What is the Oxford tutorial system?

The tutorial system is the cornerstone of the Oxford educational method, and has been in use for hundreds of years. But how exactly does this rare and highly valued technique work?


Pali Feledi

8/19/20234 min read

Image: Two students attending an academic tutorial at Oxford's Lincoln College. Source: Lincoln College, Oxford

The tutorial system is a unique and highly desirable educational approach used by a select group of universities worldwide, and Oxford is particularly well known for it. This time-tested teaching technique, which emphasises 1:1 contact hours and precisely targeted feedback, is a defining feature of their educational tradition. But how exactly does an Oxford tutorial work? Why do people value this system so much? And is it really all that it is stacked up to be?

What is the tutorial system?

The teaching method that distinguishes Oxford from the general university landscape is the tutorial. Under this system, students attend lectures and seminars like students at other universities, but the core of their teaching is done at tutorials. These are usually some weekly hour-long discussion sessions between one to three students and the tutor, who is an expert in the given academic field. The tutorial system is primarily used for undergraduate education at Oxford. At the University of Cambridge, the same classes are called supervisions.

During the tutorial, students are expected to discuss and critically engage with the assigned readings and topics. They may be required to write essays or present their arguments on a particular topic. Tutorials provide an opportunity for students to receive personalised feedback, freely ask questions, and delve deeper into the subject matter. The emphasis is on active learning, independent thinking, and engaging in an intellectual discussion.

The most distinguishable feature of the scheme is its adaptability. Other than having one to four people in one space for about an hour, its format can be anything. This great freedom allows the tutorial to be tailored to the personal needs of the students.

During an eight-week academic term, students typically have anywhere from eight to twenty-four tutorials. For each session they spend thirteen to fifteen hours with preparation on average. Building on this, they can have a thought-provoking conversation with their tutor. Within this context, the students and the tutor are seen as academic equals, where the knowledge of each participant can be contested.

At first glance, it appears to be a demanding educational structure for students. However, they quickly attain the necessary skills and confidence which will eventually make their educational journey distinct from students at other universities.

Image: A medieval-style tutorial. Tutorials have ancient historical roots in the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge University. Source: Wikimedia Images

Tutorials have survived throughout the ages because they foster academic excellence

Gergely Buczko, an Economics and Management graduate, finds that having a competent academic devoting their time to students’ academic and personal development contributes to a feeling of being valued and consequently makes students more confident.

According to Gergely, this system fosters academic excellence in three notable ways. Firstly, it motivates and pushes students to undertake substantial research beforehand.

“You make a deal with the tutor, which is that you come prepared, and in return, they devote their time to you individually.”

Then, students can also draw on the tutor’s large bank of knowledge. During an informed and substantive discussion, the tutor complements students’ arguments and supports their thinking. This way, students continually benefit from personalised feedback.

Finally, Gergely adds that a tutor might take their students out for dinner or host them at their home. Having such a close personal relationship with a member of academia can prove very beneficial in establishing a personal network, should a student decide to stay in academia.

Running tutorials costs a fortune

The University of Oxford had long received special government funding in return for the maintenance of its tutorial system. However, this was cut by an amendment in legislation in 2015, which meant the loss of a £4.2 million income from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Against this backdrop, it is a rather remarkable achievement that the University has managed to keep the system in place, as running tutorials remains a substantial financial expense due to its staff intensity. In 2015, the annual cost of holding tutorials for an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford was estimated to be around £4,000. Yet, as the University considers the system to be the cornerstone of its undergraduate education, it is unlikely that it will disappear in the foreseeable future.

Image: A diagram explaining the traditional versus flipped learning methods. The diagram does not consider tutorials. However, the flipped method is a potential alternative that has gained traction during the Covid era. Source: WashingtonU

Are there any alternatives?

The effectiveness of tutorials in developing transferable skills such as independent thinking, confidence, and self-reliance is indisputable. However, the reason why it is limited to Oxbridge and a few other institutions may be that it is expensive to operate due to its staff-intensity. Hence, research has been done to find more cost-effective alternatives to Oxford-style tutorials. Such methods often build on innovation within the communication technology sector. These alternatives include peer instruction, simulations and games, online collaborative learning, flipped classrooms, syndicates, communication systems, tailored learning, and portfolios. Utilising these methods can result in similar productivity levels to those of the conventional tutorial model at Oxford, but at a substantially lower cost. In turn, these methods have the potential to revolutionise the way in which university teaching is performed worldwide.

What is the verdict on tutorials?

Overall, the Oxford tutorial system is highly regarded for its ability to nurture intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and academic excellence. The system is known for its rigorous and demanding nature. It encourages students to think independently, develop strong analytical and communication skills, and take responsibility for their own learning. Moreover, it fosters a close relationship between students and their tutor, allowing for personalised guidance and mentorship. Although costly, it remains a distinctive and considerably productive method in use at the University of Oxford. Nonetheless, academic staff worldwide should look at alternative methods that have the potential to generate results that are similar to those of the traditional Oxford tutorial but potentially at a lower cost.

Further resources

The tutorial system at Oxford University - Dharma Pratap, 1971

The history of the Oxford tutorial - Greene's College, Oxford

The Oxford Tutorial System: Explained by Oxford Students - Helen Mahotra, 2020

Are Oxbridge tutorials still the best way to teach students how to think? - Jo Adetunji, 2015