Educational Psychology

Field of psychology concerned with the development, learning, and behaviour of children and young people as students in schools, colleges, and universities. It includes the study of children within the family and other social settings, and also focuses on students with disabilities and special educational needs. Educational psychology is concerned with areas of education and psychology which may overlap, particularly child development, evaluation and assessment, social psychology, clinical psychology, and educational policy development and management.

Development of the Field

In the 1880s the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus developed techniques for the experimental study of memory and forgetting. Before Ebbinghaus, these higher mental processes had never been scientifically studied; the importance of this work for the practical world of education was immediately recognized.

In the late 1890s William James of Harvard University examined the relationship between psychology and teaching. James, who was influenced by Charles Darwin, was interested in how people's behaviour adapted to different environments. This functional approach to behavioural research led James to study practical areas of human endeavour, such as education.

James's student Edward Lee Thorndike is usually considered to be the first educational psychologist. In his book Educational Psychology (1903), he claimed to report only scientific and quantifiable research. Thorndike made major contributions to the study of intelligence and ability testing, mathematics and reading instruction, and the way learning transfers from one situation to another. In addition, he developed an important theory of learning that describes how stimuli and responses are connected.

The Nature of Educational Psychology

Educational psychology has changed significantly over the 20th century. Early investigations of children as learners and the impact of different kinds of teaching approaches were largely characterized by attempts to identify general and consistent characteristics. The approaches used varied considerably. Jean Piaget, for example, recorded the development of individuals in detail, assessing changes with age and experience. Others, such as Robert Gagné, focused on the nature of teaching and learning, attempting to lay down taxonomies of learning outcomes. Alfred Binet and Cyril Burt were interested in methods of assessing children's development and identifying those children considered to be of high or low general intelligence.

This work led to productive research which refined the theories of development, learning, instruction, assessment, and evaluation, and built up an increasingly detailed picture of how students learn. Educational psychology became an essential part of the training of teachers, who for several generations were instructed in the theories emanating from its research to help train them in classroom teaching practice.

Changing Approaches

Recently the approach of educational psychology has changed significantly in the United Kingdom, as has its contribution to teacher education. In part these changes reflect political decisions to alter the pattern of teacher training: based on the belief that theory is not useful, and that "hands-on" training is preferable. However, discipline and teacher education have each been changing of their own accord. Moving away from the emphasis on all-encompassing theories, such as those of Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, and B. F. Skinner, the concerns of educational psychologists have shifted to practical issues and problems faced by the learner or the teacher. Consequently, rather than, for example, impart to teachers in training Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, and then seek ways of their applying it in classrooms, educational psychologists have tended to begin with the practical issues—how to teach reading; how to differentiate a curriculum (a planned course of teaching and learning) across a range of children with differing levels of achievement and needs; and how to manage discipline in classrooms.

Theory-driven research increasingly suggested that more elaborated conceptions of development were required. For example, the earlier work on intelligence by Binet, Burt, and Lewis Madison Terman focused on the assessment of general intelligence, while recognizing that intellectual activity included verbal reasoning skills, general knowledge, and non-verbal abilities such as pattern recognition. More recently the emphasis has shifted to accentuate the differing profiles of abilities, or "multiple intelligences" as proposed by the American psychologist Howard Gardner, who argues that there is good evidence for at least seven, possibly more, intelligences including kinaesthetic and musical as well as the more traditionally valued linguistic and logico-mathematical types of intelligence.

There has also been a shift in emphasis from the student as an individual to the student in a social context, at all levels from specific cognitive (thinking and reasoning) abilities to general behaviour. For example, practical intelligence and its links with "common sense" have been addressed and investigations made into how individuals may have relatively low intelligence as measured by conventional intelligence tests, yet be seen to be highly intelligent in everyday tasks and "real-life" settings. Recognition of the impact of the environment on a child's general development has been informed by research on the effects of poverty, socio-economic status, gender, and cultural diversity, together with the effects of schooling itself. Also, the emphasis has changed from one of regarding differences in their performance on specific tasks as deficits compared with some norm, to an appreciation that deficits in performance may reflect unequal opportunity, or that differences may even reflect a positive diversity.

It is now apparent that there are also important biological factors determined by a child's genetic make-up and its prenatal existence, as well as social factors concerned with the family, school, and general social environment. Because these various factors all interact uniquely in the development of an individual, consequently there are limitations in the possible applicability of any one theory in educational psychology.


Professional educational psychologists (EPs) draw upon theory and research from other disciplines in order to benefit individual children, their families, and educational institutions, particularly schools through the following activities:

Individual Children

An EP may be asked to advise a parent on how to deal with a pre-school child with major temper tantrums; to assess a young child with profound and multiple disabilities; to advise teachers on the nature of a 7-year-old's reading difficulties; to advise teachers and parents on an adolescent's problematic behaviour; to undertake play therapy with an 8-year-old who has been sexually and physically abused; or to give an adolescent counselling or psychotherapy.

In each case there is an assessment to identify the nature of the problem, followed by an intervention appropriate to this analysis. The assessment may include the use of standardized tests of cognitive abilities, not necessarily to derive an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) but to investigate a range of aspects of intellectual development; informal assessment and standardized tests of attainment (such as reading and spelling); interviews; observation of the child in class, or with parents or friends; or methods designed to understand the child's view of their world, including play and structured pictures and tasks where the child arranges the materials to represent their own views of family, or other social arrangements. The interventions (planned procedures) may be equally wide-ranging. In some cases the EP will try to help key adults to understand the child and the nature of the problem. In other cases, more direct advice may be given on how to handle disturbing aspects of a child's behaviour. In other instances the EPs may advise or produce a specific programme of work, counselling, or behaviour change, which they might implement directly, or they may advise on and monitor the practices of teachers and parents.

In some instances the main basis for advice might be evidence obtained from research on child development; or evidence on intellectual development and its assessment in ethnic minority populations; or theories of learning and instruction as applied to helping a child with literacy difficulties; or theories of counselling or psychotherapeutic intervention may help an adolescent with significant emotional problems. EPs normally work collaboratively with teachers and parents, and with medical and other colleagues. They play a major role in providing advice to local education authorities or school districts in those countries which make statutory assessments of students' special educational needs.


Often the involvement of an EP with an individual child in a school will lead teachers to recognize that the same issues apply more generally. For example, other children may also have similar learning difficulties or problems in controlling aggression. The EP may then provide a consultancy service to the teacher or school. In some cases this service may be sought direct, for example when a new headteacher wishes to review a previous assessment or the school's current behaviour policy. Research has indicated, for example, how schools can reduce bullying, improve pupil performance by rearranging classrooms, for example, and optimize the inclusion of children with special educational needs.

Teacher Training and Practice

Educational psychology continues to provide a major basis for the initial education of teachers, particularly in management of learning and behaviour, but also on curriculum design, with special attention given to the needs of individual children. Increasingly, educational psychology is also contributing to student teachers' understanding of the school as a system and the importance of this wider perspective for optimizing their performance; to their professional development by helping them analyse their own practice, beliefs, and attitudes and, once they begin the practice of teaching, to their continuing professional development based on experience in schools—particularly in areas such as special needs and disability. The impact of information technology and the increasing development of inclusive education provide particular challenges.