At the heart of an Oxford education is the tutorial system. It is thanks to the support of our alumnae and friends that this system can continue, strengthened by your contributions to our Teaching and Fellowship campaigns. The tutorial means that all St Anne’s students are taught in very small groups or individually. In most subjects students will expect to receive two tutorials a week, with seminars and lectures in addition. Imogen Goold, Fellow in Law, describes for us the importance of this method of teaching:
How does the tutorial system work?
For Law, tutorials are generally in pairs, sometimes triples. Some Law subjects are very problem oriented, and so tutorials may involve working through how to answer a problem question. We use tutorials to both test students’ knowledge and help them to develop their thinking. A tutor might want to see if a student knows a case well and can explain the reasoning in it, but more often he or she will want the student to be able to critically appraise it or apply it to a given set of facts. Students are encouraged to debate with one another as well as the tutor.
‘Tutorials enable tutors to help students develop their ideas, their capacity for argument, their ability to reason through why they think something and improve their reasoning... students are given a ‘safe space’ in which to test out their ideas and respond to challenges.’
Why is this system important?
Having studied at three universities, I can confidently say that the tutorial system is vastly superior to other modes of teaching. It allows the tutor to get a very good grasp of how well the student understands the material and so discover where the gaps are and help them to fix them. Much more important, however, is that tutorials enable tutors to help students develop their ideas, their capacity for argument, and their ability to reason through why they think something and improve their reasoning. We do this by challenging their arguments, pushing them to explain why they think as they do, pointing out flaws or inconsistencies and then helping them to remedy these. This is nigh on impossible in a large group setting.
In what other ways do students benefit from this approach?
Tutorials build intellectual confidence as students are given a ‘safe space’ in which to test out their ideas and respond to challenges. They become very used to and comfortable with constructive criticism, which makes them much more intellectually robust as well as more flexible. They become accustomed to have their ideas challenged, and to challenging those of others, without taking it personally – this is a crucial skill both in the employment context and in life generally.
Finally, the tutorial system enables a tutor to get to know the students well over the course of three years, and so we can tailor our teaching to suit their strengths and help with their weaknesses. It builds trust, too, so that students feel able to come to us for help with their studies when they need it.