Tutorials: Cornerstone of Oxford academics

For hundreds of years, tutorials have been the lifeblood of an Oxford education. And in the Williams College Oxford Programme, tutorial work is how we are learning this year.

The average Williams student in Oxford takes either one-and-one-half or two tutorials each of the three terms of the Oxford academic year. Every week, students are assigned a broad question and are asked to respond to it in an eight page paper by reading between 10 and 30 assigned books and articles.

One of the key features of tutorials is independent work. As we only meet once a week for an hour with our tutors, tutorial work requires a ton of self discipline; students have to be motivated to spend hours in the dark, cold Oxford libraries.

But, at the same time, tutorial work offers an incredible amount of flexibility, which allows students to essentially study whatever they want since topics are so broad. The Oxford tutorial system is far more flexible than courses at Williams.

At first, the task of reading mountains of text and writing pages after pages seems quite daunting. But very quickly, we learn how to handle tutorials.

The first rule of Oxford tutorials is that no one — especially the full time British students — reads all of the assigned material. It simply is impossible to do and the tutors know this.

The second rule of Oxford tutorials is that it is helpful to read to the question assigned. By this, students often actively scan texts in order to locate arguments, explanations and opinions about the question assigned for the week’s paper.

The primary purpose of weekly papers is to initiate a critical discussion about the topic with your tutor. Typically, papers are read aloud by students at the start of each tutorial. The tutor then probes, challenges and questions the student in an amazing way which furthers the student’s own knowledge.

However, tutorials may not be the mainstay of Oxford learning for much longer since budget crises have hit many of the 39 Oxford colleges in recent years.

Unlike private American colleges such as Williams, Oxford colleges have relied on government funding for hundreds of years. Consequently, Exeter College’s endowment is reported to be less than $30 million — a stark contrast to Williams billion dollar plus bank account.

As the Parliament has continued to cut British higher education funding over the past ten years, these colleges have few financial resources to fall back upon. Two options currently being considered are increasing tuition tenfold, from about $1,585 to over $16,800 a year and cutting expenses by replacing tutorials with cheaper classroom and seminar-based instruction.

Despite Oxford’s possible move to more classroom-based learning, independent tutorials will definitely be a main part of the Williams College Oxford Programme for years to come.