook of Research on Teaching (1963), which helped develop early research in teaching and educational psychology.[8] Gage founded the Stanford Center for Research and Development in Teaching, which contributed research on teaching as well as influencing the education of important educational psychologists.[8]

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Simple English: Educational psychology
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