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The Tutorial System: Size Doesn’t Matter, It’s What You Do With It

Mario Sánchez Prada

Seen as the crown jewel of Oxford life, the much-vaunted tutorial system remains an icon of the university’s commitment to intellectual rigour. It’s not hard to see why: the tutorial represents a bear pit where your academic mettle is tested before an accomplished expert whose soul has been replaced by an encyclopaedic knowledge of your subject. The experience of being taught in a wood-clad office with ceiling-to- floor bookshelves in the presence of a professor who wrote half your reading list is nothing less than a privilege. Nor could anyone deny that the intimacy of a tutorial affords a degree of individual engagement which would be simply impossible to recreate in larger seminars.

Yet I often find myself unsatisfied. As far as the metaphor goes, bear pits are great for building a thick skin but are good for little else. The adversarial nature of tutorials can stymie well-rounded discussion in favour of mudwrestling with your partner over semantic points at the behest of the tutor thirsty for blood and entertainment. I don’t doubt that there are merits to robust debate but a tutorial can hardly be an effective learning environment if productive conversations are sidelined in favour of arguments which generate more heat than light. Of course, healthy disagreement should be encouraged but tutorials should not just be about pitched warfare, defending your arguments against volleys of opposition. The ability to find common ground with those who disagree with you is arguably as important as argumentative prowess.

Larger tutorial groups would mean that more people could bring more ideas to the table.

I believe this problem to be a product of what makes the tutorial system so enduringly popular: its size. The tutorial’s intimacy may allow for more direct engagement with the tutor but it can also be suffocating as discussion feeds off an increasingly stagnant pool of knowledge possessed by you and your partner. Indeed, the intimacy of tutorial classes often engenders the very problem which their size is supposed to avoid: spoon-feeding information. The logic of the tutorial is that by giving students the space and attention to articulate their ideas then they will learn through dialogue rather than one-way instruction. Anyone, however, who has turned up at a tutorial having failed to complete the requisite reading will recognise this as bollocks.

We have all been there, in the cold light of the tutor’s office, subtly exchanging desperate sideways glances with your partner as the tutor poses a question on a niche angle of the topic you are convinced was not on the reading list. There is no way out. You might try and look like you’re thinking, or pretend to write some notes to stall for time but the tutor can see in your vacant eyes that there’s nothing going on up there. Repeat this a few times and a tutorial can quickly snowball into a very cosy lecture as the exasperated tutor fills in all the abundant gaps.

Larger tutorial groups would mean that more people could bring more ideas to the table. There’s much talk these days about the ‘echochamber’, aimed especially at university-educated liberals, and whilst confirmation bias is hardly a novel phenomenon, it is difficult to justify the broadening of horizons when one is only exposed to the ideas of one or two other individuals.

I do believe there is a place for close quarters, one-on- one or two-on- one tutorials but the benefits of larger seminars should not be overlooked. Expanding class sizes even by just two or three people would allow for a broader, more fluid exchange of ideas. At the very least it might eliminate some of those nauseating awkward silences.

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