Towards a psychodynamic model of the student experience

Author/Producer Dr Tony Brown
Published in Summer Newsletter 2008
Date Published 21 July 2008
Pages 4


Dr Tony Brown wriites about how using a psychodynamic model of student learning may change our thoughts about poorly performing students


Much of the contemporary discourse on learning is individualised and takes the student’s desire for granted: the individual student becomes an object of study and can be pathologised easily. Failure to learn, poor grades and dropout are constructed [J1]as part of a discourse of deficit. The student lacks something that needs to be provided or acquired – study skills, confidence, grasp of English. If only the deficit is resolved in some way, the discourse suggests, things can get back to ‘normal’. We are very familiar with these views – indeed we may be so familiar that it is hard to think in an alternative paradigm. Surely some students are clever and others aren’t? Some have academic writing skills and others lack them? Some need academic support whilst others don’t? The dominant paradigm can polarise the discourse and limit thinking.

A psychodynamic paradigm begins from a fundamentally different position. Student desire for learning is construed as relational, so when student learning has been disrupted, the focus shifts to the student’s relationships and how these are implicated in the learning process. Significant relations include those with:




·significant others from the past – including parents or principal care givers.

Using a psychodynamic lens produces a paradigmatic shift away from the conclusion that poorly performing students have something wrong with them, but it also creates troublesome questions that need to be faced.

Developing a relational psychodynamic lens

Students need to be able to relate constructively to tutors, peers, course requirements and university regulations and procedures, if they are to make the most of their HE experience. Sustaining effective relations requires the ability to form secure attachments that can tolerate familiarity, isolation, success, disappointment, ambiguity and confusion. Those students and tutors who have a life history of making secure attachments are in the best position to make their experience of university a positive one. Some students do not have that advantage when embarking on their studies.

Sasha is at the end of her first year of undergraduate study. Her contribution to sessions has been marred by poor attendance. One piece of assessed coursework is a review of a piece of film music, which she fails to submit. Her next piece is a presentation, to be prepared and circulated to her peers and her tutor one week prior to the event. She fails to supply it on time. She contributes a weak and poorly organised input to the joint presentation. Her tutor requires the written copy and a brief reflective learning log the following week. She fails to submit them. She then claims the tutor ‘must have lost’ her work. She offers a number of reasons why she no longer has copies of her coursework, or the receipts showing when they were submitted. She is very angry when she finds out she has failed the course and blames her tutor for not warning her about ‘the regulations’.

From a psychodynamic perspective the interesting element in Sasha’s story is her anger, directed at self and others. Sasha struggles to relate to her tutor and peers, failing to see their needs. She cannot engage with the fact that her peers were let down by her poor performance. We can see her inability to relate as failed attachment.

Rashid asks for tutorials on a frequent basis. He regularly hangs around corridors and doorways and catches tutors so that he can question them about what he has to do for his coursework assessments. He often has a piece of paper to give them, which he wants them to read and comment on. He tries to arrange to collect these later from the tutor’s room. In seminars he sometimes repeats word for word the views of his tutor. For his written exam he writes out entirely from memory, an article previously written by one his tutors.

Rashid’s over anxiety suggests an excessive dependence on others and over-compliance with (imagined) rules. We can describe his relating as an anxious attachment that deprives him of the opportunity to form and publicly express his own views. Anxiety and fear rather than anger are the dominant emotions experienced here, and these emotions set into motion behaviours that seriously limit and disrupt learning.

Seema failed to attend a final examination. She promised to supply a medical note to show there were extenuating circumstances, but this was never submitted. She was offered a second opportunity to take the exam but turned up a day late having lost her examination slip with the date and time on it. She made no contact with her personal tutor, but formally accused the university of operating in a racist way, making it impossible for her to seek help from staff who were biased against her, and she initiated a formal grievance against the university authorities, which she later withdrew. She went on to repeat her course.

Seema’s behaviour indicates a strong self-destructive element. Although she was facing a difficult period in her life she made no use of the good relationships she had previously built up with tutors and peers. Instead she went about things entirely on her own in ways that emphasised an us-them antagonism, focused on the university as a disembodied antagonistic entity. We can see this as a destructive detachment.

Those students who have experienced secure attachments are in a good position to cope with the greater anonymity and need for independence that life at university can bring. The ability to relate is not limited to social relationships outside the process of academic study. As the above examples show, a student’s performance within their academic course is profoundly influenced by relational factors.

Higher Education offers opportunities for personal growth and for strengthening the ability to make secure attachments. It also offers fresh possibilities for those whose attachments are not yet secure, but this may be perceived by them as very high risk and some will need support, in both the academic and social areas of their university life. There is a chance that students will resort to destructive defence mechanisms (as illustrated above) to protect against imagined attacks on the psyche associated with the demands of study.

Being ready to engage with the transformative possibilities that HE offers demands a permeable psyche, open to the powerful forces of love, envy and hate. Opportunities for transformation come only when one makes oneself vulnerable to these forces: when in the language of Melanie Klein, one can move beyond the defence of brittle detachment – with its view of self and others cast in polarities – perfect, useless, godlike, satanic, … and begin to tolerate the vulnerability that openness produces and which allows us to see ourselves and others as complex, rounded, flawed human beings.

If the threat of being known by others (in academic and other ways) is too great, or the possibility of being loved can be measured only in terms of the risk of rejection and humiliation, then the dangers to the psyche associated with relating may be too great to risk, and we are likely to fall back into the desire for unlimited and unquestionable dependency as our right.

Engaging with education will always include personal risk. To study in HE requires a commitment to try to overcome fear of the unknown. This commitment is not limited to the student. Relational transformation is not a one-sided option and engaging with education cannot be something done to students by their tutors and their course. Studying is a messy lived experience in a two-way street. It demands engagement of all parties, considerable powers of reflection and reflexivity and commitment to open exploration of the power relations between student and tutor. It requires a level of transparency that means putting yourself (whether tutor or student) ‘on the line’.

The process of student-tutor relating is therefore a professional one which relies on mutuality: the recognition of power differences in the tutor-student positions, combined with an openness to share the personal, in an exploration of the ways by which both student and tutor can be advanced by the relational experience. As with any relationship there will be successes and failures of affective attunement, which need to be worked through from within the relationship.