Editorial: Towards a new psychology of student learning

Author/Producer Dr Tony Brown
Published in Newsletter No 11 Summer 2008
Date Published Summer 2008
Pages 3


This is the editorial piece by Dr Tony Brown introducing the Summer 2008 Newsletter


The experiment to run a themed issue in the spring proved very popular. Eddie Gulc, Senior Advisor for learning technologies at the Higher Education Academy, did an excellent editorial job. We return in this edition to our usual format with a very varied collection of articles. I hope there is something to interest most people in Education.

Towards a new psychology of student learning

The student experience can be explored through a number of informing lenses, including in no particular order: the subject discipline; benchmark statements of knowledge, skills and employment prospects; assessment; or pedagogy (should that be andragogy?). The student experience tends to be framed as an individual or group construct determined in part by whether one starts from a psychological, historical, anthropological, political, sociological, or financial perspective.

The emphasis in HE on political agendas involving widening participation, equality and access, expanding routes into HE and so on, reminds us of the ease with which we can polarise 'experience' as either an individual or group phenomenon. Whilst the broad study of social trends can be enormously useful for policy development and reviewing the impact of initiatives, there remains for many teachers in HE a temptation to privilege individual stories as the only way to represent a truly 'authentic' version of The Students' Progress.

Another approach is emerging. Although its application in the discipline of education is currently limited, psychodynamic theory has already become established in some HE disciplines to extend our understanding of teaching and learning processes, and HE institutions as organisations.[1]

Psychodynamic theory offers exploration of relational experience and the defences we use to cope with relations: with self and other and the ego's attempts at self-protection from stress and anxiety in the face of the unfamiliar. In disciplines such as English, film and media studies, there is a strong tradition of using psychodynamic theory to critique literature, film and art.

The picture in some disciplines is one of a slow but steady recognition that psychodynamic theory can provoke questions which cannot easily be asked from within the dominant constructivist and technicist paradigms. Special issues of academic journals are one vehicle for creating focused attention on the use of psychodynamic paradigms and special issues have engaged disciplines as distinct as mathematics education and business studies.[2]

A brief and unsystematic search of education journals produced the following. A key word search for 'psychoanalytical' in Theory and Research In Education produced just three articles since 1998 and a search for psychodynamics produced a single article. Similarly Research in Higher Education returns a single result from 2005. 'Psychodynamics' produces six hits in Active Learning in Higher Education from 2002 on, with four being editorials or book reviews and the remaining two as articles.

The idea that we engage a variety of unconscious processes to defend against painful and threatening forms of knowledge, ideas, emotions and desires is now a familiar one. The language of defence mechanisms has entered lay vocabulary. Repression - the attempt to return troublesome knowledge and anxious feelings to the unconscious - rationalisation, denial, projection, displacement, identification, these are all reasonably familiar terms in today's world. Although psychodynamic theory emerged out of attempts to relieve individual symptoms, it has transcended its early medical focus to become a powerful lens for describing and exploring the motives and behaviour of groups and organisations in terms of function and dysfunction, denial, scapegoating, delusional fantasies and so on.

With a wealth of theorised knowledge about unconscious processes available to us, it is appropriate to ask how we can use it to enhance our understanding of teaching and learning and the student learning experience. Because psychodynamic theory allows for a strong emphasis on relational dynamics, the student experience can be explored in terms of relations with others: with individual staff and peers, in teaching and social groups and that nebulous other - the organisation that calls itself a university.


French, R. B. (1997) The Teacher as Container of Anxiety: Psychoanalysis and the Role of Teacher, Journal of Management Education, 21(4): 483-495.

Gabriel, Y. (2001) Emotion, Learning and Organizational Change: Towards an Integration of Psychoanalytic and Other Perspectives, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 14(5): 435-451.

In this issue

Doug Parkin writes about the pitfalls and joys of being a programme assessor and the real pleasure of seeing a skilled teacher at work. Observing a really effective colleague working comfortably with their discipline knowledge and their students takes the assessment process way beyond the tick box and into co-experience.

The National Teaching Fellowship Scheme features twice in this issue. Jenny Moon writes about using her Teaching Fellowship Award to take her to places that she could otherwise only dream of. Jenny was able to travel to Tanzania to contribute to an Oxfam project (EQUIP). We also reveal the results of the current round of Fellowship awards and warmly congratulate the seven winners from Education.

Ron Ritchie discusses the introduction of self-driven internal knowledge exchange networks at University of West of England and their relationship with the university's Teaching and Assessment Committee which commissions and supports their activities.

Tracy Johnson's piece explains how the University of Bristol supports the development of academic skills in very diverse groups of students and the particular needs of international students at UK universities. Simon Ball's article also looks at ways of supporting learning. Simon's contribution is one in our regular series from TechDis. Simon explains how to use pdf formats effectively to support learning.

Mike Calvert used ESCalate funding to research issues faced by HE and CPD managers arising from the governments' Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda. In his article he discusses some of the research findings. We often read that government policy on education across the jurisdictions of the UK is creating four distinct and increasingly different systems. Ian Mentor explores the similarities and some peculiarities inherent in teacher education in each country.

Laura Brown's piece emerges from her work with young carers as part of a support project in Plymouth. Not only are young carers the hidden carers - many do not disclose for fear of being bullied or that their family could be split up - they often get overlooked by government policy and remain excluded from funding available to adult carers. Laura writes about the short DVD that she and others helped this group to make. It is essential viewing for teachers, teacher educators and student teachers alike.

The In Conversation column invites Julie Hughes to talk about her interest in technologies for learning.

Tony Brown


[1] Various groups have emerged in universities recently, for example The Centre for Psychosocial Studies at University West of England, and centres at Cardiff and Birkbeck.

[2] The psychodynamics of organisational change management is explored in a special issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management in 2001 (Vol 14 No5). See also For the Learning of Mathematics. 1993