Insider Info: What is the Oxford Tutorial?

At most universities, those occasions at which only a single student turns up for a lecture or seminar are a little embarrassing. The lecturer may offer a question-and-answer session or a tour of the department’s posters, but usually lecturer and student go their separate ways, happy to avoid that situation that comprises the backbone of Oxford and Cambridge: the tutorial. We asked a few students at University College, Oxford, to describe the system.

A tutorial (or in Cambridge, a supervision) has a very simple format: the student writes a paper on a proposed topic, and then the tutor and student meet for sixty minutes to discuss the arguments raised in the paper. There’s a great deal of variety to tutorials: “some tutors like to lecture a bit,” Amy, a third year, told us. “And a few tutors like to read the student’s paper aloud. That isn’t so great.”

This can lead to anxiety on the part of the student. After all, there is a natural feeling that to do well at the tutorial requires that one’s paper stands up to sixty minutes of questions. Not true. “Good papers and not so great papers serve the same purpose for a tutorial,” said Ben, a second year. “They form the basis for a conversation.” Learning to talk about one’s studies is the real test of the tutorial. What a tutor is really looking for is the ability to develop ideas and arguments in discussion: and that is an opportunity for fun, inventiveness, and imagination.

What happens when there is more than one student at the tutorial? “My tutor had us read each other’s papers aloud,” says Ollie, a first year. He shakes his head and smiles: “It was actually really helpful– embarrassing at first. But you begin to feel like you’re working together on something.”