The psychology of education and the psychology of instruction are two of the main applications of our science to the academic context. Both seek to transfer the knowledge obtained by scientific psychology to all kinds of learning situations, with a special emphasis on the formal education of children.

Although the psychology of instruction is generally considered a subdivision of educational psychology, the specificities of each of these disciplines make it relevant to clarify what the differences between them are from a theoretical and practical point of view .

What is Educational Psychology?

The general objective of educational psychology is to analyze the factors that influence the teaching and learning processes. In this sense, the discipline is concerned with research on these phenomena, as well as on the ways in which such knowledge can be applied in educational contexts in order to foster learning.

However, beyond these aspects the definition of educational psychology is ambiguous . This is due to the fact that there are many different theoretical models within the discipline, as well as the intermediate place that educational psychology occupies in relation to psychology and to education itself.

In this sense, it cannot be considered that there is clear agreement regarding whether the basic nature of educational psychology is theoretical or applied, to the type of content that is part of its field of study or to what its points of union are with other scientific disciplines related to education, especially in the area of psychology.

Among the authors who have been most relevant in the development of educational psychology we can highlight Burrhus F. Skinner for his programs of programmed teaching and behavior modification, Jean Piaget (pioneer of cognitive models in developmental and educational psychology) and Urie Bronfenbrenner, creator of the Ecological Theory.

Defining the Psychology of Instruction

Although there is also intense debate about the definition of educational psychology, most experts consider it to be an aspect of educational psychology. Thus, we could say that it is not so much a separate discipline as a branch of educational psychology with characteristic specializations.

Specifically, we can say that the psychology of instruction has the aim of applying the knowledge of educational psychology to teaching situations in order to enhance the effectiveness of the psychological and behavioural processes related to these phenomena.

This focus on the processes of change involved in learning, especially formal learning, is the central feature of instructional psychology. However, as we have seen, beyond this aspect it is difficult to distinguish it from educational psychology.

The 4 differences between these disciplines

Four criteria have been described that may be useful for distinguishing between educational and instructional psychology : the breadth of the object of study, the theoretical orientation that underlies them, the level of analysis that they address, and the learning context to which they refer.

However, at present these 4 differences are still a proposal , since the definition of both disciplines is still in dispute. It is to be expected that as educational and instructional psychology progresses, the importance of the differential aspects will be deepened or minimized.

1. Extent of the object of study

The psychology of instruction has focused above all on formal education, that is, on enhancing the processes involved in teaching and learning pre-established curricular content. In contrast, the psychology of instruction has a broader character and applies to teaching in general, including informal education.

2. Theoretical and methodological orientation

Educational psychology has drawn on many theoretical and methodological approaches throughout its history; among these are behaviorism, cognitivism, observational methods, and ecological theory. On the other hand, educational psychology is basically identified with cognitive orientation and is sometimes included in this field.

3. Level of analysis

While the psychology of education focuses on broad phenomena that affect education in general (i.e. it has a molar and macroscopic perspective), the psychology of instruction is more molecular and microscopic since it studies more specific aspects, for example limited to certain types of learning or situations.

4. Scope of application

The knowledge obtained by educational psychology can be applied in any type of educational context. In contrast, the psychology of instruction is related to formal, intentional and planned teaching and has the basic objective of promoting the learning of a certain type of content.