Tutorial teaching

Oxford information

Tutorial teaching is a unique aspect of the educational experience that Oxford offers its students. In spite of a wide variety of tutors’ approaches to tutorials, there are common elements which contribute to this uniqueness, and these include:

  • Students meeting individually or in very small groups, with a tutor from their discipline in their college, typically once a week or once a fortnight.
  • Students spending time independently reading and preparing written work for the tutorial (i.e. self-directed learning). While student study time varies widely, the Commission of Inquiry (1997) reported an average of 13 hours of independent study per tutorial.
  • Students discussing their written work with the tutor, thus honing their oral communication skills and giving them an opportunity to receive constant feedback (i.e. formative assessment) from their tutors.

Tutorials are generally intended to:

  • Help students to gain a deep understanding of the subject matter in their discipline - discussion in tutorials helps students to see the significance and implications of their knowledge so they can apply what they have learned in new contexts; students should also develop a healthy scepticism about the literature.
  • Enable students to learn how to think, for instance to synthesize disparate sources, to formulate a thesis and justify it, to anticipate criticisms of their arguments, and to respond to questions and challenges – thinking 'on one’s feet' – in the tutorial setting.
  • Develop students’ basic academic skills (e.g. identification and evaluation of relevant resources, effective communication both orally and in writing, effective time-management, critical self-assessment).
  • Enable students to pursue their individual academic interests within the context of their subject.
  • Develop students’ ability to think and act like a professional in their discipline, like a classicist, mathematician, historian, scientist, or social scientist, rather than like a student 'covering' a syllabus in classics, maths, history or a science.
  • Foster a close relationship between student and tutor over the course of the academic degree, thereby personalizing students’ university experience and supporting students’ overall personal development throughout their student career.

The University’s Education Committee summarises and defines the purpose of a tutorial as being “to develop an individual student’s capacity to think in depth about a subject area, and to operate with growing confidence within its techniques and methodologies, with the expectation that the process will promote increased understanding of the discipline for both tutor and student.”

To achieve this purpose, tutorials are organised differently across the university, depending on discipline, the stage of the student’s course and tutors’ own styles. A number of experienced tutors describe their approaches in The Oxford Tutorial (Palfreyman, 2001).

Organisation of teaching at Oxford

Typically, the University’s faculties, departments and schools provide lectures and classes whilst colleges organise tutorial teaching. College Tutors, as well as themselves teaching, co-ordinate students’ programmes of study and arrange tutorials within the College if suitable expertise is available, but often with appropriate academics ('out-tutors') from other Colleges.

Due to this structure, in which university and college teaching are often organised independently from each other, the relationship between them can vary. For example, in one department, a lecturer may give a programme of lectures and design problem sheets for use by all college tutors in associated tutorials which take place week by week in the same term. Another department might have a series of lectures running in one term, but the students who go to them attend tutorials on the theme of those lectures at some other time in their studies, with each tutor independently setting essay questions, or other written tasks. Sometimes tutorial frequency and the balance between college and university teaching (e.g. tutorials vs. classes) change as students move into the later years of their courses.

Tutorials take a variety of forms. Occasionally students are taught in singletons; pairs are much more common, and threesomes and foursomes are also found. There is no simple advice about the 'best number' of students to teach at a time. An important consideration is that the larger the group, the less possible it is to provide individual attention or to be flexible and match content to the particular level or interests of individual students. Groups of two or three are probably the most effective, offering the advantage of supporting discussion and argument between students: as well as being productive in itself, this can serve to lift students' confidence in expressing their ideas. Singleton teaching can be extremely successful and especially enjoyable, but, as a very personal approach to teaching, it is unavoidably influenced by the degree of compatibility between student and tutor; in particular, it is essential there be a good level of understanding and trust – singleton tutorials can be disastrous if a student finds them intimidating.

Students usually pursue a course of tutorials in a given area (perhaps corresponding to a ‘paper’ in the examination) over the course of an eight-week term; this is typical for an 'option' in 'Schools' (i.e. final examinations), though sometimes options are taught fortnightly across two terms. Students might be studying more than one option at a time, but rarely more than two. Each discipline has its own norms, in History for example, standard practice is for each undergraduate to study one option weekly in parallel with another taken fortnightly. This particular pattern assumes three tutorials per fortnight. In that students find tutorials supportive, there is sometimes a tendency for them to ask for more, and it is important to bear in mind that a student attempting more than two tutorials in any one week will have time to prepare only at a superficial level, the focus of the tutorial then necessarily shifts away from intellectual discussion towards a simple covering of the knowledge base. Whilst there are subjects where such teaching might be needed for certain parts of the course, the general view is that this too easily becomes a squandering of tutorial resource: if it is needed, such teaching can be done in larger groups, and there is in any case much to be said for asking students to become more self-reliant and to do more of their work independently. The following section (Content of Tutorials) further addresses the best use of tutorial resource.

Students generally produce a piece of written work for each tutorial, based on bibliographic guidance provided by the tutor. The form of that written work varies across disciplines. For instance, the Humanities rely most heavily on the essay. Other forms of written work used as a basis for tutorials include:

  • problem sets (typically in maths and the physical sciences, and sometimes with a requirement for the student to write explanatory text as well as the solution);
  • data handling exercises (with commentary, deductions and/or diagnosis);
  • book reviews;
  • summaries of published papers (from which the abstracts were deleted);
  • essay plans;
  • review of a designated topic in note form;
  • handouts for a presentation;
  • exhibition reviews;
  • deductions of chemical/biochemical reaction sequences and mechanisms.

These essays and other pieces of work do not count towards examination marks. Constant formative assessment (typically given in the form of brief written comments and/or verbal feedback during tutorials) is central to the Oxford system.

All tutors contribute to the process of reporting on student’s performance and progress using the OxCORT (Oxford Colleges Online Reports for Tutorials) system. Termly reports are forwarded to the students’ College Tutors and to Senior Tutors (College officers with overall responsibility for academic affairs). Once a report is released by the College Tutor, students themselves may use OxCORT to access and read the reports on their work. Tutors should discuss these reports with each student in a timely way. For students reading joint degrees, and so having two or more College Tutors, it is common for one of these tutors to be given responsibility for the general oversight of each student's progress.

All colleges should provide a means for students to give written feedback to Senior Tutors on their tutorials, to report both on the students' perception of the support they have received, on the progress they see themselves as making and on areas where they feel they need more help. Uptake of student feedback in colleges is typically low, but, when the process is used, it can provide useful insight into the effectiveness of tutorial teaching and into the needs of individual students.

Content of tutorials

The Franks Commission of 1966 warned against using tutorials as an opportunity to convey additional information to students, considering the proper role of tutorials as being “to teach the pupil how to think” (quoted in Commission of Inquiry, 1997).

We recommend tutors in any discipline to read How tutorials work (88kb), an extract from course information for the BA in Archaeology and Anthropology. It provokes thought about what tutorials are (and are not) and how the student-tutor relationship promotes student learning.

While new tutors may wonder how to 'cover' all the material in a weekly tutorial, the extract argues for a different purpose of tutorials, “unlike lectures, tutorials do not add up to a survey...of any body of material. They are about ‘problems in’ rather than ‘bits of’ the subject.” To prepare for tutorials, students must follow an “ambitious programme of reading”. In parallel with the lectures, students gain a thorough understanding of the subject through their reading. The tutor “guides and calibrates” the reading programme but s/he is not required to take the student through it step by step. Focusing in the tutorial on building up students’ skills rather than their knowledge may help here. In some ways ‘coverage’ is the student’s responsibility, not the tutor’s.

Learning more about tutorial teaching and learning

At Oxford various workshops in academic divisions and/or departments, as well as some longer, centrally-run programmes, provide preparation for teaching in different settings, including tutorials. See Teaching development programmes for information about what's available. All workshops and programmes give opportunities to hear from experienced tutors, discuss your experiences so far and address your questions or concerns about teaching. Together, colleagues in subject areas and the Learning Institute aim to provide something for all levels of experience, from graduate students teaching a few hours in their specialisms, to university lecturers with full teaching and research loads.

The Learning Institute can also sometimes provide a seminar tailored for individual department, faculty or college needs, if there are enough participants. We design sessions addressing practical questions to do with Oxford's teaching settings (including tutorials), identifying common problems and finding ways of solving them, and developing the skills you need to become a more effective teacher.

If you are a new tutor, do talk with your mentor and other academics in your particular discipline and College to gain a more detailed understanding of how tutorials are organised in your context. If your mentor doesn’t teach in exactly the same area as you do, ask him or her to refer you to a colleague who does. In practice, each tutor develops and gradually refines and improves his or her own approach, learning from discussion with mentors and colleagues throughout the process.

Tutorial teaching opportunities

If you are a graduate student or researcher with little prior teaching experience, a Preparation for learning and teaching at Oxford (PLTO) workshop, run by your own department or division, will help you to be ready to undertake your first teaching stint. Completion of PLTO is often the accepted prerequisite for inclusion of graduate students and researchers in departmental teaching registers. Departments and faculties maintain these lists of persons accepted as being qualified to teach; College Tutors may consult them when seeking to appoint out-tutors. Nonetheless, graduate students and researchers who wish to gain tutorial teaching experience should also actively seek teaching opportunities by networking with academics in their field in a variety of colleges.

Ideas and tools

  • The Tutor's Role at Oxford (58kb). This document sets out questions you need to ask to understand what is expected of you in your particular college.
  • Try to understand the student's point of view. In 2010 the Oxford University Student Union convened focus groups to discuss the student view of teaching in order to contribute to a University-wide review. One of the outcomes was this analysis from the student perspective of good tutorial and a good tutor (90kb).
  • Prompts for college tutors (23kb) was compiled by Alan Renwick of New College, for use with first-year students, both for the purposes of helping them to settle in and of evaluating the effectiveness of his own practice. You may like to edit this document to suit the way things are done in your own college and use it for evaluating your tutorial practice through discussions with students.
  • Essay Cover Sheet (7kb) and Essay Feedback Sheet (6kb). Developed by Suzanne Shale, a former Fellow and Tutor in Law at New College, these simple forms can promote student reflection on their own work and can be used to get the tutorial essay discussion off to a good start. The cover sheet’s purpose is to encourage students to reflect on how they are undertaking the set task and to generate their own feedback. Tutors then discuss students’ responses, allowing, for instance, the development of each one's understanding of what makes a ‘good’ essay. The questions here are particularly appropriate for Law students; tutors of other subjects will wish to identify the discipline-specific understandings they want their students to develop. It can be helpful to change the questions as students progress through their course. Some tutors ask students to formulate the questions on cover sheets, requiring that students think about assessment criteria and their own learning needs.
  • Ensure you are alert to the special needs of any of your students. See Creating accessible tutorials and small groups for advice on making your tutorial accessible for disabled students.
  • Understanding the learning process (295kb): tutorial teaching in the context of research into Higher Education. This paper, written by staff from the Oxford Learning Institute, introduces new tutors to the tutorial form and provides both historical context as well as current practice. It examines some of the most significant findings about student learning in higher education, and invites consideration of tutorial teaching in light of what we know of the intellectual challenges that face Oxford students.
  • What do tutors do? This article (which starts on page 4 of this issue of Illuminatio) captures the nature of the tutoring expertise that underlies inspiring and challenging tutorials.
  • Research-led teaching: The evolution of a tutorial style. illuminatio 2007 (248kb) In this article (on page 10 of this issue of Illuminatio) Dr Nigel Emptage describes the development of his personal approach – an example of research-led teaching which focuses on key ideas which underpin the progress of medical science.
  • The Cognitive Apprenticeship model offers one way of understanding your role as a teacher, and assists with thinking about the actions you engage in, and those actions that you ask your students to engage in. Read the Cognitive apprenticeship article by Collins et al, 1991, in conjunction with these Examples relevant to new teachers at Oxford (36kb). The concept derives from the traditional notion of apprenticeship in which mastery is achieved in a setting of authentic work. The less skilled individual achieves progressive mastery through a process of observation, directed activity, and a mix of private and public analysis of performance. Where traditional apprenticeship often is concerned with physical and tangible activities that are easily observable, cognitive apprenticeship is involved with making visible the thinking that underlies expert performance.
  • For further reading on this theme download our Annotated Bibliography on Tutorial Teaching (91kb).

Insights from research and literature

Ashwin carried out research into how Oxford University students believed that tutorials contributed to their learning at university. From his interviews with students, he derived a hierarchy of student conceptions of the tutorial.

  1. Tutorials as the tutor explaining to the student what the student does not understand.
  2. Tutorials as the tutor showing the student how to see the subject in the way that the tutor does.
  3. Tutorials as the tutor bringing things in relation to each other to help the student develop a new perspective in the wider context of the discipline.
  4. Tutorials as the tutor and the student exchanging different points of view on the topic and both coming to a new understanding.

(Ashwin, p635)

Anecdotally, tutors report that they sometime struggle to avoid falling into the use of the tutorial time as a further opportunity to explain to students the things they don’t seem to understand, give a mini-lecture or mount their hobby horse to declaim on a pet topic. Probably most tutors are at least aiming for what is described in the third conception, to achieve for their students what one of Ashwin’s student interviewees described as coming out of the tutorial having “forcibly rearranged the ideas in your head, and … actually understood it in the end” (p638).

For tutors to have an attitude of mind that enables them to see that they, too, may need to rearrange the ideas in their heads (as in conception 4) requires humility and an acceptance of the view that even the most widely accepted views are contested and contestable.

Beck (2007) analyzed the pedagogy of the tutorial to explain what was happening in tutorials using key educational concepts and terminology. He concluded that writing and discussion were central to tutorials and the aim of tutorials was to “systematically train metacognitive [thinking about thinking] powers” or “enable students to learn to think for themselves”.

The essay-writing process exemplifies, in Beck’s view, a particularly effective learning regime which alternates individual work on synthesis with interactive dialogue. Students begin by carrying out a synthesis of material learned from lectures or classes and private reading, then they possibly engage in some discussion with peers about the ideas they have developed. Subsequently they write the essay (this represents further synthesis) and follow it with some form of oral presentation of the essay, and further dialogue with tutor and peers as the essay is discussed, questioned, and arguments are defended or revised and re-stated during the tutorial. If students go back and rework or improve their essays after tutorials (as they often do in anticipation of using them for ‘revision’) “this would comprise a concluding synthetic transformation”, or final chance to revise the argument and synthesise the tutor’s feedback to improve the essay.

Beck concludes “the Oxford tutorial satisfies every requirement of a metacognitive and high-end literacy education, not only teaching students to think independently but self-consciously. The various activities, a prodigious amount of reading and writing, the routine assumption of the teacher role, and engagement in critical dialogues that induce repeated self-questioning, self-correction, and mental flexibility – all involve the exercise of self-conscious thinking.”

The above text is based on:

Ashwin, P. (2005). Variation in students’ experiences of the ‘Oxford Tutorial’, Higher Education, 50(4), pp631-644.

Archer, IW. (2007) Students' Experiences of the Formative Assessment of Essays in History and Archaeology at Oxford. Final report on an investigation funded by the HEA Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology.

Beck, RJ. (2007) The Pedagogy of the Oxford Tutorial. Downloaded: 24 February 2010.

Commission of Inquiry (1997) Commission of Inquiry Report. Oxford: University of Oxford. Also available at http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/coi.

Palfreyman, David. (Ed). (2001). The Oxford Tutorial: ‘Thanks, you taught me how to think’. Oxford: OxCheps.

University of Oxford (2008). Education Committee Policy and Guidance on Undergraduate Learning and Teaching.