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Are Oxbridge tutorials still the best way to teach students how to think?

On the way to challenge some student thinking. aha42 | tehaha/, CC BY-NC

Are Oxbridge tutorials still the best way to teach students how to think?

Special government funding given to Oxford and Cambridge to help pay for the universities’ undergraduate tutorial teaching system is coming to an end. Oxford will lose £4.2m and Cambridge £2.7m “institution-specific” funding from the Higher Education Funding Council, which is also used to help fund the universities’ undergraduate interview process.

A total of 25 higher education institutions have traditionally received the special funding. After a recent review, the rules have changed so that only institutions where 60% of their activity comes from one student cost centre – a subject area such as art and design or clinical medicine – are eligible. This has ruled out less subject-specific institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. The remaining eligible institutions, which still includes the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Royal Academy of Music, will be able to to apply for the funding.

The cut will come as no surprise to either Oxford or Cambridge. The subsidy has been threatened before, amid calls for more transparency over its use. But it looks unlikely that this will spell the end of the Oxbridge tutorial.

Despite the financial burden this teaching system places on colleges, the tutorial (or supervision, as it is known in Cambridge) system is deeply embedded in both universities’ intellectual psyche. Oxford’s current strategic plan describes it as a “cornerstone” of its undergraduate education.

Key to the tutorial’s resilience is its adaptability. The only constant is the presence of a few people in a room for an hour, with a tutor leading a conversation, and usually giving feedback on the written work (anything from essays to maths problems) that students have prepared beforehand. Beyond that, the permutations are endless.

Stimulating debate

Over the course of an eight-week term, Oxbridge students are likely to have between 12 and 16 tutorials, spending an average of 13 to 15 hours preparing for each. Their individual reading, thinking and writing is where much of the learning is meant to take place. Along the way, students gain academic self confidence and the ability to organise their ideas. The tutorial’s history and changing purpose is usefully reviewed by contributors to a 2008 collection, Thanks you taught me how to think, edited by the bursar of New College Oxford, David Palfreyman. Most of the authors reflect on their own experiences of tutorial teaching to defend its role in fostering critical and independent analysis.

Research by Paul Ashwin at Oxford has highlighted that in the best tutorials, knowledge is seen as contested. Topics are opened up for debate, tutors admit to gaps in their own knowledge, and students are treated as academic equals. But Ashwin’s interviews also highlight that many students, fresh from the prescriptive approaches and high-stakes testing of secondary education, are uncertain about their role. Some felt the purpose of the tutorial was to clarify misunderstandings, while others felt it was to gain new knowledge. By the same token, tutors are also increasingly uncertain about the academic skills to expect of their students.

His findings show that the best tutorials remain demanding, stimulating and thought-provoking, for student and tutor alike. The weekly discussions feed into the learning that takes place for the next essay, and the tutorial becomes one link in a chain of learning, dialogue, feedback and academic development.

Not for everyone

For all these strengths, the tutorial system does have its weaknesses. Some feel that its highly accelerated timescale (can you really read and digest three or four books in a week?) places unrealistic expectations on the students and is detrimental to the quality of the finished product. Even in the 1960s, the Oxford University Franks Commission worried that the tutorial was being both misused (to convey more information than was necessary) and overused (to improve exam results).

Critics such as Lewis Elton, writing in 2001, have argued that Oxford tutorials continue to be a didactic and teacher-centred experience. The Oxford University Students’ Union has highlighted a risk that tutorials foster a culture of “blagging”. Social class, gender and educational background all impact on a student’s academic confidence. Not everyone has the independence to relish the “sink-or-swim” tutorial environment. Increasingly, the colleges are responding by providing study skills advice for students.

The tutorial has other downsides. The commitment to employing a large fellowship to provide this model of teaching places a significant financial commitment on colleges. While the precise costs are politically sensitive and hard to calculate, the richer colleges can rely on their endowment incomes, while the poorer colleges are much more vulnerable. One analysis at Oxford put the annual cost of running tutorials for an undergraduate’s education at just over £4,000 a year.

Tutorials also make heavy demands on the time of established academics, many of whom are juggling a range of research responsibilities. Some pass on their tutorial responsibilities to doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, many of whom are keen to get mentored teaching experience. But their abilities vary, and assuring the quality of provision is tricky. And no matter who is teaching, it is difficult for students to raise concerns anonymously.

Prepared for the real world? PoohFotoz /

Recently, Jonathan Black, the head of Oxford’s careers service admitted that the tutorial was not always the best way to nurture the team-working skills demanded by employers. Recognising this, some tutors experiment with a mixture of different group sizes and small group teaching techniques.

Despite these challenges, the tutorial continues to evolve. New generations of tutors introduce fresh ideas, creative approaches and new technologies. They bring to the table a more nuanced understanding of the academic challenges that face students when they leave secondary school. Some mix one-on-on tutorials with larger classes, or individual essays with group-projects. Others incorporate social media and other online resources. If the strength of the tutorial is its adaptability, reports of its likely demise are greatly exaggerated.