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Educational Psychology

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educational psychology

When was the last time you activated your information processing abilities to solve a problem using working memory? Confused?

If you're like many people, phrases like information processing and working memory might sound complex. However, you've actually activated these processes from the minute you set eyes on this page, coding words into your memory only to recall them as you construct sentences into concepts.

While these cognitive skills might seem automatic now, they owe their existence to the parents, teachers, and peers who provided you with learning opportunities over your lifetime. At home and in school, you built up knowledge in a variety of subject areas, usually with help from curriculum and instruction backed by years of educational research.

Even though you might have successfully developed reading skills, have you ever wondered why some students lose focus and forget what they've read seconds earlier? Why some teachers are more effective than others? Or if it's better to lecture or provide examples?

Professionals in the Field of Educational Psychology hope to answer these and other questions by exploring theoretical learning concepts that have developed over time. By exploring these concepts, educational psychologists hope to uncover why certain practices work and others don't, leading to a deeper understanding of effective teaching and learning strategies.

What is Educational Psychology

Educational psychology, as the name suggests, merges concepts in education and psychology to explain how students learn through instruction. The topic is hardly an emerging field, first coming to light in philosophical debates dating back to the late 1500s.

What's it Used For?

Typical practices that draw from research in educational psychology include:

  • Instructional Design
  • Curriculum Development
  • Classroom Management
  • Special Education
  • Motivational Strategies
  • Student Assessment
  • Punishment and Behavioral Controls

While theories then focused on noise level, air quality, and food, the field has evolved to include cognitive, behavioral, and social impacts on education. Many of the seemingly normal school activities and rules students encounter daily, like note taking and regular examinations, actually have their roots in psychological concepts.

Educational psychologists today believe there are a number of specific learning styles that students adopt, and teachers must take them into account when developing curriculum and instruction. Educational psychology encompasses four main learning perspectives:

  • Behavioral Perspective
  • Cognitive Perspective
  • Social Cognitive Perspective
  • Constructivist Perspective

Educational Psychology and Behaviorism

For many teachers, determining how to motivate students in the classroom is an everyday struggle. Even if some students might seem like they're paying attention in class, they perform poorly on tests or do not complete homework on time.

In "Motivation: What Teachers Need To Know," published in The Teachers College Record, researcher Carole Ames notes that educational psychologists split motivation into two constructs: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is what all teachers strive to cultivate in their students - a genuine love of learning and improvement. Opposite these students are those who are motivated extrinsically - performing tasks for rewards like grades, points, or peer recognition.

While fostering intrinsic motivation is a lofty goal for many educators, behaviorists believe that all motivation stems from extrinsic rewards. By rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior, teachers are able to foster better behavior in the classroom.

In the classroom, this often manifests itself in situations where students receive rewards for answering questions correctly, sitting quietly while working, or completing homework on time. Behaviorists believe that over time, students will naturally adopt positive behaviors in order to avoid punishment. Teachers are the primary motivational force in the classroom, requiring the students accomplish certain tasks if they hope to receive rewards.

Educational Psychology and Cognitivism

Cognitivism in education encompasses how students process information, encoding it in their memories and retrieving it later when solving problems. Cognitivists believe that memory structures like long-term memory, short-term memory, and working memory largely determine how well or poorly students perform in the classroom.

Cognitive processing in the classroom

According to "Patterns in Student Learning: Relationships Between Learning Strategies, Conceptions of Learning, and Learning Orientations," students engage in several cognitive processing activities when learning new material, including:

  • Looking for related sections in subject matter
  • Identifying main points to encode
  • Thinking up examples to illustrate these points
  • Exploring real-life applications of the subject matter
  • Diagnosing the causes of any problems encountered

In "Working Memory and Cognitive Styles in Adolescent's Attainment," authors Tracy Alloway and others note that a student's working memory capacity has far-reaching impacts on their success in math, science, and reading.

Working memory refers to the ability to store information and manipulate it for a brief period of time. As noted earlier in this article, working memory allows you to comprehend these and other sentences, constructing complex thoughts from individual words.

The article, published in The British Journal of Educational Psychology, notes that individual differences in memory largely contribute to differences in student performance. Students who perform poorly on working memory tasks have demonstrated slow reading and language comprehensive progress, putting them at a disadvantage in the classroom.

Research in cognition and education has allowed teachers to develop special interventions for these students that accommodate their learning needs. These include classroom-pacing strategies, giving students more time to process and imprint knowledge before moving on and introducing new material.

Educational Psychology and Social Cognitivism

Social cognitivism merges concepts in cognition with social learning theories. Educational psychologists specializing in this area research how students learn from examples and observation, and when to provide them opportunities to solve problems themselves.

What kinds of tasks are modeled examples useful for?

In "Example-Based Learning: Integrating Cognitive and Social Cognitive Research Perspective," the authors identify several areas that social cognitive theories support:

  • Learning to self assess
  • Developing self-efficacy
  • Writing
  • Assertive communication skills
  • Learning from oneself
  • Peer learning
  • Developing motor skills

In "Example-Based Learning: Integrating Cognitive and Social Cognitive Research Perspectives," authors Tamara van Gog and Nikol Rummel describe that for novice students, a social cognitive perspective is especially effective.

Students learning new material lack the skills to solve problems by themselves, requiring them to observe teachers or peers beforehand. Students who observe others modeling correct procedures may devote more cognitive capacity to studying the solution and the process, later adopting the process themselves.

Research in social cognition shows that the models themselves can affect how a student learns. Rummel and van Gog note that several studies have determined that students sometimes become distracted by who is modeling an example, detracting from their ability to learn from that example.

For instance, they say that students who struggle in mathematics are less likely to pay attention to teacher models, because they are concerned about judgment and their own ability to impress the teacher. For these students, learning from their peers is far more beneficial, as they devote more cognitive processing to the example itself, rather than who is modeling it.

Educational Psychology and Constructivism

When students learn through experience, they channel constructivist views of education. Constructivism holds that people build knowledge by solving problems, making mistakes, and exploring real-world examples of the subjects they learn.

In "Problem-based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?" researcher Cindy Hmelo-Silver describes that students build both content and thinking strategies through experience.

Problem-based learning gives students chances to solve problems with little input from the instructor. While teachers present them with basic background information needed to solve a problem, students are not given examples or answers to problems.

Hmelo-Silver writes that by learning from real-world problems, students become more responsible for their own learning, enhancing their self-efficacy and confidence in themselves. According to Hmelo-Silver, problem-based learning also helps students to:

  • Construct an extensive knowledge base
  • Become effective collaborators
  • Develop self-directed learning skills
  • Become intrinsically motivated to learn

While behaviorists might hold that extrinsic motivation is the most effective way to draw students into the learning process, constructivists put their faith in the process itself. They believe that by exposing students to challenges and giving them more freedom in the educational process, they will naturally reflect on their experiences and become more drawn toward lifelong learning.

A Career in Educational Research

The Field of Educational Psychology provides numerous opportunities for researchers who wish to explore these and other educational concepts. Research in educational psychology allows teachers and administrators to develop new teaching methods and classroom management strategies backed by empirical evidence.

Learn about how you can enter this growing field by contacting schools offering Master's degree programs in educational psychology or PhD programs in educational psychology. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.

What Motivates Students in Classrooms?

In the continual pursuit of education, teachers must constantly wrestle with emerging technology to capture their students' attention. In an era of smart phones and Facebook, teachers must turn to concepts backed by research in educational psychology to motivate their students, keeping their attention on the material at hand.

In "A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Constructs," published in the Journal of Educational Psychology researchers offer teachers the following guidelines for keeping their students motivated and engaged in the classroom:

  • Provide clear feedback about ability and competence
  • Design tasks that offer opportunities for success, but remain challenging
  • Provide opportunities to exercise some choice and control in learning
  • Provide content that is personally meaningful to students, allowing for more identification with the school
  • Display and model interest in the content and activities
  • Use collaborative groups to allow for more social and academic goal attainment
  • Offer both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to students, including person praise and classroom prizes
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