A Psychology Student's Reflections on Learning Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in the Classroom

By Orr, Jayne | Psycho-Analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Psychology Student's Reflections on Learning Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in the Classroom


Orr, Jayne, Psycho-Analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa


The majority of undergraduate psychology students have scant, and frequently inaccurate, exposure to psychodynamic psychotherapy, which appears to heavily influence their choice of postgraduate programs and reduces the likelihood that they will expose themselves to psychodynamic therapy at any stage of their careers. My own experience of learning about psychodynamic treatment - in a context where I was not able to practice it - has allowed me to ponder ways in which psychodynamic theory may be vividly transmitted to undergraduate students of psychology. My own student context was rather different, however. I was in the somewhat unusual position of being a postgraduate student in a psychodynamic psychotherapy course prior to engaging in the practical component of my training, owing to the act that I was studying part-time. I commenced my internship in the university psychology clinic the following year, and have now accrued 18 months of clinical experience.

Reflecting on my experience of initially learning psychodynamic psychotherapy exclusively in the classroom, I conclude that this was a fruitful endeavour. It gave me a firm theoretical foundation on which to base my practical work, and sparked a personal sense of curiosity and anticipation that motivated me to further my psychodynamic learning.

The following experiential student reflection aims to make a contribution that informs the development of psychodynamic psychotherapy learning and teaching, particularly in contexts where access to patients and supervisors is not possible. If such an experientially informed approach can be used in undergraduate programs, it is hoped that this will harness a flash of understanding that opens a window of opportunity for students to study psychodynamic psychotherapy in postgraduate programs.

At the time of writing I am a graduate psychology student with a background in neurocognitive psychology. I am learning psychodynamic theory and practice as part of a postgraduate doctoral programme in Clinical Psychology at an Australian university that teaches multiple, evidence-based psychotherapies. The programme requires students to complete coursework units, gain practical experience through internships in the university psychology clinic and in external clinical settings, and to undertake a research thesis of a clinical nature. When undertaking my theoretical psychodynamic psychotherapy coursework unit, the students in my class had completed a single-semester Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) class and all, except me, were simultaneously applying psychodynamic principles in therapy sessions with their patients in the university clinic or in external organisations.

When asked by my lecturer to reflect on and document my experience of learning psychodynamic psychotherapy I wondered what I, a student yet to conduct a therapy session with a patient, could contribute that would be of interest. Then it occurred to me that, unlike my fellow students who had relationships with patients and supervisors, which influenced their classroom learning, I was able to describe a different learning experience. Most accounts of psychotherapy learning in the literature refer to supervision relationships and training received while treating patients. However, there is a dearth of literature describing the experiences of psychology students who learn psychodynamic therapy solely in the classroom. Hence, I felt that I was in the ideal position to reflect upon the process of learning psychodynamic psychotherapy prior to access to patients and supervisors.

My account will describe my motivations to study psychodynamic psychotherapy, the theoretical psychoanalytic understanding of learning, my reflections on learning psychodynamic psychotherapy, the ways in which my learning was facilitated by managing anxiety, and my experience of the manner in which core psychodynamic constructs were most effectively learned. Finally, conclusions about my learning experience will be drawn. …

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