How do people learn? And, what are the best ways to teach new skills, impart new knowledge, and relate new ideas while encouraging the kinds of critical thinking, information synthesis, and overall command that fuel intellectual development?

If there were easy answers to these questions, then we wouldn’t be engaged in what is now a decades long, at points quite heated and impassioned debate over how to best educate our children. If there were easy answers to these questions, then federal programs with familiar names like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and “Common Core,” somewhat clear objectives, yet seemingly labyrinthine bureaucratic substructures, wouldn’t exist. If there were easy answers to these questions, then there wouldn’t be magazine headlines like “American Schools vs. the World: Expensive, Unequal, Bad at Math,” from The Atlantic in December of 2013. And, if there were easy answers to these questions, then we probably wouldn’t have educational psychologists.

Educational psychology is a graduate-level specialization within the larger discipline of psychology that is concerned with applying the quantitative analytic methods and qualitative assessment tools of the social and behavioral sciences in the realm of education. Its aim is to forge a better understanding of learning processes, and ultimately to improve upon the strategies we employ in classrooms and other educational settings. According to the mission statement of the American Psychological Association’s educational psychology division (Division 15), “The purposes of this organization shall be to expand psychological knowledge and theory relevant to education, to extend the application of psychological knowledge and services to all aspects of education, to develop professional opportunities in educational psychology, to further the development of psychological theory through the study of educational processes, and to promote cooperation and joint action with others having similar or related purposes.”

Master’s in Educational Psychology Concepts

  • Psychological foundations of education
  • Instructional strategies
  • Stages of development for different age groups
  • Lifespan development
  • Learning theories
  • Social psychology
  • Ethics in multicultural issues
  • Research methods
  • Statistics
  • Theories for the evolution of education to meet future needs

Who Earns a Master’s in Educational Psychology?

Depending on how you come at the subject, educational psychology is either an avenue by which committed educators learn to deploy the tools of psychology to further their understanding of learning processes in order to create a better educational system. Or, educational psychology is a place where psychologists who are interested in education come to focus specifically on learning processes in an effort to create better strategies for addressing the educational needs of students. In other words, the master’s in educational psychology is a practical degree for aspiring psychologists who want to work in the field of education, and it’s also a degree that allows teachers and school administrators to approach their work from a more rigorously scientific point of view.

Admissions requirements vary from program to program, but completion of a bachelor’s degree in any field is typically the minimum requirement, and many schools will also look at undergraduate GPAs and GRE scores. Students coming from a BA or BS program in psychology or a related area in the social and behavior science (sociology, for example) will have already been exposed to coursework in statistics and quantitative methods of analysis. Those with an undergraduate degree in education or the liberal arts may want to consider taking an intro to social and behavior science research and/or analytics class, but it isn’t required. Indeed, the primary prerequisite for entering a master’s degree program in educational psychology is a strong desire to use the tools of psychology in the field of education.

One important note: educational psychology and school psychology may sound similar, but they are in fact different fields, with different methodologies, different purposes, and different career paths. A good way to distinguish the two is to think of educational psychology as being more strategic in nature, while school psychology works on a more tactical level. In other words, while educational psychologists may work in schools and interact with students, their primary work involves the clinical research in psychology that serves as a foundation for creating better educational policy and programs. School psychologists are, as their title suggests, mainly in schools, providing psychological counseling to students individually and in groups. A school psychologist may, for example, intervene and offer counseling to students with learning disabilities, behavioral issues, or other specific problems that can impede the learning process. Educational psychologists study larger social and cultural problems, and create programs, policies, and pedagogical approaches that mitigate the factors that underpin those problems.

The MA, MS, and MEd in Educational Psychology

For the most part, educational psychology master’s programs come in two forms. The degree associated with psychology departments or schools of psychology is generally the master of arts in educational psychology, or MA in educational psychology. Some schools do offer a master of science, or MS in educational psychology, but because the field is more geared toward research, the MA in educational psychology is far more common. In fact, the master of education, or MEd in educational psychology, which generally indicates a program that is affiliated with or under the auspices of a department or school of education, is analogous to an MS in other fields of psychology, largely because the MEd is a practitioner’s degree with slightly less emphasis on pure research. A practical consideration for prospective students is that a master’s thesis is generally required as part of an MA in educational psychology, while that’s not the case in all MEd programs. Most of the rest of the coursework, as detailed below, is similar, if not identical, and these master’s programs are designed to be completed in two to three years.

Core Curriculum in an Educational Psychology Master’s Program

There are essentially two basic areas of study that are addressed at the master’s level in educational psychology. The first involves scientific research design and methods in psychology, from creating studies that will yield reliable results in an ethical manner, to crunching the numbers, taking into account statistical variations, and employing qualitative assessment strategies to reach conclusions that can be adopted as policies and initiatives in the real world of education. The second revolves around an exploration of psychological theory and practice, including how cognitive behavioral, biological, neurological factors, and socio-cultural factors impact learning and development, from perception and cognition to memory and synthesis. The practice of educational psychology, and educational psychological research, boils down to using one to measure and analyze the other in order to determine how theories of learning and cognition actually play out in a classroom setting. A good master’s degree program will include a supervised internship or practicum during which students will have an opportunity to observe these psychological theories in action. With that in mind, here is a list of some of the subjects typically addressed in an educational psychology master’s program:

  • Child, adolescent, and adult development
  • Cognitive and social development
  • Creativity
  • Classroom applications of learning theories
  • The interacting effects of child, home, and school variables
  • Instructional design
  • Curriculum development
  • Technology in the classroom
  • Classroom management techniques
  • Group learning
  • Special education services
  • Multicultural and multiethnic education in American schools

Educational psychology is a specialization in and of itself, so there aren’t necessarily discrete areas of further specialization. That said, different programs have different focuses, and most allow some degree of flexibility for individual students to take elective classes in areas that are of special interest. For example, if you have a particular interest in pre-K education, you could focus more on early childhood development; if you’re interested in the potential uses of online platforms in the classroom, you could take an elective in computer-based learning; or, if you’re interested in educational initiatives that better serve minority and underprivileged communities, you could focus on social psychology and the challenges of designing multicultural curricula.

Career Options and Salary Outlook in Educational Psychology

Educational psychology, and the education sector in general, has been stuck in something of a paradoxical situation for several decades now. On the one hand, there is a huge and growing demand for good educators, innovative ideas, and policies that better serve students and society at large. On the other hand, much of the money for education — even federal funding — comes through state and local governments, who are more often than not wrestling with budgetary issues. Nevertheless, we put a lot of money into education: in a bitter bit of irony, the U.S. ranks fifth in the world in spending on public education per capita, according to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Nevertheless, among countries in the developed world, the U.S. has consistently ranked in the middle of the pack in math, reading, and science skills. Yet another paradox, and another reason that the work educational psychologists do in terms improving our educational system is so important.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect specific data on educational psychologists, so to get a sense of how the field is faring you have use number from related fields. Employment growth for psychologists in general, according the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, is projected at 12 percent through 2022. However, it’s important to realize that a master’s degree in educational psychology or any other kind of psychology is not typically enough to be counted as a full-fledged psychologist, as opposed to a psychological researcher or psychological assistant. This varies somewhat from state to state and from field to field. But, in general, the job of psychologist is restricted to those licensed in the state they practice, and qualifying for the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology requires a doctorate degree. There are some exceptions, particularly for those engaged in clinical research rather than individual and/or group counseling, but often the master’s degree is a stop along the way to a doctorate for those wanting to practice as a licensed psychologist.

The most recent data from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics pegs the average annual wage for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists at $74,030. In the category “Psychologists, All Other,” which includes those in private counseling practices, the number is slightly higher, at $89,810. To get a sense of how this compares to fields related to educational psychology, we’ve put together a chart of the median annual salaries from BLS’s May 2014 data:

OccupationMedian Annual Salary
Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists$68,900
Psychologists, All Other$92,110
Secondary School Teachers$56,310
Education Administrators$89,540
Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors$53,370
Social Science Teachers, Postsecondary$65,320

Similarly, to get a sense of where job growth is in the educational sector, we’ve put together a chart of projections from the BLS Occupational Outlook handbook. These numbers show the estimated employment growth in each profession between 2012 and 2022:

OccupationProjected Outlook
School and Career Counselors12%
Survey Researchers18%
Special Education Teachers6%
Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers12%
High School Teachers6%

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