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Explore educational psychology with new department chair

The new chair of the educational psychology department discusses the value of studying the discipline and the department's strengths.

Robert Zheng, professor of instructional design and educational technology, began serving as the department chair of educational psychology in the College of Education at the University of Utah on July 1, 2022. He is one of two new department chairs in the College of Education this year. Read more about Verónica Valdez, new chair of the Department of Education, Culture, and Society, here.

As Zheng begins his new role in overseeing a department of 4 Ph.D. programs, 1 ED.S. program, 8 master’s programs, 1 undergraduate program, 26 faculty and staff and 253 students, we asked him to share some of his vision for the department and what the future holds for the field of educational psychology.

Robert Zheng.

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Why is the field of educational psychology something students should consider?

As applied psychology, the field of educational psychology is concerned with the social, emotional and cognitive processes involved in learning. It covers the teaching and training of students in K-16 schools, for-profit and nonprofit organizations, corporations, government, military and others. Educational psychologists employ various tools, techniques, theories and principles to address the toughest issues in learning, ranging from challenges associated with the spectrum of autism to memory constraints involved in, say, visual and text processing.  Students of all majors should consider taking some level of educational psychology courses. Knowing how humans learn socially, emotionally and cognitively not only improves the understanding of how you learn as a learner but also helps develop skills, techniques and processes that improve the learning of other people. That skill set and knowledge is something all students benefit from regardless of their major.

How do you see the field developing and changing in the next 10-20 years?

Educational psychology as a field is rapidly shifting, with the landscape moving towards an understanding of human learning behavior and processes through the lens of multiple disciplines. This trend is coupled with the effort to understand the impact of digital technologies (virtual reality, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, etc.) on individual thinking patterns, motivation and social interaction during the learning process. The field of educational psychology in the next 10-20 years will witness a change toward an interdisciplinary effort in which neuroscience, computer science, data science and other fields are integrated to generate new knowledge about human learning through methods like learning analytics and data modeling. It will help us gain an in-depth understanding of—both in the long term and short term—how social and cognitive factors may shape and change our way of learning and thinking. It’s going to be fascinating to watch the field grow; there’s so much potential growth for the field and our graduates.

Stepping into this new role, what plans do you have for the Department of Educational Psychology?

The Department of Educational Psychology is an academically dynamic community. Our faculty are incredibly productive and talented and they conduct cutting-edge research that has contributed to and advanced the body of knowledge in their fields nationally and internationally. We are also known for excellence in teaching at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. To maintain this excellence in research and teaching and further raise the department’s visibility, I’ll be working with faculty to strategically deploy our resources to build an infrastructure that supports innovative research and teaching, increases faculty publications and extramural funding applications and engagement in community-based research and practice to bridge the connection between the University and our local and national communities.

What are some of the department’s strengths and how do you plan to build on those?

There are lots of strengths within the department. For instance, according to recent data by Academic Analytics, the Department of Educational Psychology is ranked at the 90th percentile out of 93 educational psychology departments nationwide. We are also at 10th and 15th positions, respectively, in terms of articles and grants per faculty. All of our department faculty have a reputation for caring about students and pursuing innovative pedagogy to support student learning. To continue this excellency in teaching and research, we’ll be developing strategic plans to strengthen the department’s research infrastructure by building a network for mentorship between senior and junior faculty, foster research interest among faculty to optimize the chance of success in the pursuit of extramural funding and ensure students’ success by developing their abilities as an innovative thinker, independent researcher and scholar and effective problem solver and field practitioner.