Q & A sessions that aid discovery of self

The Oxford Tutorial
September 13, 2002

One aspect of the current crisis in higher education is the growing divide between what the state thinks universities are for and what they are actually designed to do. The great value of this little book of essays about the Oxford tutorial system, designed primarily to explain to students what to expect and to others what goes on in tutorials, is that it focuses the reader's attention precisely upon the process and method of university-level learning. By looking closely into one particular pedagogic method, one that has been much discussed in recent times (mainly because of its relatively high cost per student), the book forces attention upon the real potential benefits that can be granted to the mind of an individual undergoing higher education. In reading these essays, one is constantly reminded of how far contemporary political debate has strayed from a preoccupation with the actual purposes of universities, and of how real teaching, however it is done, can enhance the life chances of its beneficiaries.

Higher education is, to start with, something of a misnomer because it does not (or should not) take the task of school learning "higher" so much as transform the whole process of learning, transferring the burden of it from teacher to student. The tutorial, as practised at Oxford, is a pedagogic form, one that is in constant evolution, (its origins evidently rooted in Socratic dialogue), that arguably provides the best opportunity known to the modern world for bringing about that transformation of the self in the process of learning that many of these writers describe. Nowadays the variants are many and the book provides a series of accounts by current Oxford tutors about how they do tutorials; one emphasises the importance of cajoling the reticent student into delivering her own opinion, another the teaching value of the personal relationship that the tutorial sets up between the two parties. Several point to the student's own creation of the knowledge concerned as the essence of the system. Peter Mirfield of Jesus College, when he finds himself for the sixth time in a term answering the same question from a tutorial pair and asks himself whether a short lecture might not fit the bill, reminds himself that for each it was the first time they had asked the question and the first time it had been answered. Through such dialogue the fundamentals of a subject are discovered and self-inculcated.

The norms have all changed. The one-to-one tutorial is on the decrease and the one-to-two or three is more common. Nowadays the weekly essay is seldom actually read out aloud to a tutor but is handed in the day before the meeting for prior comment. Tutorials are supplemented by seminars and larger classes. Tutorial teaching, though inextricable from the college system, is bought and sold between colleges to facilitate the expert teaching of special papers within subjects. The atmosphere of tutorials has altered and students have gained more confidence in entering more wholeheartedly into discussion with their tutors, challenging interpretations and testing their own ideas. For the student it is inevitably daunting to confront for the first time an acknowledged expert and have to wage intellectual battle. For the tutor there now exists, frighteningly, in most colleges, the termly "feedback" form in which students evaluate the work of their tutors and this material is duly "fed back" into the colleges' committee system; for many tutors this destroys the tutorial relationship, for others it is a welcome source of practical data.

Oxcheps is a group of academics, based at New College, Oxford, whose purpose is to challenge existing wisdom on higher education and disseminate new and good ideas on the subject. This 100-page meditation on the institution of the tutorial is a diverting read and a useful guide to intending recipients as to what will be expected of them. But it surely is of equal value to non-recipients for it suggests a dimension of teaching that, while it may not be ideal for all students, will need its absence to be compensated for in some manner. The book does not suggest that the tutorial is by any means the only effective technique of university teaching.

That the tutorial survives is a remarkable fact given the deliberate attempt by new Labour to render its continuation impossible through the removal of the cash that pays for it. Several of the writers express the fear that rising costs might eliminate tutorials. But Oxford has not been bled dry and the institution flourishes while it evolves, all the more valued for its defiant survival. The doubling of the moneys redistributed among the colleges is one reason for the survival of the tutorial and this has been based upon a careful calculation of how, across a large and varied collegiate university, the "basic kit" of equitable student provision can be guaranteed. Like so much else in contemporary Oxford, the tutorial is renewed, flexible, dynamic and popular, even though this news often appears unwelcome to our national educational bureaucracy.

Anthony Smith is president of Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Oxford Tutorial

Editor - David Palfreyman
ISBN - 0 95065 10 7 9
Publisher - The Centre for Higher Education Studies
Price - £3.50
Pages - 117

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