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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2019 | Volume 24 | Number 1

Contemporary Psychology
“An Education in Educational Psychology” or “A Good Excuse to Catch Up With an Old Friend”

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD
Western Oregon University

Maggie Renken, PhD
Georgia State University

Welcome back dear readers. At times, I am amazed by how small and intimate an academic community can be. If you spend enough time working in psychology, you will have met, know, or be friends with pretty much every other academic psychologist. And, if you don’t have a direct relationship with a particular individual, you will be associated with them in a convoluted “five degrees of Kevin Bacon” kind of way. I have personally interacted with some of the most well-known psychologists. This is not bragging, but rather a statement of fact and one that anyone who has worked as long as I have in this field can make.

“Oh, really?” you say in a nonbelieving and somewhat suspicious way, “Like who?” Okay, for example, the first person to visit me during a poster presentation was Henry Roediger III (who I am sure left very confused…my fault, not his), my academic grandfather is John Flavel, and I once had dinner with Phil Zimbardo, among others, who insisted that I eat a nearly lethal amount of deviled eggs1. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to attend the same graduate program as Maggie Renken. This is fortunate because we will be covering educational psychology in this edition of Contemporary Psych, and I know next-to-nothing about this area. Although my profound ignorance in an area has never stopped me from pretending to be an expert, I figured that, for your benefit, I should contact my old grad school buddy, a real expert in educational psychology, for an interview. So, in what follows, Dr. Maggie Renken indulges my uninformed questions and, in doing so, provides you with key information about the fascinating field of educational psychology. Enjoy!

EM: Good to see you again Maggs! It has been a while! So, how would you define educational psychology?

MR: Educational psychology is the study of human learning and is often at the intersection of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and applied education research. To study learning processes and outcomes, educational psychologists often study instruction and instructional interventions too. Educational psychologists are usually interested in ways to assess humans in learning environments to make inferences about how learning works or to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of some type of instruction. As an example, at Georgia State University, we have several faculty members (Drs. Carlson, Greenberg, Magliano, McCarthy) who focus on strategies associated with reading comprehension and learning from written text. Once we know the strategies learners use, we can design instruction that aligns with or improves upon these strategies.

EM: Very cool, but this sounds different from school psychology. Is educational psychology different than school psychology?

MR: I’ve been a program director for our graduate programs for a couple of years and this is a question I get a lot. The answer is an emphatic, YES, educational psychology and school psychology are different. It’s confusing because they sound so similar. At universities, the fields can get lumped together in the same department, which confuses things further. School psychologists are typically interested in assessing specific students and working with teachers and specialists to cater to individual student needs. So, they are typically working directly with children in school settings. Educational psychologists are more concerned with testing and advancing general theories of learning and instruction. The fields are distinct, although because both are concerned with learners, there’s definite overlap. In fact, a colleague and I just worked on a chapter for a book for school psychologists in which we describe theories of learning and teaching from the perspective of educational psychologists. It’s our hope that knowing about theories, like those of memory and cognitive load, can help school psychologists guide their decision making when working with students.

EM: That makes sense! Who are some of the major figures, key players, in educational psychology?

MR: As I mentioned earlier, educational psychology often intersects with cognitive science, developmental psychology, and applied education research. That intersection is evident as far as historical figures go. John Dewey had an impact on the field, and we tend to teach Piagetian and Vygotskian perspectives. There’s Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory and more recent dynamic systems models. I’m beginning to notice an increasing impact of critical theory in the field. Margaret Spencer did this work with her phenomenological variant of ecological systems in the 1990s. Megan Bang’s emphasis on situative perspectives shifts the field in that direction as well. Information processing theories also continue to be important to educational psychologists. Increasingly, and as we see growth of the closely related learning sciences field, design-based research, data analytics, and data mining research is having an impact on educational psychology.

EM: That covers some recent history, so what are the hot research topics and/or areas of application of this research?

MR: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education research has been hot for a while. The National Science Foundation as well as many other private foundations are very interested in funding programs that prepare students to be successful in STEM college degree programs and careers. As a result, a large number of educational psychologists—including me—are interested in thinking about how students participate and learn in STEM classrooms and informal settings (like afterschool clubs, museums, etc.). Additionally, at GSU we also have a lot of researchers interested in literacy. And the Institute for Educational Sciences (a branch of the Department of Education) has funded educational psychology faculty to research adult literacy and methods of assessing reading comprehension. Our faculty are also asking questions about the experiences of underrepresented racial, ethnic, and gender minority groups in educational settings and exploring means of improving representation. Understandably, as adaptive technologies continue to improve rapidly, educational psychology researchers, including some of us at GSU, are also addressing questions about how people learn via technology and how technology can be implemented to assess learning.

EM: You have been talking a lot about research. Does that mean that most educational psychologists work in research-oriented institutions or organizations?

MR: Most of the graduates from our PhD program at Georgia State go on to be faculty, research scientists, or research program directors at universities or nonprofit organizations. And this is pretty typical for educational psychologists. Our recent graduates include a policy fellow for the Society for Research of Child Development, postdoctoral researchers at the University of Virginia and Morehouse University, a research scientist for the Georgia Department of Education, faculty in various psychology departments, and the director of research and policy for the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.

EM: Wow! Those are some prestigious positions. What type of education/professional experience does one need to become an educational psychologist?

MR: Educational psychologists have a MS or PhD in educational psychology or a related field (like the learning sciences or developmental psychology). Prior to graduate school, it’s a good idea to get some experience in research labs and identify an area of research you’d like to study. Once you have a pretty good idea of what interests you, it’s useful to begin finding faculty who do related research and reaching out to them about pursuing a degree. Most programs, like ours at GSU, follow an apprenticeship model, where grad students work closely with their faculty advisors on their program of study. So, finding a good fit in terms of interest is key. That doesn’t mean you have to be locked in to that specific area of research forever. But it’s the best way to become a well-trained educational psychologist.

EM: What are some key, foundational readings for those interested in this field?

MR: The top journals in the field are the Journal of Educational Psychology, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Educational Psychologist, and Cognition and Instruction. These are good journals to start with for exposure to the latest in the field. The Educational Psychology Division of APA (Division 15) is an active group with a monthly newsletter and healthy social media presence. Check them out! I also recommend two fairly recent articles, one by Alexander and the other by Harris, that consider what educational psychology research has contributed so far and how it should proceed (note to readers: see below for references).

EM: Well Maggs, as always, it has been a pleasure. Thank you so much!

And, to my readers, I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it. Moreover, I hope you found it to be an informative introduction to the area of educational psychology. Until next time!

Further Reading and Resources:

Division 15 of the American Psychological Association–Educational Psychology.

Alexander, P. A. (2018). Past as prologue: Educational psychology’s legacy and progeny. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110, 147–162.

Harris, K. R. (2018). Educational psychology: A future retrospective. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110, 163–173.

1 For those who are interested, the actual lethal dose of deviled eggs is six. Phil insisted that I have five. Then, I ordered a salad for my main course to decrease the probability of an acute cardiovascular incident.

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning.

He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.

Maggie Renken is an associate professor in the Department of Learning Sciences at Georgia State University. She researches students’ scientific thinking in formal and informal settings that span pre-K through undergraduate populations. Her research also focuses on broadening participation and the role of mentoring in STEM fields for underrepresented gender and racial group members. Her work is intended to inform approaches in the classroom for assessing and improving scientific thinking, learning, and participation in STEM. She teaches courses in human growth and development, adolescent development, and cognitive development at the undergraduate and graduate level. She also coleads an EPIC (Experiential, Project-based, interdisciplinary Curriculum) program for students at GSU. Maggie can be reached at

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 24, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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