The Brilliance of the British Tutorial System

A flat on Bridge Street, Oxford

In American universities, classes are often very passive—students come in, listen to the teacher speak, receive an assignment, turn it in, and get it back with a grade. Some teachers have too many students to spend time personally looking over all the homework, and a student assistant grades most of it. By the end of the semester, the teacher may or may not know the names of the students in his or her class.

This is not the case at Oxford University.

Unlike the lecture-style classes run in American schools, Oxford is based on the tutorial system. This means that I meet with my tutors one-on-one for a single hour every week to discuss my work. I don’t have any classmates to speak of, and while American students spend most of their week in class, I spend most of it at the library, researching on my own.

The way this works practically is that I receive an essay question from my tutor, and then spend the next week reading, researching, and thinking about that question. At the next tutorial (meeting with my tutor), I have an 8-page paper due that answers the question. We spend the hour talking about the essay— its good and bad points, other aspects of the subject I didn’t mention in the essay—and then at the end of the hour, he gives me another question for the next week.

This allows for a very personal class experience. At the beginning of term, it was a terrifying concept. I couldn’t hide behind other students or avoid the teacher’s questions. I couldn’t fake or bluff any answers. I had to know what I was talking about, and be able to think on my feet when the tutor asked me a question I hadn’t considered before. I also had to own up to my writing, and be able to defend my argument orally.

The other difference between the UK and American systems is that while most college students in the US take five or six classes at a time, I’m only taking two classes (Shakespeare and Creative Writing). As a result, both classes require a lot of work—I spend between 10 and 20 hours every week on each tutorial. The benefit of this is that I can really delve into the subjects. Because I’m the only student in the class, it also allows me to take charge of my own education, and point it in the direction I want it to go.

For example, in my Shakespeare tutorial, my tutor has let me choose what plays I want to look at, as well as write my own essay questions. This has taught me to think creatively—not passively receive an assignment—and has kept me motivated to work hard, because I’m researching topics that I find personally interesting.

Yes, this system has been hard, challenging, and thoroughly exhausting. But so worth it. I will truly miss the exceptional academic experience I’ve had this term.

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