Learning Psychology – Definitions and Research

Educational Psychology in the United States

What approach to education fosters advancement and overall happiness? This is a hard question to answer, and first we have to look at how we are doing in terms of happiness and advancement. Here in the United States we do not rank number one in either of these measure of human progress. So what has led to our decline in both happiness and overall intelligence? The United States has managed to maintain one of the highest scores on the Human Development Index. We enjoy a high score in economic development and income. At first glance it even appears that we score well for education. However, the US does not rank as number one in any category that the HDI measure, not even education.

Every year at least three other countries top the United States in literacy, reading ability, and math scores. Our drop in education rankings has been a somewhat recent phenomenon. When we look at past scores in these areas, the US used to rank number one.

As far as satisfaction and happiness, the US has maintained relatively high scores according to the OECD Better Life Index. But, we are still not number one. In fact, the US only scores an average of 7.6 out of 10 in overall satisfaction. Satisfaction with education was even lower, earning only a 7 out of 10.

Education Index

Eighteen other countries polled tested higher than the United States in education satisfaction. There are a number of different approaches to solving our education problem. Politicians, parents, students, educators, and psychologists all have an opinion about how we should go about climbing education rankings. This post explores how psychologists think we can solve the US education problem.

What is Education Psychology?

Educational Psychologists examine a number of cognitive and non-cognitive factors to determine which approaches to education are the most beneficial to students. The field of psychology that assesses these factors is called educational psychology.

A number of educational psychologists have conducted research studies in an attempt to determine which factors are the most important in education. The hope is that these studies will inform educators and politicians when creating curriculums.

Educational psychologists might also work as clinicians in schools to help implement new curricula, student accommodations, or psychological testing. Educational psychologist might work closely with a school counselor or career counselor in order to provide resources to students.

A few areas that an educational psychologist may look at are student testing, mood, and study habits. These areas allow psychologists to understand how students learn, as well as how they learn happily. The goal of education is to create smart and happy students, rather than unhappy drones.

Most education psychologists agree that the best approach to education is one that is centers on:

  • Low-stakes testing
  • Lowering anxiety for students
  • Creating confident students
  • Stressing the importance of good study habits

Standardized Testing

In Morgan Spurlock’s 2013 series titled Inside Man he explores hot button issues in American Culture. It is no surprise that one of the issues he explores is education. Spurlock investigates the American system of public schools and charter schools in an attempt to understand what is shaping learning in America.

What Spurlock finds is that in most publicly funded schools emphasize standardized tests. Testing is the easiest way to analyze how students and schools are doing. Testing allows politicians to determine which schools should be rewarded with more funding and which schools need incentives or better resources.

Educational psychologists are interested in the effects of testing on students. These researchers investigate if testing is an effective way to evaluate students. They also examine the emotional effects of testing on students.

Currently, our education system in the U.S. relies on standardized tests that are intended to measure how well students comprehend material. Here, standardized tests are used to find out how well students comprehend material that they should have covered in school. When using such tests we are doing two things. Finding out how well the school taught the student, and how well the student retained the information.

So how does all of this testing affect the students? Many educational psychologists who study testing have come across an effect named test anxiety.

Test Anxiety

Test Anxiety

Psychologists who study standardized tests have observed a clear affect: standardized tests often cause test anxiety. Test anxiety is a condition where people experience distress, rapid heart rate, and discomfort when taking tests. Research seems to demonstrate that the presence of high-pressure testing increases children’s anxiety.

Research on Test Anxiety

A study published by Natasha Segool, titled Test anxiety associated with high-stakes testing among elementary school children: Prevalence, predictors, and relationship to student performance, found that high-stakes standardized tests cause more anxiety than classroom tests.

This researcher had two groups of students. One group took a high-pressure standardized text and the other was given a more informal classroom test. The students who took the standardized test demonstrated higher levels of cognitive and psychological test anxiety than their counterparts.

Results also revealed that students who took the standardized test and had high or moderate anxiety did significantly worse than students who had low-test anxiety. Her results are important for a few reasons. What they reveal is that students do better when they are less anxious and they are less anxious when given informal tests. This means that one approach to education that would foster human progress would be to eliminate high-pressure tests.

Main Takeaways

  • Standardized tests increase anxiety
  • Classroom tests are less anxiety provoking than standardized tests
  • Students do worse on tests when they have anxiety

A. S. McDonald wrote a paper titled The Prevalence and Effects of Test Anxiety on School Children had similar findings to Segool’s study. These researchers analyzed a number of resources and studies about text anxiety and found that high stakes testing increases anxiety and makes children preform worse.

McDonald also found that the prevalence of test anxiety is rising. He attributed this recent change to the emphasis being put on standardized test. The more important students perceived the test, the more anxious they became, and the worse they preformed. It seems that high-stakes standardized test cause students mental anguish that makes the preform worse on those tests.

Main Takeaways

    • Test anxiety is on the rise
    • If a student perceives a test as important they become more anxious
    • The more anxious students are, the worse they do on tests

Reducing Test Anxiety

Psychologist agree that one way to make our education system better would be to change our relationship to standardized tests. If we made standardized test less important or even just made them seem less important, it might lower anxiety and therefore make student’s score better. Another way to lower test anxiety would be to make them function more like classroom tests because classroom tests cause less anxiety.

If we administered standardized tests in a classroom setting with a familiar teacher and less threatening environment it might lower test anxiety. One way to raise test scores might also be to lower anxiety before taking a test. There are many psychologically researched stress reduction techniques. Employing some of these techniques such as meditation or breathing before a test might help reduce overall anxiety and help performance.

Reducing test anxiety

Confidence and Self-Efficacy in Testing

There are other non-cognitive factors, in addition to anxiety, that impact students’ performance on tests. One of the most important is confidence. Confidence in this sense is defined as what percentage of questions students think they can get right on a test. If they are very confident they feel like they can get the majority of questions right. If they have low confidence then they do not feel like they can answer questions correctly.

Research on Confidence

In one study conducted by Lazar Stankov titled Confidence: The Best Non-Cognitive predictor of Academic Achievement, found that having high confidence in your answer was correlated with giving the correct answer.

Researchers founds that how confident you were in your answer accounted for 46.3% of variance in weather or not you gave the right answer. This means that slightly less than half of the reason you got the answer right was related to how confident you were.

This study also looked at fourteen other non-cognitive factors in addition to confidence. Some of them had to do with enjoyment, self-esteem, and perceived control. Researchers found that all of those factors combined accounted for 40.5% of the variance in weather a participant got the question right. This puts into perspective just how important it is to have confident students. If students feel like they can answer a question correctly they most likely can. Therefore, confidence might help us predict academic success.

Main Takeaways:

    • Having confidence in your answers is associated with getting the right answer
    • Confidence is a better predictor of right answers than any other variable measured
    • If you feel like you can answer the question correctly, the chances are you can

Research on Self-Efficacy

In a study conducted by Yi Jiang titled Self-Efficacy and Achievement goals as Motivational Links Between Perceived Contexts and Academic Success he found similar results that Stankov did. Instead of testing confidence this researcher tested self-efficacy, a quality that is closely related to academic confidence. Self-efficacy here is defined as ones perceived ability to succeed. Self-efficacy is slightly more general than the concept of confidence, but similar. Jiang’s study found the self-efficacy was strongly correlated with academic achievement.

In addiction to self-efficacy, this study assessed achievement goals. Students who felt like they could reach their goals actually did meet their goals more frequently than students who felt their goals were unattainable. Finally, the study looked at how parents and teachers interacted with academic success is regard to self-efficacy. When parents and teachers felt students could reach their academic goals they usually did. These results have important implications because they demonstrates that its not only students confidence and self-efficiency that predicts academic success, but also teachers and parents perceptions.

Main Takeaways:

  • Self-efficacy is associated with academic success
  • If you feel like your goals are attainable you are more likely to meet them
  • When parents and teachers feel students can reach their goals, the students are more likely to meet them

Increasing Confidence and Self-Efficacy

Confidence and self-efficacy as predictors of academic success are important because they can help guide strategies for education. One way to increase students’ contentment and intelligence is to have them feel confident. This can be done a number of ways.

If we prepare students adequately for a test they will feel confident and will have high self-efficacy because they will feel that they can answer questions correctly. As the research shows, when they feel like they know the answers they usually do. In our schools this means no surprise or trick questions!

Another way to increase students’ confidence and self-efficacy is to give them study guides so that they feel prepared for the material they will be tested on. Stankov and Jiang’s studies highlight the importance of study strategies. If students use study methods that make them more confident then they will be do better on tests.

This research also provides important information in the other direction. If schools were to administer self-assessments that evaluated students’ confidence in answering questions, then they could identify the students with low confidence and low self-efficacy and give them extra help. An assessment like this would help inform educators about their students.

Finally the second study highlights the important role that parents and educators play in the equation of academic success. Students should set academic goals with teachers at the beginning of each semester. These should be goals that both the student and teacher work together to create. In addition, these goals should be attainable. As demonstrated by the study, it is important that both the student and teacher perceive the goals as possible. The presence of goals like this will raise students’ self-efficiency thus leading them to higher academic success. Schools might also consider involving the parents in this process, since everyone’s perception matters.

Study Habits

As mentioned above, there are a few methods of increasing confidence and lowering test-anxiety one of which is study strategies. In a study conducted by Jennifer Tomes titled Studying for Success: Dairies of Students’ Study Behaviors found that study behavior drastically impacted GPA and test performance.

This study found that it did not matter how much time students spent studying but rather how they studied that made the difference. Results indicated that active study strategies predicted better test performance, class performance, and GPA. However, these active strategies were least common.

The most common study strategies were passive methods like reading or reviewing course materials. These methods were associated with the worst overall performance. The second most popular method was active writing or processing materials. Next was active quizzing, this strategy was the most effective in producing positive results.

Students who used active quizzing like flash cards or practice tests outperformed students who used other study strategies. This finding is important because it offers some insight into how our students study and how they should study. In light of these findings, schools should emphasize the importance of self-quizzing or other active study methods.

Main Takeaways

    • Passive study methods include reading or reviewing course material
    • Passive study methods are the most common and least effective
    • The second most popular study methods are active writing or processing materials
    • Active study methods include self-quizzing or making flash cards
    • Active study methods are the least common but most effective

It is important to inform students about which study strategies work, because if they don’t know how to prepare they won’t be able to. Educators should consider giving talks or devoting classes to the effectiveness of study strategies. One way would be to offer a practice quiz the day before a big exam to prepare students.


There are many more factors to education than the three mentioned in this post. All of these complex factors need to interact and work together in order to drive education reform. In recent years our country has begun to rely more heavily on standardized test. Tests are the easiest way to quantifiably measure a student’s ability and assess how well the school is teaching. However, tests don’t provide the whole picture.

Tests don’t usually tell us how anxious or confident students are before taking them. Tests don’t tell us how well students studied. All of these factors are important to psychologists because they effect how well students will preform. Due to these complicating factors, a low-test score does not mean that a student is unintelligent. All a test score tells us is how well an individual took that test.

It is interesting to note that most educational psychologists conduct research based around test scores as a measure of intelligence. The studies examined in this post all dealt with a factor and how it impacted test scores or GPA. Tests are not necessarily the best way of determining a students’ ability, but for right now they are what we use.

Educational Psychologists don’t claim to have a better alternative to testing as a measure of intelligence or contentment. However, they do agree that there are ways to teach students more effectively and make them more content within the testing system.

Mainly the factors discussed here deal with intelligence, but contentment is built in. If students can learn better with less anxiety it follows that they will be more content. From all the evidence above it is clear that a curriculum with low-stakes testing, low anxiety, high confidence, and good study habits will lead to happier, smarter students.

Work Cited

Jiang, Yi. Self-Efficacy and Achievement goals as Motivational Links Between Perceived Contexts and Academic Success. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 2014.

Malik Khalid. Human Development Report 2013. New York: United Nations Development Program, 2013.

Natasha Segool titled Test anxiety associated with high-stakes testing among elementary school children: Prevalence, predictors, and relationship to student performance. ProQuest

Putwain, David. Do Examination Stakes Moderate the Test Anxiety-Examination Performance Relationship. Online Journal: Educational Psychology, 2008.

Stankov, Lazar. Confidence: The Best Non-Cognitive predictor of Academic Achievement. Online Journal: Educational Psychology, 2013.
Tomes, Jennifer. Studying For Success: Diaries of Students’ Study Behavior. Online Journal: Educational Research and Evaluation: An International Journal on Theory and Practice, 2011.

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