Educational Leadership & Policy

Seven Reasons to Get a Master’s in Educational Psychology

Seven Reasons to Get a Master’s in Educational Psychology
By the time you decide to pursue an educational psychology program, you may find yourself working a full-time job, taking care of family, or otherwise unable to attend school full-time. Thankfully, it's not too hard to find a degree program catering to a range of schedules and commitments. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 26, 2020

Learn how people learn. No, it's not a Gertrude Stein poem. Rather, it's the objective of a master's degree in educational psychology.

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Education is a relatively young academic field, with much we don’t know about the ways people learn. How do learning environments, technology, culture, and even time of day influence information retention? What impact does age have on our ability to pick up new skills or learn new languages? Are online courses less or as effective than in-person instruction? Do we all process visual and auditory data in roughly the same way?

There are no conclusive answers to these and other questions…yet. Those answers may be on their way, though. That’s because educational psychologists explore these and related issues to discover how people absorb and retain information.

What we do know is that no one learning approach works for everyone. We also know that the growing complexity of the United States’ education system causes some learners to be left behind. The field of educational psychology studies these critical issues to identify approaches and strategies to make education more effective.

If that sounds to you like a fascinating way to spend a career, earning an educational psychology master’s is a smart first step. As you’ll discover below, however, this isn’t one degree pathway, but many. Educational psychology is the branch of psychology focused on how the human brain learns. Graduate programs devoted to this multifaceted discipline are administered by both psychology and education departments. They may grant Master of Science, Master of Arts, or Master of Education degrees.

However, all master’s in educational psychology programs can lead to multiple careers in settings as diverse as schools, group homes, hospitals, government research centers, therapeutic practices, and community agencies. In this article about the reasons to get an educational psychology master’s, we cover:

  • What is an educational psychology master’s, and who pursues this degree?
  • Are the admissions requirements for educational psychology programs tough?
  • What kinds of classes do students in educational psychology master’s programs take?
  • How long do graduate educational psychology programs usually last?
  • Which schools have the best educational psychology master’s programs?
  • What can someone do with an educational psychology master’s?
  • What are the top seven reasons to get an educational psychology master’s?

What is an educational psychology master’s, and who pursues this degree?

Put plainly, educational psychology is the study of how people learn. There are numerous social, behavioral, and emotional elements of learning, and many factors affect how we learn.

You might think of learning as something that takes place in classrooms or training sessions, but learning and information processing happen everywhere. Many of the factors that affect how people process information exist mainly outside our control—assuming we even understand what those factors are. Consider this very simple example of how outside factors influence learning: You can create the most engaging, enriching classroom experience, but if students come from chaotic homes, don’t have enough to eat or enough sleep, or are regularly told they’re stupid by adults in their lives, outcomes may be poor. Conversely, students in an underfunded classroom can thrive if their basic needs are met and they’re surrounded by supportive adults.

Facilitating learning in and out of classrooms isn’t, unfortunately, as simple as making sure students aren’t hungry. Educational psychology is a complex discipline that straddles the line between education and psychology. There are master’s in educational psychology programs focused on:

Cognitive theories and research

This course may cover a range of learning theories, pedagogical approaches, and student learning preferences. Both classic and burgeoning research methods help students reach new conclusions about their students’ experiences.

Education evaluation

The role of both teachers and administrators involves fairly measuring the progress of students and how specific teaching tactics reach different minds.

Educational policy

A master’s program may look at the government regulations around testing, grade levels, and funding for those with unique educational needs.

Learning disabilities and special education

Study the psychological angle of learning with a disability and within a special education setting. Topics may include everything from dyslexia to autism in the classroom.

Literacy and language acquisition

Explore how the mind processes language, especially in the key developmental phases early in childhood.

Therapeutic and clinical interventions for people with learning challenges

Students will explore and research innovative ways to properly support students with learning challenges by making alterations to their school experience, often with the assistance of government programs or private instruction programs.

Programs confer degrees like the:

Master of Arts in Education & School Psychological Services

A master’s of arts in higher education traditionally appeals to students looking to complete research and a final thesis. In this specific degree, topics may focus on services offered by educational institutions and their effectiveness for a range of learners.

Master of Arts in Educational Psychology

This degree’s curriculum might explore everything from social sciences affecting the learning process to the foundational education theories.

Master of Arts in Educational Studies and Educational Psychology

Similarly, college students will balance topics of teaching and psychology with an MA. Courses cover everything from the effectiveness of assessments to behavioral differences in students.

Master of Arts in Learning and Cognition

A university may offer an even broader scope of topics surrounding learning and memory. Students can explore the mind throughout a person’s full lifespan, from childhood to continued education.

Master of Arts in Psychology in Education

While similar to other degree titles, this research-based degree may explore how to incorporate psychologically sound teaching tactics into the classroom.

Master of Education in Educational Psychology

MEd degrees focus on practicum, mainly aiming at teaching in the classroom or managing a school on an administrative level. Education psychology explores all the related topics of the combined fields including research methods, human development, and behavioral differences.

Master of Education in School Psychology

Professionals looking to better understand both classroom and school management will benefit from this EdD program. Topics include crisis intervention, HR management, and program development. In some cases, this program is aimed at professionals looking to become student counselors as well.

Master of Science in Educational Psychology

By taking an MS approach to education psychology, a larger portion of core courses may include the neurological and biological factors that contribute to learning.

Master of Science in School Psychology

You may also spot a more generalized master’s degree in the management of a school or pedagogical approach. Students may be given the option to choose a concentration as well.

Students pursuing master’s-level educational psychology degrees come from varied backgrounds and have varied professional goals. Some are aspiring school psychologists or school counselors. Others are teachers who want to develop a stronger foundation in cognitive theory to call upon when working with students. Still others are preparing to launch careers helping school districts develop better strategies for educating students who need extra support.

Educational psychology master’s programs also attract researchers who will go on to pursue doctoral degrees in education, educational psychology, or related disciplines like educational evaluation and early childhood education.

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“I'm Interested in Education Leadership and Policy!”

The students in part-time and full-time education policy master’s programs are optimists who believe they can make education better on a grand scale. They acknowledge the current education system in the United States is fraught with problems, but they don’t view any of those problems as insurmountable. They’re pursuing master’s degrees in education policy because they’ve dreamed of transforming their districts, improving on the ways students are taught across the entire state, or even driving sweeping education reform at the federal level. (source)

Universities offer so many degrees fitting for this category. At some universities, a Master of Education Policy or Master of Education Leadership program covers all the same subject matter as an M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership. Others call this degree a Master of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies; Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy; Master of Education in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; or a Master of Arts in Education Policy and Leadership. The only way to know whether the leadership and policy master’s program at a particular school is worth it is to look at the curriculum and the school’s job placement data. Make sure the curriculum supports your unique career goals and that the degree sufficiently impresses employers. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

Are the admissions requirements for educational psychology programs tough?

The quick answer is that it’s no tougher to get into an educational psychology master’s program than to get into any other graduate degree program. Every college and university has its own admissions criteria, though some requirements are universal.

To be eligible to enroll in an educational psychology program, you need to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Some schools require applicants to have earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology or a Bachelor of Science in Education, while others admit applicants from other academic backgrounds.

You also may need to show proof of related professional experience in the form of a resume or an active teaching license. Programs that consider applications submitted by recent undergrads sometimes ask applicants to write a personal statement outlining their professional goals.

Chances also are good that you’ll be asked to submit GRE scores, though some colleges and universities offer GRE waivers for applicants with significant professional experience, and others don’t require applicants to submit them at all. It’s a smart idea to submit GRE scores if you have them even when they’re not required because your scores give admissions officers another data point to consider.

Beyond that, every educational psychology program uses different criteria to evaluate applicants. Admissions requirements can vary widely from program to program because some grant psychology degrees and others grant education degrees. Unsurprisingly, top colleges and universities tend to be the most selective.

What kinds of classes do students in educational psychology master’s programs take?

The answer depends on which program a student chooses. Education psychology master’s programs tend to fall into two broad categories. Some focus more on cognitive psychology and cognition and are designed to prepare school psychologists to work with students in a clinical capacity. Others focus more on learning and educational theory and are for researchers and teachers who want to continue working in the classroom. Coursework in both types of programs may cover:

Behavior assessment

Teachers and administrators will explore how to support students with a range of behavioral challenges in the classroom. Classroom management and social-emotional learning play a large role as well.

Child and adolescent psychology

This course will cover the psychological factors of each developmental stage from childhood through the early teenage years. Teachers will learn tactics for approaching each age backed by specific research.

Cognitive development

Topics cover the neurological and behavioral development of the learning process, from short to long-term memory and specific teaching tactics.

Cognitive theory and the learning process

This course may cover the major breakthroughs in cognitive research throughout the history of psychological studies, especially pertaining to school, pedagogy, and the student experience.

Counseling theory and best practices

Whether students plan to pursue a career in counseling or not, the theories behind constructive counseling tactics can help administrators and teachers in the classroom.

Developmental psychology

While this class also studies the cognitive development of each group, it covers the social, behavioral, and emotional changes of students as well.

Educational assessment

The course explores both classic testing tactics as well as assessment theories on how to individually mark a student’s progress when understanding a given topic.

Human development

This overarching topic details the human experience, from social and emotional pressures to geographical and cultural impacts that affect growth and learning.

Learning differences

This curriculum may explore the many ways students process and remember information, particularly in varying classroom environments, testing methods, and at different ages.

Research methods

All education and psychology students should have a foundation of qualitative and quantitative knowledge, as well as be well versed in research writing.

Social contexts of learning

Students look at the social impacts of economics, geography, and government policy on a classroom and the learning experience.

In some educational psychology master’s programs, students can customize their degrees by choosing from among specialization options like:

Applied Behavior Analysis

Also known as ABA, applied behavioral analysis uses a strict scientific approach to both observing behavior and adding appropriate interventions to adjust a student’s learning experience and daily life.

Gifted and Talented Learners

Professional teachers, counselors, and administrators may study students with unique learning capacities and specific skills to properly support and guide these minds through their education.

Human Development

Ideal for those both working in school and social services, a human development concentration dives deeper into the cultural and economic factors that affect learning.

Neuropsychology

Those looking to concentrate on the biological angle of cognition can focus their curriculum on the brain, body, and nervous system—and how it relates to learning.

Policy Analysis

Students on track to pursue administrative, social work, or political roles can explore education policy on a deeper level and how it intertwines with educational psychology.

Students with Learning Differences

Many programs offer pathways for special education certifications while exploring modern research around supporting students with learning differences.

Most educational psychology master’s programs include a practicum component or fieldwork hours in the curriculum and/or a capstone research project. If your goal is to work with students in a clinical capacity, make sure you choose a program designed for educators preparing to become licensed psychologists. On the other hand, if your goal is to teach, but you’re not already a teacher, make sure you’re looking specifically at master’s degree programs to help you get your teacher certification. These programs will often include core coursework focused on teaching basics like classroom management, human learning methods in educational settings, and instructional design.

How long do graduate educational psychology programs usually last?

Educational psychology programs typically take two years to complete for full-time students and four or more years to complete for part-time students. Part-time and online programs are common because many students in educational psychology master’s degree programs work as teachers or in other roles in education.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are year-long accelerated graduate educational psychology programs—including combined BA/MA programs that confer a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in educational psychology in five years versus the usual six.

Which schools have the best educational psychology master’s programs?

There are highly ranked master’s in educational psychology and related programs at the following colleges and universities:

Ohio State University’’s College of Education and Human Ecology

Ohio State offers both a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Studies, both with a focus in educational psychology. Students in the master’s program collaborate with both professors and doctoral candidates and study to become leaders in schools, organizations, government, and private research centers.

Teachers College at Columbia University

Hosting one of the top ten education schools in the country according to US News and World Report, Columbia’s Master of Arts in Psychology in Education provides a clear pathway to clinical work, especially those looking to move on to its PsyD or PhD program.

The University of Alabama’s College of Education

Choose from a wide range of master’s programs related to educational psychology at the University of Alabama, including an MA, EdS, or PhD. This highly-ranked program includes both an online option and requires extensive fieldwork experience for completion.

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities’s College of Education and Human Development

Students can focus on a range of several tracks in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, including counselor education, the psychological foundations of education, special education, and more. The program made US News and World Report’s top ten list for educational psychology departments.

The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education

Also topping major national lists for education psychology, the University of Texas at Austin offers unique areas such as human development, culture, and learning science to graduate level candidates. Many of the programs directly launch students into practicum or research-based doctoral and licensure programs.

University of Wisconsin – Madison’s School of Education

The University of Wisconsin boasts highly experienced faculty in a long list of highly specialized fields. Students can choose to focus on topics like human development, quantitative methods, and learning analytics, among others.

What can someone do with a master’s in educational psychology?

With a master’s in educational psychology, you can do clinical work, teach, conduct original research, or work in educational consulting. You’ll find graduates of these programs in the public school system, colleges and universities, counseling practices, government and community agencies, and other settings where learning happens and where learning is supported and studied. Job titles held by graduates include:

Educational psychologist

Educational psychologists don’t work with students directly, as school psychologists do. Instead, they spend their days assessing school-wide and district-wide policies to see what is and isn’t working. They do a lot of research into the best methods of educating diverse student populations district-wide. They may also be asked to design interventions for issues affecting specific classrooms.

Educational researcher

These professionals research how children and adults find, process, understand, communicate, and use information in different environments and under different conditions so teachers, curriculum designers, and other education specialists can do more to support students.

Program evaluator

These educational psychology professionals evaluate materials, curricula, and teaching strategies for children with developmental, behavioral, or social difficulties. Some program evaluators specialize in programs for gifted students or students with specific learning challenges. You’ll find them working for school districts and community agencies.

School counselor

School counselors and elementary, middle school, and high school therapists work directly with students to help them cope with stress, social difficulties, challenges at home, and other issues that can make focusing on schoolwork difficult. Counselors don’t necessarily need to study educational psychology to be licensed to practice, but understanding how students learn can be a huge asset in this role.

School psychologist

School psychologists work directly with students with behavioral and emotional issues and collaborate with teachers and administrators to address student mental health. They may also be called upon to support students with learning challenges or develop programs that adapt district curricula for students who have special needs.

These aren’t the only roles you’ll qualify for with this versatile degree. Plenty of people who pursue educational psychology master’s degrees continue to teach instead of transitioning into other education and academic roles. Some go into educational administration, armed with strategies to improve access to education and keep students engaged. Others go into education policy to make the education system better. Still others work for technology companies that develop educational applications like course management software, online learning platforms, and distance learning tools.

What are the top seven reasons to get an educational psychology master’s?

7. You can earn an educational psychology master’s in your spare time.

Online master’s in educational psychology programs are common, with programs for full-time and part-time students. Many colleges and universities operate under the assumption that students pursuing this degree will continue working while earning this degree.

6. Educational psychology professionals are in demand.

Even though we still have a lot to learn about how people learn, we know that bullying, mental health issues, deprivation, and sedentary classrooms can hurt students’ ability to retain information. Right now, schools, policy groups, politicians, and non-profit organizations are trying to figure out how to create environments that facilitate learning across student populations. Jobs for psychologists(a broad category that includes school psychologists) and jobs for school counselors are growing at rates faster than the average for all industries.

5. There’s a lot you can do with a master’s degree in educational psychology.

An educational psychology degree can lead to work in K-12 schools but doesn’t have to. Depending on the focus of the program you choose, you might end up working for a government or private research organization, an adolescent mental health program, a curriculum design company, or a college. Some educational psychologists end up working for large corporations with equally large employee training programs.

4. You can earn a lot with this degree.

Teachers with master’s degrees earn anywhere from $1,400 to $10,000 more per year than those without. Educational psychologists earn more than $90,000. Educational researchers can earn more than $130,000.

3. Having a master’s in educational psychology means you can pivot.

If you’re a teacher, this degree can help you transition into educational administration, school counseling, program design and evaluation, or roles where you’ll work with special student populations. If you’re not a teacher, there are MEd in Educational Psychology programs that can lead to licensure. Many of the skills you’ll pick up in an educational psychology master’s program—like critical thinking skills and data analysis skills—can be useful in various careers.

2. You’ll be ready to enroll in a doctorate program.

Completing an educational psychology master’s degree program can prepare you for the challenge of earning a PhD in educational psychology or a related area of education. You might not need a master’s degree to meet these programs’ admissions requirements, but having both a master’s and a doctorate is a good idea if your goal is to become a top expert in your field.

1. You’ll be able to make a real difference.

The education system continues to leave some students behind. An educational psychology degree can equip you with the tools, knowledge, skills, and qualifications you’ll need to reach those students where they are. You’ll be able to improve teaching methods and educational methodologies using science; create systems that make it easier for students with specific learning challenges and special needs to meet academic goals; and, have a positive impact on instructional processes, and ultimately, learning outcomes.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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