A Series on Teaching Strategies for Librarians: Educational Psychology

This post is part four of a fourteen part series, Teaching Strategies, that is based on a series of education workshops. I’m documenting the content for myself, but hopefully it will also be useful to (1) librarians looking for more theoretical background for their own teaching and (2) for librarians looking to better understand education models as they look for new ways to support and participate in the educational missions of their institutions.

Way back, before ALA,  we discussed teaching taxonomies, or frameworks that are useful when thinking about the student experience.  This post explores some basic principles in educational psychology that can further inform our understanding of the student experience. It’s worth noting that people get entire PhDs in these areas, so this is not meant to be a definitive explanation, but rather a window into some frameworks that might be worth further exploration if they seem useful to you.

PowerPoint Design

In this workshop, I made a wordier PowerPoint than I typically would use, as an opportunity to have a discussion after we covered content about the strengths and weaknesses of different PowerPoint designs. Most everyone agreed: this PowerPoint was easier to take notes from but was less engaging than some of the more image driven ones we’d used in the past. Further, this style PowerPoint made it easy to ignore the instructor and focus on the words on the screen. Here’s the list of points I made sure to cover in the discussion of the design:

  • Benefits of a text based presentation
    • Students don’t need to worry as much about taking notes
    • You can clearly state the points you want students to learn
    • Students can catch up if they weren’t there (don’t need the instructor)
    • Helps linear learners
  • Benefits of image based presentation
    • Helps meet multiple learning styles (visual)
    • Makes use of Dual-Coding Theory (both visual and verbal to introduce a point at the same time)
    • Creates a puzzle (why this image?) that requires more attention than just the content
    • Can create a more powerful recall situation the next time they see the image
  • Drawbacks of a text based presentation
    • Allows students to miss class or tune out
    • Encourages speaker to focus on what’s on the slide, rather than what the class is most interested in (or what it needs the most)
    • Appeals mostly to language based learners (to the exclusion of the others)
  • Drawbacks of an image based presentation
    • Frustrating for non-visual learners
    • Lack of information that requires instructor to make sense of slides
    • Difficult to follow for linear learners

With that overwhelming endorsement, here’s the PowerPoint:

Session Content

My main plan for the session was to discuss the arc of the field of educational psychology. This field studies how people learn in educational settings. It tends to focus on the classroom. Research in the field may often focus on specific groups such as gifted students or those with disabilities. For those who find analogies useful:
Educational Psychology : Psychology ::
Medicine : Biology ::
Engineering : Physics
Since we had limited time, the scope of the class session was narrow. We didn’t address individual differences; social, moral, or cognitive development; or research methodology. We did address five important ideas:


Behaviorism begins with Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning (late 1890s) and continued with BF Skinner’s radical behaviorism (1930-1950s). It focuses on how to create behavior outcomes in students and relies on systematic rewards and operant conditioning. (Remember Pavlov’s dogs?) Whenever I talk about Behaviorism I talk about how it was definitely something that was used in the past, and we all can remember remnants of it from our own education like multiplication table drills or spelling bees, but now most educators don’t talk about it. Then I follow with this story: I was at an excellent education conference that I’ve really enjoyed going to for several years. They bring in top-notch keynote speakers and have informative sessions on teaching in higher education. One of the keynotes was scheduled to be on behaviorism, and with my recent graduate classes in education I was ready to just ignore that speaker as a fluke case of someone less than up to par. And then. She came in with her dogs. And she had them doing tricks for treats as she described behaviorism in the classroom. At that point I was still thinking it was just a gimmick. As she continued on I realized she was speaking the truth. She used Behaviorism in her classes not to teach content but rather to teach classroom behavior: to come to class on time, to raise your hand, to ask questions before the deadline for a paper. And in that context, Behaviorism begins to make a lot of sense, even in today’s educational philosophies.


Cognitivism is the idea that traits, beliefs, memories, motivations, and emotions can determine how information in perceived, processed, stored, retrieved, and forgotten. Dual coding theory, cognitive load, spaced learning effect, mnemonics, and problem solving as fundamental to learning are all aspects of this branch of educational psychology. In general, Cognitivism involves long term memory, mapping between problem and pre-existing schema. Some of this is useful in course design (such as spaced learning effect) while other aspects are strategies or tasks students can employ to remember the content more effectively (mnemonics).

Social Cognitivism (Social Learning Theory)

Social Cognitivism (Social Learning Theory) blends Behavioral, Cognitive, and Social Thinking. It focuses on the student as an aware learner. In this branch of educational psychology, the student watches others and changes their own behavior as a result of that observation. In the last few decades we’ve seen it be referred to as self-regulated learning and metacognition These both hypothesize effective learners are active agents who construct knowledge by setting goals, analyzing tasks, planning strategies, and monitoring understanding. Students who are better at goal setting and self-monitoring have a greater intrinsic task interest and self-efficacy. Circling back to this, over three years later, I think I’m going to have to dive back into this one. Metacognition is a big topic on my campus this year, though it’s not always called that.
Constructivism comes from Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning focuses on internalization based on interaction with adults, more capable peers, and cognitive tools. Constructivism places an emphasis on agency and prior knowledge of the learner and often on social/cultural determinants of the learning process. Learners are socialized through social interactions within community of practice. When you hear about “scaffolding” in education, you’re hearing about Constructivism. It’s also related to Piaget’s individual/psychological constructivism from social constructivism. This is pretty much the method talked about in graduate education classes, at least when I was taking them about five or six years ago. It’s slogan is “guide on the side rather than sage on the stage” and focuses on helping students teach themselves rather than focusing on lectures. It’s easy to disregard the importance of teachers in this environment, but the teacher is responsible for making sure that students have the correct prior knowledge, cognitive tools, and materials to work with. This type of teaching can actually be more involved, though it might look like the teacher is “doing less” than a traditional teacher.
Connectivism is radical and not widely adopted, but I like to include newer ideas that challenge the status quo when presenting on teaching so that people know the spectrum of ideas out there. Connectivism is a idea that comes from George Siemens very recently, in the 2000s! It’s built around learning in a digital age, though it has its foundations in the schools of thought listed above. The idea here is that learning takes place in a community of learning. When you hear about a Personal Learning Network (PLN), you are hearing about a Connectivist learning community. In these environments the restrictions of authority (teacher/student), time (semesters/summers), and core reading (book and article lists) are removed and people learn instead from conversations within their network. When I tell people I have learned as much from blogs and twitter as I did in graduate school, it’s not that I learned formal theory or the same content, it’s that I learned as much (different) information through through different types of channel and with a lot of personal initiative to continue exploring links people posted online.
This isn’t a way of thinking of learning as the four listed above are. This is more what activates, guides, and sustains learning behavior. I included it in this session because we had time for it and because a lot of psychology research focuses on motivation. This includes will, interest, intrinsic motivation, personal goals, and belief about the causes of their success or failure.

Pair Work

To give people in the session After each of these topics we made use of pair work, though over the session it evolved into groups of four or five. Pair-Share is when you pair up two people to talk about an idea, then have each group share their discussion or some aspect of it. It’s a good way to create an environment where students feel comfortable talking. It lets shy people participate without speaking to the group, or to feel good about what they’re going to say before announcing it, it gets students comfortable talking, and it lets them share varying opinions (as opposed to a large group, where people tend to find one perspective and focus on it).

In this session we used Pair-Share in order to break up the lecture. After 10 minutes of lecture, we had a short break to share ideas. This helped with attention span, where research indicates people can focus for about 20 minutes without a break. The prompts were “How do you use this?” or “When might it be useful?”

So What For Libraries?

Obviously, this information can be useful for anyone who might find themselves teaching and wanting to make sure the information they share sticks. However, there are benefits beyond just our own teaching. Behaviorism could be useful when thinking about how to get students to follow rules or norms in the library building. Libraries could play critical roles in courses built using Cognitivism. In a class that has made intentional use of spaced learning, the library could act as a bridge between the times the content is used in class. If a course is built around problem solving, the library can provide resources and tools to enable student groups to solve the problems they’re presented with. If a campus is focusing on Social Cognitivism, the library could use that as an opportunity to offer workshops to help students identify how they learn and how the library can fit into their individual processes. And a Constructivist environment, the library can provide the resources necessary to a class that is built around students building their own understandings. And, most obviously, a library is a key component in any Connectivist PLNs. When people are self-motivated and interested in learning, they’ll seek out material to help them in their quest, and the library is here to provide that walled-garden information they can’t find on the open web.

Beyond that, if libraries have classroom space, we can use these ways of learning to inform our classrooms. We can use it when planning group and collaborative spaces. And we can use it when thinking about how the library fits into their online world. If they are participating in PLNs we can think about how to make our content easily linkable. If they’re scaffolding a knowledge base over a period of time we can help point them to Zotero or other tools, as well as guide them on how to use them most effectively. If they need to know how to use the catalog, we can work to train certain behaviors (hopefully, while also trying to make the catalog easier to use in the long run).

Educational psychology: it has more potential than you might first think!