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Tutorials: why are they such an effective teaching method?

26th June 2019

History tutor Rachael teaching a student on our summer school

Tutorial-style teaching is a rare method across universities as a whole, but it’s a technique that has been used at Oxford and Cambridge for over 800 years – ‘tutorials’ at Oxford and ‘supervisions’ at Cambridge.

It is this form of teaching that makes Oxford and Cambridge stand out for academic excellence – and, indeed, what most graduates from these universities, laud as the cornerstone of their academic experience.

Many people will say that the difference between Oxbridge graduates and other graduates from top universities is down to this teaching style. 

what is the tutorial method?

At Oxford or Cambridge, you normally have an intensive 1-hour session with your tutor, either 2:1 or sometimes even 1:1, after you have researched and written your essay or completed your problem sheet. It is combination of this high student to tutor ratio and the style of the session that makes this method so unique. 

Your tutor will often provide constructive feedback on your essay and challenge some of your arguments and answers to encourage you to stretch your thinking and clarify any grey areas. Rather than being treated as a student, you discuss the topic more as academic equals. This is reflected in the where the tutorials take place; rather than in a classroom, tutorials often take place in the tutor's office in the college on sofas. 

English tutor teaches summer school students in Oxford
Collaborative working

Why is it so effective?

Although an extremely demanding session, the intensity and rigour helps you produce your best work. It is rare to be in a room with an academic expert and receiving tailored, constructive feedback on an essay or problem sheet you have completed. These tutors are often world-leading experts in their field – they will often have researched and written extensively on the topics you write and discuss with them.

In the 2008 collection, Thanks you taught me how to think, edited by the bursar of New College Oxford, David Palfreyman, most of the authors argue from their experience that tutorial teaching fosters critical and independent analysis.
 
  

WHAT MAKES A GOOD TUTOR?

While tutors are experts in their field and know their stuff, university study should encourage you to learn and think independently. A good tutor should not simply tell you the answer, but guide you in reaching the answers yourself. They may give you hints or challenge your points to help you clarify your thinking and reason to the conclusion or answer.

There is often no definitive ‘right’ answer in arts and humanities, so it’s about thinking critically and making an informed decision about what argument you think is most persuasive or what the best way to solve a problem is.

Summer school students learn in Oxford
Business meeting

How is this relevant to life after university?

While a lot of jobs, particularly at the start of your career, will see you working for someone else and being given tasks to complete, moving up the career ladder to leadership positions is tricky. Crucially, leaders in any industry have to be able to think critically for themselves and solve problems on a regular basis and clearly communicate with others. The tutorial method has been proven to develop people who can apply critical thinking and problem solving skills to their work and clearly justify a course of action to others.

Arguably even more importantly, being a leader requires being able to guide others and support them in their development. Kim Scott argues that a good manager creates an environment which facilitates honest and open feedback, delivered with care at the right time. It’s about achieving the right balance between caring for people and challenging them directly. Many students who have been through the tutorial system have seen the value of open, honest criticism and are willing to apply this in their jobs after university. 

At the Summer School, we adopt the tutorial method in the spirit of Oxford University to give students the chance to experience this style of teaching. All of our tutors are graduates from Oxford or Cambridge so are well-versed in the tutorial techniques, combining these with slightly larger class-based teaching as well. 

You can more about our courses and see our tutor profiles here.