Educational Psychology and the Learning Process

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Educational psychology involves the study of how people learn, including topics such as student outcomes, the instructional process, individual differences in learning, gifted learners, and learning disabilities. Psychologists who work in this field are interested in how people learn and retain new information.


This branch of psychology involves not just the learning process of early childhood and adolescence but includes the social, emotional, and cognitive processes that are involved in learning throughout the entire lifespan.

The field of educational psychology incorporates a number of other disciplines, including developmental psychology, behavioral psychology, and cognitive psychology.


8 Things to Know About Educational Psychology

Topics of Interest

In today's complex educational system, educational psychologists work with educators, administrators, teachers, and students to learn more about how to help people learn best.

This often involves finding ways to identify students who may need extra help, developing programs aimed at helping students who are struggling, and even creating new learning methods.

Some of the different topics that educational psychologists are interested in include:

  • Educational Technology: Looking at how different types of technology can help students learn
  • Instructional Design: Designing learning materials
  • Special Education: Helping students who may need specialized instruction
  • Curriculum Development: Creating curriculums can maximize learning
  • Organizational Learning: Studying how people learn in organizational settings
  • Gifted Learners: Helping students who are identified as gifted learners

Significant Figures

Throughout history, a number of figures have played an important role in the development of educational psychology. Some of these well-known individuals include:

  • John Locke: An English philosopher who suggested the concept of tabula rasa, or the idea that the mind is essentially a blank slate at birth that knowledge is then developed through experience and learning.
  • William James: An American psychologist who was also known for his series of lectures titled "Talks to Teachers on Psychology," which focused on how teachers could help students learn.
  • Alfred Binet: A French psychologist who developed the first intelligence tests.
  • John Dewey: An influential American psychologist and educational reformer who wrote extensively about progressive education and the importance of learning through doing.
  • Jean Piaget: A Swiss psychologist who is best known for his highly influential theory of cognitive development.
  • B.F. Skinner: An American behaviorist who introduced the concept of operational conditioning. His research on reinforcement and punishment continues to play an important role in education today.


Educational psychology is a relatively young subfield that has experienced a tremendous amount of growth in recent years. Psychology did not emerge as a separate science until the late 1800s, so earlier interest in educational psychology was largely fueled by educational philosophers.

Many regard philosopher Johann Herbart as the "father" of educational psychology.

Herbart believed that a student's interest in a topic had a tremendous influence on the learning outcome and believed that teachers should consider this interest along with prior knowledge when deciding which type of instruction is most appropriate.

Later, psychologist and philosopher William James made significant contributions to the field. His seminal 1899 text Talks to Teachers on Psychology is considered the first textbook on educational psychology.

Around this same period, French psychologist Alfred Binet was developing his famous IQ tests. The tests were originally designed to help the French government identify children who had developmental delays to create special education programs.

In the United States, John Dewey had a significant influence on education.

Dewey's ideas were progressive, and he believed that schools should focus on students rather than on subjects. He advocated active learning and believed that hands-on experience was an important part of the learning process.

More recently, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom developed an important taxonomy designed to categorize, and describe different educational objectives. The three top-level domains he described were cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning objectives.

Major Perspectives

As with other areas of psychology, researchers within educational psychology tend to take on different perspectives when considering a problem.

  • The behavioral perspective suggests that all behaviors are learned through conditioning. Psychologists who take this perspective rely firmly on the principles of operant conditioning to explain how learning happens. For example, teachers might give out tokens that can be exchanged for desirable items such as candy and toys to reward good behavior. While such methods can be useful in some cases, the behavioral approach has been criticized for failing to account for such things as attitudes, cognitions, and intrinsic motivations for learning.
  • The developmental perspective focuses on how children acquire new skills and knowledge as they develop. Jean Piaget's famous stages of cognitive development are one example of an important developmental theory looking at how children grow intellectually. By understanding how children think at different stages of development, educational psychologists can better understand what children are capable of at each point of their growth. This can help educators create instructional methods and materials best aimed at certain age groups.
  • The cognitive perspective has become much more widespread in recent decades, mainly because it accounts for how things such as memories, beliefs, emotions, and motivations contribute to the learning process. Cognitive psychology focuses on understanding how people think, learn, remember, and process information. Educational psychologists who take a cognitive perspective are interested in understanding how kids become motivated to learn, how they remember the things that they learn, and how they solve problems, among other things.
  • The constructivist approach is one of the most recent learning theories that focus on how children actively construct their knowledge of the world. Constructivism tends to account more for the social and cultural influences that impact how children learn. This perspective is heavily influenced by the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who proposed ideas such as the zone of proximal development and instructional scaffolding.

While educational psychology may be a relatively young discipline, it will continue to grow as people become more interested in understanding how people learn. APA Division 15, devoted to the subject of educational psychology, currently lists more than 2,000 members.

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