What To Expect From an Oxford Tutorial

Allison You St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford, England


December 18, 2019
Currently Studying at: St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford, England
Homeschool: Northwestern University

For me, one of the biggest draws of Oxford was its tutorial system and unique, individual-centered approach to education. In the last blog post, I mentioned how the tutorial is Oxford’s take on a “class” and how it usually assumes the form of a weekly/biweekly one-on-one or small group meeting with your tutor in which you prepare a 2000-word essay (for most subjects) or a problem set (for certain STEM tutorials) to discuss in-depth. Seeing as this is probably quite different from the college classes that most study abroad students are used to, I thought it would be helpful in this blog post to tell you guys my experience with the tutorial system.

First off, a disclaimer: seeing as the tutorial system is centered around individual learning, I have found that every student at Oxford has a different experience with and impression of their tutorials. When it comes down to it, your experience really depends on the tutors assigned to you, as every tutor has a different approach to teaching. Personally, I have a very, very positive impression of the tutorial system that ended up far exceeding my prior expectations. I can’t claim to speak for anyone else, but hopefully, by sharing my own experiences, I can at least give you guys a basic sense of what to expect from an Oxford tutorial.

For each term at Oxford, the vast majority of students will have one primary tutorial that meets once per week and a secondary tutorial that meets once every other week. However, seeing as the scheduling of tutorials are based around the availability of tutors and the preferences of students, there is room for slight variation. For example, I had a visiting student friend this past term who decided to take two primaries, and another one who was taking three secondaries due to the availability of tutors within his department. Personally, I had a regular schedule with Theory of Politics as my primary tutorial and Politics and Government of Western Europe as my secondary.

Upon arrival at your Oxford college (see previous blogpost “A Week in the Life of an Oxford Student") for “freshers week” orientation, visiting students will be given directions to set up an initial meeting with each tutor to go over introductions and general expectations before the term begins. While certain tutorials may be given in small groups (one of my friends was studying math and had a tutorial with six students), and therefore have more inflexible syllabi, most tutorials will be one-on-one, and students will be given the opportunity to tailor their course work to what interests them the most. I was the only tutee in both of my tutorials, and I had the chance to tell my tutors what I wished to study at the initial meeting, as well as later on throughout the term. For Theory of Politics, there were different prompts under each weekly topic that I could choose from, as well as weeks where my tutor and I decided to completely forego the syllabus and pick a new topic altogether. For Government and Politics of Western Europe, I would get to pick a different country to study for each tutorial, and my tutor would then pick an essay prompt for me based around my country of choice. For both tutorials, each prompt came with a corresponding reading list (thankfully, Oxford has one of the best library systems in the world, and students are never expected to pay for their course materials). While these lists were quite hefty and intimidating at first, both my tutors helped me out by differentiating between a few core readings to take in-depth notes on other supplementary readings to skim. All in all, I would say I spent around 50 hours per week preparing for tutorials, with an estimated 30 hours spent reading/taking notes, 5 hours spent outlining, and 15 hours spent writing. However, as mentioned in my last post, the amount of time spent studying really varies per individual student!

In terms of the actual tutorials themselves, my primary and secondary were quite different in how my tutors approached teaching. My Theory of Politics tutor was a fifth-year doctorate student at Kellogg College who was incredibly organized in his instruction. I would email him every essay 24-hours before my next tutorial, and he would mark it up with comments, suggestions, and questions to discuss the following morning. His notes would focus on both the topic at hand as well as general writing points, both of which I found very useful. My Government and Politics of Western Europe tutor, on the other hand, was a longtime fellow at St. Hugh’s College. He had a more traditional and, what I found to be, a more laidback approach to the Oxford tutorial. Essays were to be completed by the beginning of every tutorial, and sessions would consist of me reading my work aloud to him with frequent pauses to discuss an aspect of the content or for him to provide some background history to help me better understand the subject. My essays were never handed in, and all comments were spoken and generated on the spot instead of given in advance through writing. Although some tutors do provide a grade for every essay, neither of my tutors did, instead opting to stick to comments during tutorials and hand in one final grade at the end of term.

Despite being a little intimidated (while simultaneously being unbelievably excited) by the prospect of tutorials before coming to Oxford, I have personally found the experience to be incredibly instructive and enjoyable as well. Again, while there is variation among tutors, both of mine were very lovely people who seemed to genuinely have my best interests at heart. Constructive comments were never given in a demeaning way, and all of my opinions were listened to carefully and respectfully. I actually found it quite exciting and empowering to be able to have intellectual conversations with my tutors, and the amount of my personal growth was unparalleled compared to my usual college lectures filled with fifty or more students. Tutorials may never be a piece of cake at Oxford, but I truly believe that this system of learning is the best method I have studied under yet, and I will definitely miss it when I’m back home in the states!