Student Notebook

Educational Psychology: Looking Through a Different Window

On the first day of class, a clinical psychology classmate expressed surprise that an educational psychology student would be taking Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM). Our professor asked, “Is there some kind of rivalry that I should know about?” The professor quickly went on to explain that HLM was in fact originally used for educational research. The comment from my classmate, similar to many others I have heard, pointed out to me that too often psychology students know little about the field of educational psychology. In this brief article, I will describe this field, its relationship with psychology, and my experiences as a student in both traditional psychology departments and educational psychology departments.

In most undergraduate psychology programs students take courses in what are considered to be the basic fields within psychology (i.e., cognitive, developmental, social, etc.) and then use these core areas to decide on graduate programs and careers.  Unfortunately, rarely is educational psychology, a field that has existed for over 100 years, offered in undergraduate psychology programs (Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2006).  As Wittrock, 1992, points out, educational psychology is

Distinctive from other branches of psychology because it has the understanding and the improvement of education as its primary goal. Educational psychology is distinctive from other areas of educational research because of its psychological background, the focus on the learners and the teachers, and its responsibility to contribute knowledge and theory to psychology. (p. 138)

Undergraduate courses in educational psychology are usually components of teacher education programs, so they can be overlooked in undergraduate psychology programs. The discipline of educational psychology is often left out of introductory psychology textbooks (Lucas, Blazek, & Raley, 2005).
Does this poor representation mean that educational psychology is an unimportant field of psychological research? Not at all. Educational psychology has a long history of making important contributions to the discipline of psychology. This lack of visibility does affect students’ choices. For example, often students choose their specialty within psychology on the basis of their undergraduate courses. Unfortunately, because educational psychology courses are not generally in the curriculum, psychology students may not even be aware that the field exists.

I completed an undergraduate degree in psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Late in my undergraduate program, I took an elective course through the Faculty of Education called Introduction to Educational Psychology. I was introduced to topics such as cognitive and language development, exceptional learning needs, classroom assessment, school violence, self-regulated learning, multicultural education, and achievement motivation.  In the previous three years as a psychology student, I had not been introduced to these areas of educational psychology. I discovered an entire field out there with specialties ineach of these areas. I was captivated! Prior to taking this course, I would have pursued graduate school in cognitive psychology; however, educational psychology’s application of cognitive psychology really appealed to me.  I began to explore educational psychology graduate programs and learned that most are housed in Education faculties.

After looking at many programs and universities, I decided to pursue graduate work in educational psychology at the University of Victoria. My subspecialty within educational psychology is in learning and development, but this is only one of many subspecialties available. For example, educational psychology faculties often have programs in special education, measurement, statistics, program evaluation, learning and cognition, and school counseling. Within each of these areas are many subspecialties (e.g., educational technologies, learning disabilities).  These areas may ask questions such as: How is learning facilitated with technology?  How does student motivation and self-efficacy influence learning?  How do we assess learning problems in children? What are the school experiences of children with chronic illnesses? Does peer status in schools affect mental health?

Coursework in this field includes both general overviews and specific topics. My department has courses available in life-span development, social and emotional development, adolescent development, learning theories, program evaluation, achievement motivation, play as therapy, self-regulated learning, theory of measurement, statistical methods in education, multilevel modeling, qualitative research, and many other interesting areas. Most educational psychology programs offer specific courses on theories of measurement, assessment of learning disabilities, assessment of counseling, qualitative and quantitative research methods, as well as practicum options. You can see from this range of courses that educational psychology is directly related to many areas in psychology. For example, self-regulated learning, a growing field in educational psychology, draws from both cognitive and developmental psychology. Although some may argue that the theories that drive research in educational psychology are theories borrowed from psychology, it is certainly a two-way street. That is, we need to acknowledge the “reciprocal role and contributions of educational psychology to the theory, research, and knowledge of both psychology and education” (Wittrock, 1992, p. 135). Educational psychology has been able to make important contributions to many areas of psychology because it represents the context (i.e. schools, learning, teaching, and cognition) of so many psychological phenomena.

Since educational psychologists are often interested in studying learning in children and adolescents, they have popularized many sophisticated methodologies for measuring change within real-world contexts.  For example, HLM is commonly used by educational psychologists to study students, who are nested within classrooms, which are nested within schools, which are further nested in communities, and so on.  But educational psychology is not limited to quantitative methodologies as many studies use qualitative and mixed method approaches as well.

What can you do with a graduate degree in educational psychology? Depending on the area of specialty, graduates may work as school psychologists/counselors, special education or resource teachers (when combined with a teaching credential), faculty members in education and/or psychology programs, program evaluators, and policy analysts in government agencies. The wide array of career prospects, the many areas to study, and the important contributions that educational psychology makes to psychological research and theory are what keep me excited about my graduate program, research, and future career.

If you are an undergraduate psychology student, I would encourage you to take a course in educational psychology. Perhaps you’ll find it as interesting as I have. Perhaps you’ll make a career of it. When looking for an educational psychology course, remember that we are often housed in Faculties of Education, not psychology departments. If you are a graduate student in psychology, look into supplementing your training with educational psychology courses and committee members. If you understand the educational implications of your research you have expanded both your field and mine. ♦

Further Readings
Salkind, N. J. (Ed.). (2008). The encyclopedia of educational psychology. (2nd ed.).  Thousand Oaks,  CA: Sage.
Alexander, P.A., & Winne, P.H. (Eds.) (2006). Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Berliner, D.C. (1993). The 100-year journey of educational psychology: From interest to disdain to respect for practice. In T.K. Fagan & G.R. VandenBos (Eds). Exploring applied psychology: Origins and critical analysis. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Zimmerman, B.J., & Schunk, D.H. (Eds.) (2003). Educational psychology: A century of contributions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lucas, J.L., Blazek, M.A., & Raley, A.B. (2005). The lack of representation of educational psychology and school psychology in introductory psychology textbooks. Educational Psychology, 25, 347-351.
Wittrock, M.C. (1992). An empowering conception of educational psychology. Educational Psychologist, 27, 129-141.
Woolfolk, A.E., Winne, P.H., & Perry, N.E. (2006). Educational Psychology (3rd Canadian ed.). Toronto, Canada: Pearson.


Most psychologists in fields other than educational psychology are unaware that educational psychologists have made contributions that have benefitted the field generally.
To wit: Lee J. Cronbach, Generalizability Theory; E, Paul Torrance, Constructs and Measurement of Creativity; Gene Glass, Meta-Analysis; Roxana Moreno, Cognitive Load Theory; John Flanagan, The Critical Incident Technique; Urie Bronfenbrenner, Ecological Development; Julian Stanley, Mathematical Precocity, and there are others whom I’ve surely overlooked.

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