What Is Educational Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 31, 2022
4 min read

We know not everyone learns and retains information the same way, so what can we do to make sure that everyone benefits from their education? The aim of research in educational psychology is to optimize learning, and educational psychologists study and identify new educational methods to benefit teachers, students, and anyone trying to learn a new skill. 

You can apply educational psychology to any human learning, not just to formal learning in a classroom. Educational psychology examples include:


Behaviorism in educational psychology is the idea that all human behaviors stem from interactions with the environment, and modifying the environment will result in different behaviors. Behaviorism typically uses positive and negative stimuli — rewards and punishments — to influence behavior. For example, rewarding a student who does well on a test would be an attempt to use behaviorism to encourage a student to study.


Cognitivism in educational psychology encourages learners to "think about thinking" and understand their strengths and barriers in their education. Cognitivism can help promote student engagement and gives students more authority over their education. Students can learn to better understand their cognitive process and how it can be affected by internal and external factors.

Social Cognitive Theory 

The social cognitive theory is the theory that learning happens in a social context. This theory asserts that learning is influenced by both internal factors, like individual thoughts, and external factors, like social interactions, which can impact learning outcomes.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

The cognitive behavioral theory asserts that our thoughts determine our feelings and behavior. For example, a student who believes that they're bad at math could feel inadequate about their abilities and have more difficulty learning math because of this thought process.

Educational psychologists strive to understand how social, emotional, and cognitive processes affect learning. Educational psychologists study how people learn and retain information in a wide variety of fields, including:

Curriculum Design

Curriculum designers work with schools, organizations, and individuals to create effective learning systems. Educational psychologists can contribute to curriculum design by analyzing existing educational programs to determine where a new curriculum can improve the old one.

Standardized Testing

Educational psychologists can assess institutions that are struggling with test scores and help them improve their educational programs, identifying any gaps that they need to address to improve test scores. 

Educational psychologists can help develop practical standardized tests and research related subjects like how to reduce student anxiety around standardized testing.

Teacher Training

Educational psychologists can conduct teacher training to help teachers improve their skills, understand why some learning methods are more effective, provide individualized instruction, and set appropriate goals for their students. 

Educational psychologists typically obtain a master's degree in educational psychology or teaching and learning psychology, though a doctorate can open more career opportunities, like government and university positions.  

Educational psychologists generally work in academic environments like schools, universities, research laboratories, or testing companies. Private firms and businesses also employ educational psychologists.

What Does an Educational Psychologist Make?

The median wage for school psychologists in 2021 is $78,780 annually. 

Employment for psychologists is expected to grow at a rate of 8%, which is average.

Educational psychology is a modern field of formal study, but scholars have been fascinated with how people learn for a very long time. Democritus wrote about the influence of a person's home life on learning in the 5th century B.C., and Plato and Aristotle discussed educational psychology topics like:

  • Individualized education
  • The effects of arts education on human development
  • The role of a teacher
  • Different methods of teaching
  • Self-education without a teacher

Quintilian argued in favor of public education over private education almost 2,000 years ago, an academic argument that is still controversial today.

Edward Lee Thorndike is widely credited with creating educational psychology as a distinct field by publishing his 1903 book Educational Psychology. Thorndike performed experiments to study how animals learned in hopes that he could discover "laws of learning" that could improve human education.

Thorndike's work was primarily based on behaviorism — the idea that conditioning determines human behavior and rewarded behaviors will continue while punished behaviors will diminish. Modern educational psychology has evolved away from behaviorism. Educational psychology theories based on cognitivism are favored today, which focus on internal mental processes instead of observable behavior.