What are Oxford Tutorials Like?

Described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of British education, the Oxbridge tutorial system has been used for 150+ years at the world’s leading institutions. But how do Oxford tutorials work?

Dr Chris Adamson - 20 April 2021 · 15 min read

For hundreds of years, tutorials have been at the forefront of some of the world’s best academia. Britain’s top universities, Oxford and Cambridge, centre their entire learning system around it. And here at Melio, we use this university tutorial style of teaching as a key feature of our Academic Online Courses and One-to-One Tutoring

The Oxbridge tutorial system - as it is better known - is recognised as one of the most intensive and academically rigorous teaching tools used anywhere in the world. But what is this teaching method? Why is it so heavily praised? And what actual benefits can it have on our learning?

What are Oxford tutorials like?

Some of you may already know a little bit about tutorials already, but there’s probably quite a few of you reading this and thinking - what actually is a tutorial?

In the tutorial teaching model, the whole premise revolves around helping you to get the most out of your learning experience and advance your knowledge as far as possible. 

Usually, you begin this style of learning with seminars as part of a larger group of up to eight students, in which you will cover a large amount of material. The priority in these is building up your knowledge and skills, whilst encouraging interactive learning, questions, and discussions. 

After taking part in a series of seminars, you will have a tutorial, in which you are paired with one other student for a two-on-one class for an hour with your tutor. 

Before the tutorial, you will be asked to complete some work on your own. This might be an essay or a problem sheet. After this, you will submit this work to your tutor, who will read it before your tutorial.

In the tutorial itself, your tutor won’t usually give you a grade for your work. Instead, having read the work you submitted, the tutor will challenge you on why you gave the answers you gave, and made the points you made. You will have to justify your ideas, or rethink them, or refine them. The tutor may ask your fellow student to assess your work as well, and you will be asked to give your opinion of their answers too.

In this sense, a university tutorial is a far more adaptive learning experience - your sessions will be completely tailored to the content you bring to the session and the discussions that arise during it. 

What makes them so interesting is that there really is nowhere to hide in a tutorial. The tutor will challenge your answers and ask you to explain what you mean. This isn’t about reciting facts or just getting the right answers. It is an intense, in-depth, exploration of ideas, and your brain will be working overtime. But that’s what makes it so exciting.

A history of Oxford tutorials

So where did this rare and unusual method of teaching come from?

The colleges of the University of Oxford started adopting the university tutorial system from the middle of the 19th century, over 150 years ago. The first college to do so was Balliol College, and the master of the college at the time, Professor Benjamin Jowett, is traditionally credited with the invention of the teaching system.

Professor Jowett was an Oxbridge tutor of Classics, that is, the study of Latin and Ancient Greek, and the culture of the ancient civilisations. He was particularly an expert in Greek philosophers. 

The most famous of these was Socrates, who was known for engaging in conversations, or “dialogues”, with other people, where he would ask them questions, and when they gave their answer, he would ask another question inspired by their answer. Eventually, he thought, this dialogue, the exchange of questions and ideas, would gradually get everyone closer to the truth.

More than two thousand years later, Professor Jowett thought that the same principles could be applied to his students in Oxford - challenging students, interrogating their answers and ideas, and encouraging dialogue between them and their tutors, all to help them get closer to the truth. Initially, he even referred to them as “Dialogues.” 

Over time, the teaching method started to gain popularity at Balliol College, and then amongst other Oxbridge tutors at nearby colleges. When Professor Jowett became Vice-Chancellor of the university several years later, the whole university tutorial system was adopted across the board. Before long, colleges at Cambridge started to follow suit, where they became known as “supervisions”.

The new system wasn’t adopted everywhere though, and is still very rare

Sadly, university tutorial teaching is extraordinarily demanding of tutors’ time. A single tutor may only be able to teach 6 or 8 students per term. The result is that Oxford and Cambridge remain the only universities in the world that traditionally do the majority of their teaching in this special way.

As such, any university or learning institution that wishes to adopt this traditional learning method needs to ensure that small class sizes lie at the core of everything they do. This is why all our Online Courses are limited to no more than 10 students, so tutor and students have the capacity to be able to participate in these incredibly rewarding Tutorials.

Why are tutorials such a good way of learning?

Tutorials have a long history as a highly respected method of teaching, used to promote intensive learning at some of the world’s most prestigious centres of education. But a good reputation isn’t the reason we believe in the tutorial method. 

In fact, we chose the tutorial system because we believe it is the most effective way for you to have an exceptional educational experience. So why are tutorials such a good way of learning?

Tutorials encourage the ‘deep’ approach to learning

(Shale 2008: 124-126)

Experienced educators recognise that there are two broad approaches to learning: the deep approach and the surface approach. A lot of teaching takes the surface approach which focuses on:

  • “Increasing the quantity of information of which the individual is aware”.

  • “Memorising”

  • “The acquisition of facts, methods, and techniques which can be retained and used when necessary”

There is nothing inherently wrong in any of this. Gathering facts and remembering information will always be an important part of learning. But these things can only take your learning a certain distance.

The deep approach to learning, on the other hand, focuses on:

  • “The abstraction of meaning”

  • “An interpretive process aimed at understanding reality”

  • “Learning as about changing as a person”

In simple terms, this is the difference between learning to remember things, and learning to understand things. As such, the benefit of the Oxbridge tutorial system is that the dialogue between tutor and students pushes the students away from simply remembering lists of facts. Instead, students are pushed towards a deeper approach to learning, exploring a more sophisticated understanding of their chosen subject.

Tutorials provide expert attention for your ideas

(Dawkins 2008: 70)

The world-famous biologist Professor Richard Dawkins believes that the greatest asset of the Oxbridge tutorial system is the way in which it allows a student to have the intensive and close attention of an expert tutor when discussing and exchanging ideas. 

In his own writings, he has reflected on his own days as a student:

“The important thing was the knowledge that my essay, when I eventually completed it, would be the object of one hour’s undivided and serious attention from somebody qualified to judge it and discuss its topic with me.”

But it isn’t only about that one hour of close attention from the tutor. The true value comes from the effort that has gone into producing the work that the tutor will discuss with you. If you spend ten hours writing an essay for a tutorial, the tutor isn’t only giving you attention for an hour of your time. The tutor is in fact giving close attention to ten hours’ worth of your work.

Professor Dawkins explains:

“The educational value comes not from listening to what the tutor has to say (as if the tutorial were a private lecture), but from preparing to write essays, from writing them, and from arguing about them in an unrushed session afterwards.”

Tutorials reward drive, interest, and effort more than experience

(Panton 2008: 141-142)

“The expectations we have of our students are one of the most important signals for students themselves of what they might be capable of.”

Not all students who study with us will have extensive experience in their chosen subject. Some will have studied their subject at school, some may even have studied it at university, but many of our students are looking to explore a new subject they simply can’t learn in school.

Even for students with more experience, our tutors will take you into areas of knowledge you may not have covered before. Our expectation of our students, therefore, is that, regardless of past experience, you will approach your topic with diligence, effort, and critical-thinking, and this is the method of approach that the Oxbridge tutorial system is designed to reward.

Our expectations for the students, however, must be matched by students expectations of themselves. As historian James Panton explains: “Expect to be challenged, and want to be pushed; you will likely discover you are capable of things you never thought possible”.

How should students ensure they get the most out of tutorials?

Panton’s explanation above makes clear that students should “expect to be challenged, and want to be pushed.” 

So how can a student ensure they have the best possible experience of tutorial teaching?

Preparing for your tutorials

Submit your work

Before your tutorial is due to take place, your tutor will set you a piece of work to complete and submit before the session. For many, this will be an essay, but for some subjects like Mathematics, Biotechnology and Genetics or Physics, it may be a problem sheet or some other project. 

The main focus of the tutorial will be to review the work you have done, with the tutor challenging your answers and arguments in an intensive discussion. Therefore, the most important thing you need to do in preparation for your tutorial is make sure that you submit this work on time. If not, it will be difficult for the tutor to give detailed feedback on your work, the discussion will be limited, and the whole tutorial will be far less productive.

Remember, the work you have been set is supposed to be difficult, but you will always have enough time to spend on it. If you are struggling to finish your work on time, it is vital that you nonetheless submit whatever you have completed, even if it isn’t all done. Your tutor will still be able to engage you in a productive discussion of your work even if it isn’t quite finished, as long as you submit it.

Do the reading

For your pre-tutorial essay or problem sheet, your tutor will set you a reading list of topics and sources to help you research your project.

Now, it can be tempting to read just enough to be able to produce your work, but you should always strive to go one step further. Even though reading just enough will allow you to finish your work and submit it on time, it will hinder you from joining in the discussion fully. So, make sure you get through the full range of reading and research to allow you to make the most out of the tutorial discussion.

Show your workings

In the tutorial, the tutor will want to know how you came to your answers and how you worked out what your argument and points were going to be. Therefore, before the tutorial look back over your notes and your workings and bring them with you. 

You never know what interesting discussions could come from sharing it; sometimes the most interesting and ground-breaking conversations in a tutorial can be talking about the ideas and work that never made it into your final answers.

Review your work and assess your confidence honestly

Your tutor will challenge you on the answers you gave and the reasons behind them, but they aren’t trying to catch you out. They are probing to see how much of the information you have understood and to encourage you to think about things from a different perspective. A good bit of preparation, therefore, is to go back over the work you submitted and think carefully about how confident you are about each part and why.

Remember - it’s ok not to be confident about everything you’ve written! You could go into the tutorial and say, “I’m pleased with the point I made here, because the evidence is really strong, but I’m not so sure I understood this section as well.” This kind of honesty can provoke some of the most productive debates. Your tutor won’t be disappointed in you if you explain that you didn’t understand some parts, but they won’t just give you the answer either. Instead, they will help you to think more deeply about the problem yourself.

Prepare questions

When completing your pre-tutorial work, don’t be surprised if you come away with a few questions about how to tackle the project, or about the content itself. No tutor will expect you to come to the tutorial knowing all the answers, but they won’t be able to help you understand the parts you don’t know if you don’t ask.

Before your session, look back over your work and your notes and write out the things you think you might not have understood and the things that want to know more about. As noted by Professor Dawkins, a tutorial is a rare opportunity to have the undivided attention of an expert, so bring your questions!

What to do during a tutorial

Don’t be shy

As daunting as a tutorial may sound, you really don’t need to worry about it. Remember that the tutorial is all about the tutor challenging you to express your ideas and explore your understanding of the topic. 

In a typical Oxbridge tutorial this means that the tutor only speaks for about 10% of the time. The rest of the time is spent with you explaining your ideas and exploring your answers. But don’t be scared of this. Students get things wrong in every single tutorial, but that’s the whole point! It’s all part of the learning process. So don’t be shy - speak up and let the tutor know what you think. 

Have confidence…

By the time you reach your tutorial session, you will have spent a lot of time researching your topic, planned and produced a piece of work, and you have reviewed your work in preparation for the session. You might not be confident about everything, but there are probably some of your answers that you really believe in. 

If you have evidence to back up what you are saying, then it is good to express yourself confidently. The tutor will challenge you, but that’s the whole point. If you have good reasons for giving the answer you have given, then you should express them confidently.

...but be open-minded

When it comes to university tutorials, students need to strike a careful balance between believing in their own ideas, but remaining open to learning new things. Remember, it’s good to be confident, but that doesn’t mean you should think you know everything already. 

The tutor, and your fellow student, will challenge you with other ideas and different arguments. A robust debate is good, but any good debate relies on the participants being open to changing their mind. The important thing isn’t ‘winning’ the argument; the best result is moving towards a deeper understanding.

Practise ‘Active Listening’

In a tutorial, just as in any discussion, it can be easy to slip into what is called passive listening. This is when you aren’t quite taking in everything that is being said because you’re already thinking about what you are going to say next. 

In contrast, active listening means really taking in everything your tutor and fellow student are saying, and understanding exactly what they mean. It requires deep concentration and an exclusive focus (have your phone turned off and don’t be tempted to start checking your watch!)

To ensure you attend your tutorial with open ears, when another person is speaking, think carefully about what point they are making. What are they emphasising? What are they not saying? If you do this, you will learn so much more, and in fact when it is your turn to speak what you say will be much more relevant and insightful.

The Oxford tutorial system in the 21st Century: Adapting for online learning

After more than 150 years, the tutorial system remains as vital a part of teaching at the United Kingdom’s top universities as it ever has done. Likewise, we here at Melio have also seen over the last year that the system is incredibly well-suited to developing methods of teaching in the 21st century, especially with the recent move towards online learning.

Just like the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, we  have found that online tutorial teaching can be just as effective and transformative as it is in person. The core tenets of careful research and preparation, engaging and challenging discussion and debate, and a determination to help students understand their chosen subject more deeply remain key. 

Experience tutorial learning online with Melio

Interested in trying out this Oxbridge tutorial style of learning for yourself? Discover our bespoke Tutorial learning packages - where you and your tutor will work one-on-one to delve deeper into a subject you’re passionate about. 

Alternatively, tutorials also make up part of our Online Courses here at Melio. So, if you’re looking for a blend of live, group learning sessions, independent study, as well as that one-on-one tutorial learning, these may be more suitable for your learning style and preferences. 

To find out more about any of the programmes we offer, or for help on how to apply, please contact our admissions team who will be happy to assist with your query.


References used in article

Dawkins, R., “Evolution in Biology Tutoring?”, in Palfreyman 2008, pp. 68-75.

Panton, J., “Reflections of an early-career Tutor”, in Palfreyman 2008, pp. 138-147.

Shale, S., “The Oxford Tutorial in the Context of Theory on Student Learning”, in Palfreyman 2008, pp. 121-128.

Palfreyman, D. (ed), 2008, The Oxford Tutorial: ‘Thanks, you taught me how to think’, Oxford.

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