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Educational psychologists study learners and learning contexts — both within and beyond traditional classrooms — and evaluate ways in which factors such as age, culture, gender, and physical and social environments influence human learning. They leverage educational theory and practice based on the latest research related to human development to understand the emotional, cognitive, and social aspects of human learning.
Educational psychology can influence programs, curricula, and lesson development, as well as classroom management approaches. For example, educators can use concepts from educational psychology to understand and address the ways rapidly changing technologies both help and harm their students' learning. In addition, educational psychologists play an important role in educating teachers, parents or guardians, and administrators about best practices for learners who struggle with conventional education methods.
As psychologists, these professionals often work directly with children — and in collaboration with parents or guardians and teachers — to improve a child's learning outcomes. However, educational psychologists can also pursue careers as researchers, consultants, and teachers in a variety of contexts, including schools, community organizations, government research centers, and learning centers.
Key Theories in Educational Psychology
Although educational psychology programs include numerous theories, many experts identify five main schools of thought: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, experientialism, and social contextual learning theories. The following summarizes these five major theory groups and outlines the key theorists, definition, history, principles, and applications for each.
To expand on these theory groups, we spoke with Aimee Maxwell, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who provides further insight into these concepts.
Key Theorists: Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner
Definition and Background
Behaviorist learning theories first emerged in the late 19th century from the work of Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov. They were popularized during the first half of the 20th century through the work of John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and others.
Behaviorism defines learning as observable behavioral change that occurs in response to environmental stimuli. Maxwell explains, "Behaviorism suggests we do what we do because of what happens around us environmentally, not because of what’s inside us innately."
Positive stimuli — or "rewards" — create positive associations between the reward and a given behavior; these associations prompt one to repeat that behavior. Meanwhile, negative stimuli — or "punishments" — discourage the behaviors associated with those stimuli. Through this process of conditioning, people learn to either repeat or avoid behaviors. Maxwell adds, "A bit blank slate-ish, behaviorism suggests that we learn because we get rewards and punishments that make us approach or avoid ways of being."
Because early behaviorists tried to legitimize psychology as a science, their theories emphasized external, scientifically measurable behavioral changes in response to similarly measurable stimuli.
Although they admit that thought and emotion influence learning, behaviorists either dismiss these factors as phenomena beyond the realm of scientific inquiry (methodological behaviorism) or convert internal factors into behavioral terms (neobehaviorism/radical behaviorism).
Assuming that changes in behavior signify learning, methodological behaviorists see no fundamental difference between human and animal learning processes, and they often conduct comparative research on animals.
Behaviorism relies on the prediction or analysis of behavior based on causal stimuli, while education uses the process of positive and negative reinforcement to encourage or discourage behaviors. This school of thought emphasizes behavior's learned causes over its biological one; therefore, behaviorism deeply values the ability of education to shape individuals.
Behaviorist learning theory distinguishes between classical and operative conditioning. The former involves natural responses to environmental stimuli, while the latter involves the reinforcement of a response to stimuli. Using a process often called "programmatic instruction," educators use operative conditioning to reinforce positive and correct negative learnings that often accompany classical conditioning.
Behaviorist theories ascribe to a reductionist approach, which dictates that breaking behavior down into parts is the best way to understand it. Other schools of thought critique behaviorism for underemphasizing biological and unconscious factors, denying free will, equating humans with animals, and overlooking internal learning processes or types of learning that occur without reinforcement.
Behaviorism has significantly shaped the disciplines of psychology and education, illuminating major influencing factors in human behavior and learning. In psychology, both behavior modification and behavior therapy owe their origins to behaviorism.
Meanwhile, behaviorist insights underlie many of the teaching methods still used today in homes, classrooms, workplaces, and other contexts. The widespread use of learning objectives, for example, breaks down larger learning goals into a series of specific skills and behaviors desired from a student.
Behaviorism also influences the sequence and methods used during the teaching and learning process. Teachers work toward their desired objectives by using external stimuli, explaining and demonstrating a skill or behavior, and then inviting student practice and providing feedback that reinforces the behaviors or skills they wish students to learn or unlearn.
Maxwell says, "The idea of measuring behaviors to assess acquired learning is deeply embedded through most educational systems, as is a system of rules with punishments and rewards designed to corral a learner into knowledge."
Key Theorists: Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Robert Mills Gagne, Marriner David Merill, Charles Reigeluth, and Roger Schank
Definition and Background
Cognitive psychology emerged in the 1950s and became dominant in the 1960s. Departing from the comparative emphasis of behaviorists, cognitivists see human beings as rational creatures quite different from animals. Consequently, cognitive theory explores the complexities of the human mind as it processes information.
It views behavior as a result of one's thoughts. Maxwell states that cognitivists "try to understand how we learn, think, and behave by looking at how our mind works to process, integrate, perceive, decide, emote, and understand existence. Cognitivism helps us see how we use our previous knowledge and experiences to learn new things and develop."
Using the computer as a metaphor for the human mind, cognitivists see learning as a product of mental faculties and activities, including thought, knowledge, memory, motivation, reflection, and problem-solving. Recasting learning as the acquisition of knowledge and the development of understanding, this approach emphasizes reading and lecture as learning modalities.
Rather than measuring learning based on observable behaviors, cognitivists evaluate learning based on a learner's demonstration of knowledge and understanding.
Maxwell says, "Like all good structures, they’ve come up with some useful rules of thumb for optimized learning. Here’s four of them: 1. Make sure the learning has a relevant purpose. 2. Ensure that the learner is focused. 3. Encourage the learner to move towards their own goals. 4. Arrange teaching to foster discovery of ideas and support the learner in slotting those new ideas into whole-mind understanding, at their own pace."
Cognitive psychology understands knowledge acquisition schematically and symbolically. It posits learning as the process of changing a learner's mental model or schematic understanding of knowledge.
In this view, human behavior reflects internal processing of the human mind, rather than simply a conditioned response to external stimuli. Learning involves the integration of information into a stored and usable body of knowledge.
Cognitive psychology derives, in part, from Jean Piaget's stages of development, which depend on biological factors such as age. Learning capacity and activity change over time as a person moves through life. For example, although older people have accumulated more knowledge, they do not always remain as teachable due to their tendency to adopt a more fixed outlook over time.
Cognitivism emphasizes the importance of an expert in transmitting accurate information, yet sees a learner's success or failure in absorbing this information as largely dependent upon the learner's mental capacity, motivation, beliefs, and effort.
The setup of many learning experiences today reflects persistent cognitivist ideas, approaches, and assumptions.
Although many contemporary educational psychologists see cognitivist approaches as outdated, teachers often deliver lectures in front of a classroom and expect students to demonstrate their retention of content through information-oriented tests.
However, teachers' efforts to balance lectures with activities that encourage mental processing also reflect cognitivist influence. Self-reflection — a widely used cognitivist technique — helps students think about and transform their understanding of the subject at hand.
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Key Theorists: John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner
Definition and Background
Constructivism gained notoriety in the 1930s-40s and enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s-80s. This view challenges both the behaviorist notion of the learner as a blank slate and the cognitivist notion of learning as the acquisition of objective information from an expert.
Rather, this school of thought suggests that learners create their own subjective information by interpreting their world and restructuring their thinking. For instance, "meaning is co-created, emergently between people, and between people and media, morals, ethics, societal norms, and eras," says Maxwell.
Constructivist theories take a learner-centered approach, in which the teacher serves as a guide — rather than the source of — the student's learning.
Maxwell says, "Learners don't just passively receive knowledge from teachers, they generate their own learning by using their experiences and social interactions in combination with teachings."
Originating in part from Piaget's understanding of intellectual growth as occurring through the interaction between old and new knowledge, constructivism views knowledge acquisition as a process of building upon a learner's previous knowledge.
Constructivists agree that learners create knowledge rather than passively receiving it, and that preexisting knowledge plays a crucial role in their learning. However, two differing strands of constructivism bear mentioning.
Social constructivism — associated with Lev Vygotsky's emphasis on social context — posits that students learn naturally through a process of discovery. While late 20th century cognitivist theories tend to reduce a learner to a passive receptacle, social constructivism believes learners actively hypothesize about their environment and test these hypotheses through social negotiations.
Cognitive constructivism agrees that learners construct rather than receive information, but it is interested in the cognitive processing involved in knowledge construction. "Your perspectives and ideas about the world aren't just what you've picked up, like an empty tank slowly being filled; but rather you're building your own house of knowledge and what you explicitly learn is only some of the bricks," Maxwell says.
Following Piaget, cognitive constructivism acknowledges age-based developmental learning stages and articulates learning as an expansion (through assimilation and accommodation processes) of a learner's experientially informed mental model of their world.
Constructivism influences the lesson plan methodologies employed by many teachers today. For example, constructivist influence shapes the common teaching practice of posing questions or problems and then inviting students to answer and solve them in their own ways.
Constructivism is also evident in popular classroom practices, such as having students create their own questions, welcoming multiple points of view and intelligence styles, and using group work as a collaborative learning tool.
Key Theorists: David A. Kolb and Carl Rogers
Definition and Background
This school of thought emerged in the 1970s out of the influence of the learner-centered and interactive principles of constructivism and social learning theories. Experiential learning theories identify meaningful everyday experience as the most central factor in increasing a learner's knowledge and understanding, as well as transforming their behavior.
Namely, "experientialism really drills into the importance of direct experience in the learning process," Maxwell explains.
Experientialist theorist Carl Rogers prioritizes experiential approaches to education because they work with humans' natural desire to learn. Rogers posits that humans are more likely to learn and retain information when they participate actively in the learning process.
Maxwell says, "In educational psychology, experientialism is applied when teachers get students to work on real-world problems through project-based learning, or when students are involved in immersive activities that engage more than just our thinking-brains, e.g., flight simulators, school kitchens or workshops for tech classes, and role-playing exercises to practice dealing with situations before really being in them like debating."
She continues, "These activities allow students to experiment, make mistakes, and develop emergent understanding in the process."
Experientialist David A. Kolb identifies four stages in this learning process: experiencing, absorbing and reflecting on experience, conceptualizing experience, and testing concepts in other situations. These are cyclical stages that function as an ongoing feedback loop, which in turn allows learners to improve skills and apply new or recent knowledge.
Rejecting instructor-centric approaches, experientialism argues that one person cannot effectively impart knowledge directly to another person; people must learn for themselves. A teacher can facilitate the learning process by engaging students through an experience, but they cannot control exactly what students learn from that experience.
"By ensuring direct [in real life] experiences, experientialism helps make learning more engaging, relevant, and memorable!" Maxwell says.
Experientialists argue that learners become less receptive when they are afraid; as a result, this view encourages teachers to create nonthreatening learning environments where learners can experience and experiment freely.
Contemporary experientialists are interested in how a learner's engagement and testing of new skills or concepts influences their learning environment, which creates a larger feedback loop that shapes the world in which we live.
The experientialist understanding of the learning process as a dynamic feedback loop often shapes how educators plan their lessons.
By placing an emphasis on activities that prompt effective perception and processing, educators can activate the learner's prior experience, demonstrate a new skill for the learner, ask the learner to practice the skill, and then invite application of those skills in practical scenarios.
Experientialism also shapes theories of organizational learning, including workplace design and professional training. Such programming often introduces realistic problems or scenarios where professionals practice new skills to generate a constructive solution. Individuals may also work collaboratively and receive feedback from their peers and instructors.
Many schools incorporate experiential education in their programs and curricula. In K-12 schools, these experiences often take the form of field trips or projects.
Meanwhile, colleges offer undergraduates internships and study abroad programs, and graduate schools often incorporate practicum experiences that allow students to apply what they have learned in other courses.
Social and Contextual
Key Theorists: Lev Vygotsky, Albert Bandura, Jean Lave, Barbara Rogoff, Etienne Wenger, and Thomas Sergiovanni
Definition and Background
First emerging in the late 20th century, social and contextual learning theories challenge the individual-focused approaches evident in both constructivism and cognitivism. Social and contextual theories are influenced by anthropological and ethnographic research and emphasize the ways environment and social contexts shape one's learning.
In this view, cognition and learning are understood as interactions between the individual and a situation; knowledge is situated in — and a product of — the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used. This led to new metaphors for learning as a "participation" and "social negotiation."
Maxwell adds, "It's a fascinating branch of psychology that studies how social and cultural factors influence our behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Basically, social and contextual psychology looks at how the meaning of things, like words, emotions, and events, depend on the context they occur in."
She says, "It also explores how we learn by observing others and being part of a group, and how that can affect our development. This can include working with colleagues who have different levels of experience, and how we can all stimulate each other's growth."
Social learning theory pays particular attention to social and interactive aspects of learning. Albert Bandura, for example, emphasizes the roles that social observation and modeling play in learning, while Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger put forward that learning works best in a community that produces social capital. They believe this improves the health of the community and its members.
The situated, relational nature of knowledge and the social, engaged nature of effective learning are the foundational principles of social and contextual learning theories.
Bandura posits a reciprocal determinism between environment, personality, and behavior, arguing that these factors influence one another while also shaping learning situations. Emphasizing learner attention, motivation, and memory, Bandura encourages educators to use natural tendencies toward observation, modeling, and imitation when designing learning situations.
Bandura's ideas correlate with Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, where the zone of development is only accessible to a learner through interaction with mentors or other more knowledgeable persons.
Lave and Wenger, on the other hand, view the diversity in knowledge levels as the best asset to a community of practice. They believe that learning depends on a group's effective use of cooperation, trust, understanding, and problem-solving to produce beneficial learning outcomes for the community.
Thomas Sergiovanni seconds this view, arguing that schools and other communities need to shift toward this approach before they can see substantial improvement.
The efforts of today's teachers to connect students' new and preexisting knowledge aligns with social and contextual learning. As a result, teachers account for the demographics of their classrooms as much as they do lesson planning.
Social and contextual learning theories also inform educators' efforts to connect new concepts with direct applications of concepts in specific contexts where a student lives, works, and/or learns.
While educators used to expect learners to make connections on their own, teachers now achieve more successful learning outcomes when they create learning environments that facilitate this process. Many teachers try to incorporate multifaceted, experiential learning environments that assist students in forging meaningful connections between abstract and practical concepts.
A teacher's effort to explicitly address the importance of lesson material reflects the impact of social and contextual learning theory. Explanations and illustrations of reasons for a lesson typically improve student motivation, helping students visualize or actually practice using this knowledge in practical contexts.
"Some examples of social and contextual psychology include social perception, social cognition, social influence, social identity, social interaction, and social change. It's amazing to see how these factors can impact our daily lives and shape our understanding of the world around us," Maxwell states.
Meet Our Contributor
Aimee Maxwell, MPsych/Ph.D. (Ed&Dev), BBNSc (Hons)
Aimee Maxwell supports people to manage their present circumstances and, if needed, move closer to their values. She has expertise in emotional intelligence at work and at home, secure leadership and parenting, and neurodiverse-affirming living. Maxwell runs two practices, Thriving Principals for school leaders and Zenith Psychology for psychology clients.
Page last reviewed March 13, 2023