The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Education, Psychology of

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Education, Psychology of
Edition of 1920. See also Educational psychology on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

EDUCATION, Psychology of. In some branches of the subject, educational psychology is differentiated clearly from the general science of psychology, while in other branches the two subjects overlap. The investigation of the laws of memory, of learning, of the determinants of attention or of individual differences in endowment, has been carried on by psychologists whose interest is in the theoretical development of the science, as well as by those whose interest is in the application of psychology to education. But even in such cases, in which there is an overlapping in subject matter, the aim of the educational psychologist, which is to discover how mental growth may most effectively be promoted, usually causes him to emphasize different questions than those upon which the pure psychologist dwells. Certain branches of educational psychology, such as the psychology of learning to read, write and spell, or the construction of tests of proficiency in the school subjects, or the technique of tests of intelligence or maturity, belong wholly to this field.

The education of the child is the product of the sum of the external influences which are brought to bear upon him, and of the reactions which he makes to these influences. The study of these reactions and of their laws is the scientific foundation for rules of practice in attempting to guide and modify them. In so far as these reactions are mental their study constitutes the subject matter of educational psychology.

The differences in the child's interests and capacities as he advances from babyhood to maturity are important factors in his reactions. For the treatment of this phase of educational psychology, see the article on Child Psychology.

Principles of Learning. — In the second place the child's reactions are governed by the laws of learning, — both those which are general in their application and those which depend upon the child's stage of development. The effect of practice upon skill or excellence of performance has been studied in the case of a variety of types of learning. One of the earliest and most valuable studies was made upon the growth of ability in the telegraphic language. A number of studies have been made of the somewhat allied process of typewriting. Some light has been thrown on human learning by studies of the behavior of animals in escaping from a cage or learning to find their way through a maze. In the field of sensory discrimination and the development of perception a number of studies have been made — as, for example, in learning to discriminate between tones or colors, to overcome illusions, to apprehend and draw unusual figures. The progress in learning a foreign language has been traced. Numerous studies have been made of associative learning and memorizing. Memorizing has been investigated to discover the best mode of presentation, the best way of dividing material — e.g., into large or small parts, the effect of the learner's attitude the permanence of memory under various conditions, etc. Finally the process of problem solving, as in the solution of puzzles, has been subjected to analysis.

One of the characteristic features of the study of learning is the construction of the practice curves, which represents graphically the rate of progress at different stages. The form of some practice curves indicates a rapid progress in the early stages, followed by a gradually decreasing rate until progress almost ceases. In other cases, however, the progress is nearly uniform while it lasts; while in a few the progress is slow at the beginning and more rapid later on. The difference may perhaps be explained by the varying ease with which old habits may be adapted to the new task.

There are various sorts of fluctuations in the curve of progress, some of short duration and some lasting over weeks or even months. A cessation in progress over a number of practice periods has been termed a plateau. Plateaus have been found to exist in several forms of learning. A number of explanations have been suggested. The earliest was that the learner develops first certain simple habits and later more complex ones, and that while he is perfecting the simpler habits as a preparation for the complex habits no apparent progress is made. Another explanation is that the learner either spurts and hence makes errors and becomes confused, or becomes lazy and fails to push ahead.

The extent to which practice or learning produces not simply special habits or ability but also general habits, attitudes, abilities or ideas which are operative in other fields than the one in which the training has taken place has been the subject of many experiments and much debate. It is now generally agreed that there is some transfer of the effects of practice, but the amount, the nature and conditions under which it occurs and the importance of transfer are matters of considerable divergence of opinion.

Among the factors which influence the rate of progress is the distribution of the practice time. In the case of the rather simple types of learning in reference to which this has been studied rather short periods of 10 to 15 minutes have proved favorable, but it is unsafe to apply this rule very widely.

The importance of mental fatigue in hindering progress in learning or in impairing mental work has been variously estimated. A distinction must be made between true mental fatigue, as represented by an actual falling off in ability to do mental work, and the mere feeling of weariness, which may or may not indicate real reduction in ability. What has often been thought to be mental fatigue may be merely loss of interest or suggestion. But the modicum of true mental fatigue which remains when this illusory fatigue is allowed for, probably hinders learning and interferes with the more difficult mental operations.

Learning in the School Subjects. — The third branch into which education psychology may be divided deals with the processes of learning which are characteristic of the school subjects. Important studies have been made of reading which reveal the nature of the behavior of the eye and of the perception of reading matter. The eyes are shown to move along each line of print intermittently, the words being perceived during the pauses only. The pauses vary in number and duration according to the subject matter, the size of print and arrangement of the lines, and the training and individuality of the reader. It is probable that the increase in the scope of perception during a reading pause and the consequent reduction in the number of pauses is a close correlate of efficiency. The most important fact about perception in reading is that it is by word wholes or groups of words. Some attention to the letters must be given in the early stages of learning, but the letters are soon subordinated by their organization into words. A factor in this organization is the association of printed with spoken words, and even in silent reading there is a more or less distinct accompaniment of inner speech.

The writing movement has been studied chiefly by making records of the movements of the fingers, hand and arm as they contribute to the total movement as it appears at the pen point, and by measuring the speed of the pen movement and the pressure which it exerts. The fingers, hand, forearm and upper arm unite in various ways in different individuals to form a very complex and difficult movement co-ordination. Some diversity among individuals is desirable. Changes in pressure and in the speed of the stroke accompany the production of the particular letter forms. The speed changes determine the rhythm of writing, which is closely related to ease and good form.

In the field of number some work has been done, particularly with the early stages of learning. The child gets his abstract idea of number through such concrete experiences as counting, measurement and manipulating grouped objects, and there has been a good deal of discussion of the relative advantage of these experiences. Among other subjects of discussion are imagery types and their bearing on number operations, the nature of the mental process in calculation and the amount and conditions of improvement in reckoning. Little study has been made of the mental process in solving complex problems.

The problem of spelling has been attacked from several angles, to determine, for example, the relative advantages of the drill method and the incidental method of learning, the best method of presentation of spelling words, the advantage of class study in comparison with individual study, etc. Elaborate studies have also been made of adult writing vocabularies in order to discover what words should be taught.

Studies of drawing have been directed chiefly toward the development of drawing ability and interest in the child. They have shown that the young child uses drawing as a language to express his ideas with a great deal of freedom, and have led to the acceptance of much crudity in his early work, in the knowledge that greater faithfulness of representation will come later.

There has been discussion of the psychology of other subjects, such as language and literature, history, geography and science, but little experimental investigation.

Tests in the School Subjects. — Besides experiments which are designed to discover the nature of the learning process in school subjects there have been in the past few years — for the most part since 1910 — many attempts to devise standard methods or tests to make possible comparable measurement of the proficiency of children in the school subjects. These tests in some cases are made by the help of “scales” or series of specimens of pupils' products in the subject in question, graded so as to represent regularly ascending degrees of excellence, with which the products to be graded may be compared. Of this sort are several handwriting scales, a scale for judging English composition and a scale for drawing. Such scales do not by any means eliminate judgment in grading, and it is found necessary to give graders training before their scoring is uniform or comparable to the scoring of other grades; but it is possible by the use of such scales to obtain more accurate comparisons of the work of different groups of pupils than without them. The handwriting scales have proved the most successful on account of the greater ease with which excellence can be defined in handwriting than in such subjects as composition or drawing.

The other type of test consists of a series of tasks which are carefully selected so as to represent essential phases of a subject of study, and which elicit responses from the pupils which can be definitely and objectively graded. The units which enter into such a test are carefully graded by preliminary application. Sometimes they are made of as nearly equal difficulty and sometimes of progressive difficulty. The latter arrangement is desirable when pupils of a wide range of ability are to be tested. Tests of this general nature have been used chiefly in the subjects of arithmetic, reading, spelling and algebra, while beginnings have been made in some of the other subjects.

Among the questions which are being vigorously attacked by the use of tests are individual differences in the attainment of pupils in their mastery of the school subjects and the accompanying large overlapping in the ability of pupils of different ages and school grades, the large variation in the results obtained in different classes, schools or school systems, the causes of these variations and the relation of methods of teaching or of supervision to the pupil's attainments.

General Tests. — Finally a branch of educational psychology which has been energetically pursued within the past 10 years and in which there has already been considerable development both in methodology and in outcomes, consists of tests which are designed to measure some phase of a mental function of a more general sort than is involved in one of the school subjects. Tests of sensory acuity — as of vision and hearing — and of keenness of sensory discrimination have been developed and used for a much longer pueriod than 10 years. But apart from the detection of special sensory defects, for which elaborate technique and special instruments have been devised, and from the interests of theoretical psychology, the study of these elementary mental functions has in large measure given place to the attempt to measure the higher mental processes. Exception should perhaps be made of tests of pitch discrimination, which has proven significant as a means of detecting capacity for musical education, and of some other simple processes which may be important as means of determining vocational fitness. But in general the burden of opinion is that tests which involve such processes as memory, association, reflective thought and originality in meeting problems give much more valuable insight into intellectual capacity.

The recent revival of mental tests is due in large measure to the work of the French psychologist, A. Binet. Binet was given a commission to prepare a method of selecting children from the schools of Paris who were to be put into special schools for retarded pupils. In collaboration with T. Simon he arranged a series of tests graded in difficulty and designated certain points in the series as corresponding to the capacity of children at particular stages of development. In the first revision of the series in 1908 a group of tests was chosen to represent each age from 3 to 13. A still further revision in 1911 brought some rearrangement but no change in the principle of construction.

The Binet-Simon graded tests have stimulated very extensive, trial of the series itself and very many attempts to standardize other single tests or groups of tests. The fundamental principle, which is that the child's advancement with age is accompanied by the attainment of the abiliy to perform tasks of regularly increasing difficulty and that the ability of a child to perform tasks above those which are found to be typical for his age indicates superior intelligence, while his inability to perform tasks which are typical for his age or for a lower age indicates inferior intelligence — this principle of age standards has proven to be very fruitful, although many questions of detail have arisen in the application or interpretation of the tests.

A more radical reconstruction is represented in the Yerkes-Bridges point scale which uses almost entirely Binet tests but discards the arrangement by ages. The child is given a certain number of points of credit for successfully passing each test (or partial credit for partial success) and his score is obtained by adding all his points of credit. The score is then interpreted by comparison with age, sex, etc., norms.

It is obviously of advantage to have convenient means of determining in an examination of an hour or less the degree of intelligence of the child. Imperfect as the methods thus far developed admittedly are, they are already very useful in selecting children for special education, either because they are retarded or advanced — and in examining delinquents in the courts to determine whether the delinquency is due primarily to intellectual defect.

The very extensive recent experimentation with single tests has resulted largely from the use of tests of the higher mental processes as already noticed and from the derivation and adoption of the more refined methods of calculating correlation. The significance of a test can only be determined by working out the relation between ability in the test and ability in some other test, or general ability as measured for example by the estimate of teachers or acquaintances. A test is useful according to the closeness of the correlation between attainment in the test and some other attainment representing the ability which it is designed to measure. Besides tests of general intelligence some attempt has been made, with only limited success up to the present, to devise tests of the special sorts of ability which are required in the various vocations. Tests of general intelligence themselves have proved to be of some value for vocational guidance.

Bibliography. — Binet, Alfred, and Simon, Th., ‘Mentally Defective Children’ (authorized trans. by W. B. Drummond, New York 1914); Ebbinghaus, H., ‘Memory’ (trans. by H. A. Ruger and Clara E. Busenius, New York 1913); Freeman, F. N., ‘Psychology of the Common Branches’ (Boston 1916); Huey. E. B., ‘The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading’ (New York 1908); Judd, C. H., ‘The Psychology of High School Subjects’ (Boston 1915); Meumann, E., ‘Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die experimentelle Pädagogik, etc.’ (Leipzig 1911-14); Monroe, Walter S., De Voss, J. C., and Kelley, F. J., ‘Educational Tests and Measurements’ (Boston 1917); Swift. E. J., ‘Mind in the Making’ (New York 1908); Terman, L. M., ‘The Measurement of Intelligence’ (Boston 1916); Thorndike, E. L., ‘Educational Psychology’ (New York 1913); Whipple, G. M., ‘Manual of Mental and Physical Tests’ (Baltimore 1914); Yerkes, R. M., Bridges, J. W., and Hardwick, Rose S., ‘A Point Scale for Measuring Mental Ability (Baltimore 1915).

Frank N. Freeman,
Associate Professor of Educational Psychology. University of Chicago.