student learning

The Mother Is in the Classroom: Transference in Teaching

Google “calling the teacher ‘mom,’” and you will find a deluge of pained or embarrassed faces across various memes. This shared humor is a prime example of transference. Transference is a fundamental principle of psychotherapy, which occurs when a person unconsciously projects attitudes and

Read More »

Teaching Unblindered

In a now-classic scene in Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV for those of you keeping track), pilot Luke Skywalker has one shot to destroy the Death Star. He must fly in a narrow channel and hit a small target. To concentrate, he

Read More »

Exploring Current Beliefs about Personal Learning Strategies

The strategies students use to engage with and learn material are crucial in any course. The course may be well organized and delivered brilliantly, but instructors can’t control how students interact with the material outside of class. For years, scientists (and a shout-out to

Read More »

Having Knowledge Is Not the Same as Using It

One of the strongest predictors of how easily and well a person will learn a topic is their prior knowledge about it. The more one already knows, the easier it is to learn more. Because of this fact, students often struggle more with introductory courses,

Read More »

Student Engagement Is Not Student Learning

When my son was growing up, my wife and I bought memberships at the local science museum so we could take him there any time we wanted. Like many parents, we wanted him to grow up in an intellectually stimulating environment. No vacuous video games

Read More »

Make Room for Teaching Your Disciplinary Process

I recently wrote about the need for faculty to up their game on evidence-based teaching practices. Students are coming to us with a wider range of experience and prior knowledge because of COVID disruptions to learning. Our increased use of evidence-based practices is essential to

Read More »

If Content Is King, Maybe It’s Time for a Little Regicide?

It happens almost every time: I’ll be running a workshop on assignment design, or on curricular reform, or on day-to-day instruction. Someone will raise their hand and say they teach chemistry or sociology or art history. They’ll look bashful, or angry, or curmudgeonly. “I can’t

Read More »

Get the Latest Updates

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Magna Digital Library

Google “calling the teacher ‘mom,’” and you will find a deluge of pained or embarrassed faces across various memes. This shared humor is a prime example of transference. Transference is a fundamental principle of psychotherapy, which occurs when a person unconsciously projects attitudes and feelings from past relationships into the present moment (Britzman and Pitt 1996). Although identified with therapy, transference shapes many teaching elements, including how and why educators teach (Weiss 2022) and how we respond and listen to students (Baumlin and Weaver 2000). Even Freud noted the presence of transference in teaching, remarking how “these men [the teachers] became our substitute fathers . . . We transferred to them the respect and expectations attaching to the omniscient father of our childhood, and then we began to treat them as we treated our own fathers at home” (Freud 1914, 242–4; Weiss 2022).

Although rarely discussed in the context of a college classroom, transference can be a valuable framework for building empathy for our students. Our students have long histories and full lives before they enter our classrooms. Students entering our classes have a history of learning through a pandemic, witnessing a significant climate crisis, and facing vitriolic political and social instability. Nearly three out of four college students report moderate or severe psychological distress (American College Health Association 2022). Transference reminds us to consider how students’ past experiences influence the current classroom—as well as reflect on our own past experiences. Often, we believe that students’ reactions of engagement, disengagement, anger, or joy in a class reflect the current moment fully under our control—but prior experience and unconscious life are likely affecting the moment as well.

Transference can be a particularly helpful framework for educators navigating moments of conflict or confusion with students. For example, I was recently working with a young student struggling to develop a clear thesis for an essay prompt. I directed them to some of the thesis development worksheets for the class, but they were clearly getting frustrated at not being able to easily or quickly develop a thesis. Sensing this frustration, I tried to identify strategies the student could use to develop a thesis. The student grew increasingly frustrated and ultimately blurted, “I feel like you are withholding the answer! Just tell me what my thesis should be!” At that moment, I, too, felt annoyed! I assumed the student was waiting for me to spoon-feed them the answer and avoid work when I was desperately trying to get them to think critically and independently. But viewing this moment through a transference frame allows for more empathy toward the student. Upon reflection, I considered that this experience may have triggered memories of an authority figure not soothing or supporting them when they felt helpless. After this rupture, the student and I found repair, and I later discovered that the student’s maternal figure had relapsed from a gambling addiction during the semester. When struggling to independently find a thesis statement, the student transferred feelings of frustration at being independent from his personal life into the classroom.

There was little I could do to change the student’s feelings, but acknowledging the role of transference in this moment increased my empathy and acceptance of the rupture. To cope with these experiences, educators can invest in understanding their own emotional self-understanding (Weiss 2022). Keeping a teaching journal to track feelings or experiences that require reflection or developing a network of close educators to reflect with can allow for this form of structured self-reflection.

In psychodynamic psychotherapy, transference is a valuable part of the therapeutic process. Recognizing that “the mother is in the room” and developing a healthy relationship with the therapist as a pseudo-mother can be healing. Within the classroom, we are not our students’ therapists. Yet we can use the psychotherapeutic frame of transference within our teaching. Transference reminds us how limited our power is when the past influences the current classroom and simultaneously reminds us that we can help “repair” some of their experience in education through positive experiences and relationship building.


American College Health Association. 2002. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment III: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2021. Silver Spring, MD: American College Health Association.

Baumlin, James S., and Margaret E. Weaver. 2000. “Teaching, Classroom Authority, and the Psychology of Transference.” The Journal of General Education 49 (2): 75–87.

Britzman, Deborah P., and Alice J. Pitt. 1996. “Pedagogy and Transference: Casting the Past of Learning into the Presence of Teaching.“ Theory into Practice 35 (2): 117–23.

Weiss, Stephen. 2002. “How Teachers’ Autobiographies Influence Their Responses to Children's Behaviors: The Psychodynamic Concept of Transference in Classroom Life. Part II.” Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties 7 (2): 109–27.

Shannon McQueen, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at West Chester University. Her pedagogy research focuses on internships, sense of belonging, and dialogue across difference in the classroom.