Professionals working in education today are in the middle of a contentious debate over testing, evaluating, and deciding how learning takes place. Many still believe in testing the three “R’s,” or reading, writing, and arithmetic. This belief goes along with memorizing facts and figures. The other side of the argument believes that memorization alone does not develop the kind of thinking skills needed for today’s complex world. For more information see Creativity in Education.
Ironically, debates similar to this one have been going on for centuries. Plato and Aristotle debated the most effective teaching methods, the teacher’s influence in learning, and the nature of learning.
In the 1500s, Spanish philosopher Juan Luis Vives emphasized that teachers adapt their teaching methods to match the strengths of each student, or, in more modern terms, develop individualized learning plans.
Czech teacher, educator, writer, and philosopher Johann Amos Comenius posited in the 1600s a theory that sounds remarkably similar to today’s debate in education: the goal of education is deep understanding rather than rote memorization.
In other words, those concerned about teaching and education have been struggling with many of the same issues since the beginning of civilization. Today’s debate, however, happens to be centered within a field of psychology among professionals known as educational psychologists.
Educational psychologists point back in history to the earliest philosophers and their ideas on teaching and education as the start of their field.
Today, however, a wide body of knowledge gleaned from empirical psychological research, years of writing and debate, and years of classroom observation and testing, fuels the field of Educational Psychology.
How students learn, the role that memorization plays, and what motivates students to learn are the main areas of interest for educational psychologists. They research and write on the psychology of learning, and they apply their research in schools and other educational settings.
Educational Psychologist or School Psychologist?
There is some confusion over the difference between educational psychologists and school psychologists. Both often work for school districts, and sometimes their job functions do overlap.
Generally, educational psychologists are more focused on issues of learning. They tend to work on solving problems on a larger scale, for whole groups of students, or to help a group of teachers improve teaching skills, or implement new curricula. They might specialize, for example, on helping teachers develop better teaching tools when teaching children with behavioral issues and problems.
A school psychologist works with children and groups of children in schools, and helps with issues such as kids with bullying tendencies, learning disabilities, or social issues. They run support groups for kids, and help parents better understand the challenges facing their children.
Psychologists that Specialize in Learning
To a large extent, what an educational psychologist does depends on the specialty or special interests that guide the psychologist. Some educational psychologists work as consultants, evaluating different types of educational programs and their effectiveness, and helping school districts implement these programs.
Others administer and evaluate assessments of students’ progress and learning. Those interested in gifted education, for instance might specialize in the best assessments and evaluations for this student population. Conversely, those interested in learning disorders and disabilities will specialize in assessments and evaluations for those who have learning deficiencies.
Whether working in gifted education, learning disabilities, or with regular student populations, educational psychologists will also design and develop educational programs and processes. Many educational psychologists believe that even the “normal” students should have their strengths nurtured and weaknesses addressed through individualized education plans. Educational psychologists also work with parents, consulting them on students’ special needs and abilities, and what accommodations aid learning.
Educational psychologists want to know how people learn across their lifespan, so they study growth and development. They also study cognitive psychology and behavioral theories. But they apply this knowledge specifically to educational theories, always with the goal of developing more effective ways of teaching – and learning.
How Parents De-Motivate Learning
Parents of young children are often over zealous in their desire to teach their children. They read parenting manuals and articles that instruct them on how to show enthusiasm for learning, how to model learning behaviors, and how to develop a lifelong passion for education.
However, those who study the psychology of learning warn against parental “overkill.” Psychologist Thomas Armstrong, a specialist in human development and learning, states that it’s natural for parents who see their children take a sudden interest in something to “milk it for all it’s worth.”
Writing on the ParentsPlace.com website, Armstrong said this type of reaction will actually kill the interest. Take it step-by-step, he advises. And read the child’s cues. If it seems as if the child is backing away from information overload, or too much enthusiasm by the parent, then it’s time to give the child some space, letting him or her dictate the amount of time spent on a subject or activity.
Research Oriented Career
The ability of educational psychologists to implement effective educational programs is based on educational theories derived from empirical research. Some educational psychologists stay in academia, teaching and conducting research.
However, even the educational psychologists who work one-on-one with educators, teachers, and students, base their practices on current research results and data.
Art Graesser, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, and also editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology, writes in Monitor on Psychology, that cognitive scientists and educational researchers have an in-depth knowledge of learning based on extensive psychological research in cognition and behavior.
The public hears and reads about the current debates over whether U.S. schools are educating students to meet standards that maintain competitiveness, yet hear little about what the research says about learning. It’s up to educational psychologists to help not only educate the educators, but the public as well.
For instance, some cognitive psychology studies point to an “ideal learner.” Graesser points to research that shows ideal learning as self-regulated learning, which he defines as a process where students formulate their learning goals, track their progress, identify their deficits, detect contradictions, ask relevant questions, search relevant sources for answers, and infer conclusions when answers are not directly available. This type of learning builds comprehension at deeper levels than other forms of learning.
Developing critical thinkers in today’s world is the goal for educators, and Graesser points to self-regulated learning as one way to achieve this goal. Self-regulated learning also coincides with inquiry learning and discovery learning. These types of learning all feed into what Graesser defines as the principles of learning.
Principles of Learning
- Create space between studying and testing. Imposing time between studying and testing produces better long-term retention.
- Alternate problem-solving exercises with solutions. Mixing step-by-step solutions to problems with having the students individually solve the problems aids learning.
- Combine multimedia and graphics with verbal descriptions. Mixing verbal information with visual and multimedia forms are richer representations than those with a single modality.
- Integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts. Comprehending abstract concepts improve with multiple and diverse concrete examples.
- Quiz and test to promote learning. Testing and quizzing enhances learning, but the tests must be consistent with content covered by the teacher.
- Teach students how to effectively allocate study time. Show students how to spend more time on difficult material, and to practice certain concepts and skills. Outlining and taking notes produces more effective learning than simply re-reading materials.
- Ask in-depth questions. Students benefit more from asking and answering in-depth questions that probe for a deeper understanding, such as asking why, why not, how, etc.
Focus on Testing
Over the past several decades, educational psychologists have become more involved with the measurement of individual differences, such as learning and achievement tests. Some get involved with research into the theoretical background of the tests, and others become more hands on, communicating to teachers and educators complex test and measurement content.
Some educational psychologists get involved with the construction, evaluation, and documentation of the tests. This often involves an in-depth background in statistics as well as psychological and academic topics.
Educational psychologists must keep current with changes in federal and state laws affecting testing validity. They must also stay current with tests designed to assess learning disabilities, and testing those whose main language is something other than English.
If you are interested in becoming an educational psychologist, request information from psychology schools. Usually a PhD is required for licensure in most states.
Also, learn more about the psychologist licensing process and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychologist Licensure.
Job Functions of a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP)?*
Licensed educational psychologists perform any of the following within the context of academic learning processes or the education system or both:
- Evaluation of educational programs.
- Diagnosis of psychological disorders related to learning processes.
- Administration and interpretation of diagnostic tests related to learning processes, including tests of academic ability, learning patterns, achievement, motivation, and personality factors.
- Counseling for individuals, groups, and families for the amelioration of learning problems.
- Consultation services for teachers and parents on social development, and behavioral and academic difficulties.
- Assessment and evaluation for the purposes of identifying special needs.
- Research on best educational practices.
- Developing treatment and intervention programs and strategies to address problems of adjustment, and individual crises.
* Data compiled from California's Board of Behavioral Sciences website.