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The Highs and Lows of Oxford University’s Tutorial System

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  5. The Highs and Lows of Oxford University’s Tutorial System

Let’s start with some background information about the Oxford academic system, which follows a trimester calendar with eight-week terms.  

  • Students attend tutorials, not classes.   
  • Instead of fixed syllabi and a professor and classmates for each class, Oxford students have weekly and biweekly individual sessions with one tutor. 
  • Tutors can hold tutorials with two or three students, but one-on-one is the norm. 
  • Students usually take two tutorials—a primary and a secondary—per term. Primaries meet once a week; secondaries meet every other week.  

Adjusting to Oxford tutorials 

At first, this system was intimidating. Conversing with and being questioned by an expert in the field was a daunting prospect. Most international visiting students say this fear dissipates quickly. My primary tutor held her tutorial in a sunny office room with beautiful red sofas and her pet dog dozing on the floor, and it often felt like I had dropped in for a chat. My secondary tutor held his tutorial in a classroom, and while it felt more structured, it felt rather like office hours at my U.S. college.  

Most U.S. peers like the arrangement. “I thoroughly enjoyed the one-on-one dynamic of my courses at Oxford,” said Ben Fiedler from Amherst College.  

Of course, this system comes at a cost. It is impossible to skip readings or hide in a crowd, and I have experienced awkward moments in my tutorials when asked a question and had to confess, “I don’t know.” 

The overarching rule of Oxford is that there are no overarching rules. Each department, each library, each tutor, has their own system. Both my tutorials so far have been English literature tutorials structured similarly: I prepare a 2,500-3,000 word essay for each session, and my tutor and I discuss it for an hour.  This is my only time commitment. Compared to my U.S. college workload—four classes and about 10 hours in class every week—I have ample free time.  

“I was pleasantly surprised by my schedule,” said Clayton Olash, a cognitive science student from University of Kentucky. “I usually have a couple busy days a week, but the rest of the time I’m generally free.” Clayton adjusted well. He joined the tennis and basketball clubs and attends lectures and social events.  

I’m not as organized, and spent my first month alternating between idle procrastination and frantic scrambling to finish an essay that I should have completed a week prior. In the two months since, I’ve improved at structuring my workload. 

Oxford students can be required to attend several lectures alongside their tutorial sessions. These range in size from 20 to 200 students. They’re technically optional but cover the information needed to write tutorial essays. The university invites lecturers from all over the world to share their expertise in these lectures—another Oxford perk. Students have access to nearly any lecture and students often attend simply because a lecture appeals to their interests. 

Lectures balance Oxford’s strict subject-discipline system, where most students pick one subject track and stick to it. Comparatively, U.S. liberal arts colleges cover more interdisciplinary subjects and often incorporate several disciplines into one class. That can make Oxford’s system a challenge. It helps to take advantage of visiting lectures outside your subjects. I’m majoring in anthropology and creative writing, and have attended lectures on Roman art, brain wave patterns, and Eastern music, among others. 

A new level of academic freedom 

My U.S. school offers fantastic class selections, enabling me to register for the classes I want, such as Witchcraft and Sorcery, Understanding Terrorism, even Art through Collage. Yet Oxford brings an even greater academic freedom: The opportunity to study and research any topic, no matter how niche.  

Since there are no classes, you can structure tutorials to study any subject, especially those that your home university may not offer. Fellow student Kira Elliott can’t take archeology at Chapman University, but at Oxford, she has attended an Anglo-Saxon archaeology tutorial, a seminar on Viking history, and a lecture series on Anglo-Saxon archaeology.  

Other literature students have tutorials on Greek poetry and Chinese fairytales, while I went a safer route and studied Victorian Literature and Modern British Short Fiction. There is still great freedom within these tutorials: I chose authors I would read, and even swapped selected readings late in the term. This is another benefit. Students who want to study niche topics are paired with tutors who specialize in those fields, and classes are structured around individual interests, rather than following a program created for many students. 

International visiting students are exempt from end-of-year exams and graded on essays, while full-time students’ grades are almost always wholly derived from final exams. I discovered another perk of being a visiting student by accident. Oxford doesn’t offer undergraduate creative writing courses, and I didn’t think to ask to register for one until I met another visiting student who had done so. When I did ask, both my tutor and my academic officer made an exception for me to enroll in Writing Short Fiction next term. My new rule for navigating Oxford’s academic system is to ask and hope. “We have the best of both worlds,” says Vincent Femia from Kenyon College—and I agree. 

Finding books, invisible grades, and other challenges 

The Oxford academic system can also be frustrating. Tutors can be demanding, required readings overwhelming, resources difficult to find. Students talk about walking 30 minutes to their required libraries. Ian Becker from Whitman College spent an entire afternoon searching for an obscure textbook he needed, going from one library where the book had been checked out, to another where he could not access it, to a third where he could read it but not take it out. 

Students report other difficulties. In English undergraduate tutorials, students are expected to read their papers out loud during tutorial hours. “I have come to embrace this system, says fellow American student, Ben. “Reading my words aloud to an Oxford tutor and an expert on the subject, taught me to own my essay and my ideas in a way I did not before.”  

My first term at Oxford ended last week. I believe I have done well, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Back home, each essay, each test, was graded, I always knew what my grade situation was. Oxford does not have this transparency. Grades are usually derived wholly on the basis of final exams. Even international visiting students are returned essays without clearly graded marks. 

“I don’t want you to write safe essays,” my secondary tutor explained. “I could grade your essay and you could write in ways that have worked for you so far, and leave Oxford with the same GPA you came with. I want you to try new styles of writing. Maybe your grade will stumble, but you will learn.”  

He was right. I have no idea how I’ve performed academically, but I have explored new techniques. Some of my essays have 12 citations, some have none. Some argue the viewpoints of scholars and critics, others are full of my own. My analytical skills are improving in ways I do not yet realize, and both tutors tell me my work has improved. My last essay was written in a hurry, and I submitted it with an apology, but my tutor told me that it was one of my strongest , yet. 

“My grades were better than expected, then again, I worked harder,” noted Aashu Jha from Bates College. “Two terms in, I feel more accomplished than ever. Oxford has been an incredibly intellectual experience, which basically means I am finally convinced I can do physics!”  

I identify with this. My grades won’t be terrible enough to torpedo my GPA, and they might even be better than I’m hoping for. Even if they aren’t, studying under Oxford’s academic system has been a great learning opportunity.