Exploring the Oxford Academic System: Tutorial Style

Shristi Uprety is an Anthropology and Creative Writing double major at Franklin and Marshall College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford in England in 2016. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.

The Oxford academic system has tutorials instead of classes. Instead of fixed syllabi, midterms, and classrooms with a professor and about 20 students, I have weekly and biweekly individual sessions with a tutor. Oxford undergraduate students usually take two tutorials a term, a primary and a secondary. The former meets once a week for eight weeks, the length of the Oxford term (Oxford follows the trimester system and terms are shorter than semesters), and the latter, every other week. Both are individual sessions. Although tutors can choose to hold tutorials with two or even three students, one-on-one sessions are the norm.

Adjusting to the Oxford System

This academic system was originally intimidating; conversing with and being questioned by an expert in the field was a daunting prospect. Most international visiting students report that this fear dissipates quickly and that they enjoy the tutorial system. My primary tutor held her tutorial in a sunny office room with beautiful red sofas and her pet dog dozing on the floor, and my tutorial hour often felt like I had simply dropped in for a chat. My secondary tutor held his tutorial in a classroom, and while it felt more structured, both tutorials were rather like office hours at my US college instead of a classroom. When I asked some of my peers for their opinions, Ben Fiedler from Amherst College shared that he “thoroughly enjoyed the one-on-one dynamic of my courses at Oxford,” and this is a repeated sentiment among visiting students. Of course, this individual tutorial 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 of my tutorials so far have been English literature tutorials structured similarly: I prepared a 2500-3000 word essay for each session, and my tutor and I spent the hour-long tutorial going over it. This is my only time commitment, and compared to my US home institution’s workload – taking four classes and spending over ten hours in class every week  – I have ample free time. “I was pleasantly surprised by my schedule,” Cognitive Science student Clayton Olash, from the University of Kentucky, says “I usually have a couple busy days a week, but the rest of the time I’m generally free.” Clayton adjusted to this freedom well: he joined the tennis and basketball clubs and spends his free time attending lectures and social events. I’m not as organized as he, and I spent my first month here alternating between idle procrastination and frantic scrambling to finish an essay that I could have, and should have, completed a week prior. In the two months since, I’ve improved at structuring my workload, and last week, I completed an essay a full day before it was due, a personal accomplishment.

Others share similar schedules to mine, but some (usually math and science students) differ. Oxford students can be required to attend several lectures alongside their tutorial sessions. These lectures can range in size from 20 to 200 students, and are technically optional; my science-y friends tell me that these lectures do not have attendance policies, but they cover the necessary information needed to write tutorial essays. Another major perk of attending Oxford, is that the university invites lecturers from all over the world to share their expertise, and even students who are not required to attend lectures often do so. Oxford students have access to nearly any lecture at the university, even ones that fall outside their subject, and students often visit lectures that just sound interesting.

The lecture resources balance Oxford’s strict subject-discipline system: most students here pick a singular subject track on entering Oxford and stick to it. Comparatively, US liberal arts colleges cover more interdisciplinary subjects and incorporate several disciplines into the same classes. “My liberal arts college has a very inclusive approach to learning, and I have taken interdisciplinary classes that encompassed sociology, economics and history,” Fiedler writes. Oxford’s single-discipline academic system can be a challenge to students accustomed to covering overarching themes. To counterbalance this, visiting students can take advantage of visiting lectures outside their immediate subjects. For example, I am majoring in both anthropology and creative writing, but have attended lectures on Roman art, brain wave patterns, and Eastern music, among others.

Academic Freedom

My home institution in the US 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 conduct individual research on any topic, no matter how niche. Since there are no classes, students can structure their tutorials to study any subject, especially ones that their home institutions do not offer. For example, Kira Elliott’s home college Chapman University does not offer archeology classes, and so at Oxford, she has attended an Anglo-Saxon archaeology tutorial, a seminar on Viking history, and a lecture series on Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Other students have tutorials on Greek poetry and Chinese fairytales, and while I went a safer route and studied ‘Victorian Literature’ and ‘Modern British Short Fiction,’ I still had great freedom within these tutorials: I chose the authors I would read, and even swapped selected readings for new ones late into the term. This is a benefit of the individual tutorial system: students who wish to study niche topics are paired with tutors who specialize in those fields, and classes are structured around individual student interests, rather than following a predetermined program created for many students.

International visiting students are exempt from end-of-the-year exams and are graded on our essays, whereas full-time students’ grades are almost always wholly derived from final examinations. There are also further invisible perks of being an international visiting student, and I stumbled onto one by accident: Oxford does not offer undergraduate creative writing courses, and I did not 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 were willing to make 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,” Vincent Femia from Kenyon College says, and I agree.

The Challenges

The Oxford academic system can still be frustrating. Tutors can be rigorous and demanding, the required readings overwhelming, the resources difficult to find. My college, St Catherine’s College, is right next to the English Faculty Library, but other students talk about walking 30 minutes to their required libraries. Ian Becker from Whitman College spent an entire afternoon searching for the 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 loan it out.

Students also report difficulties with different academic systems.  An example of this is the English undergraduate tutorials, where students are expected to read their papers out loud during tutorial hours. I managed to get excused from this for my primary tutorial; instead my tutor and I simply discussed my essay’s summary, before moving on to other discussions. However, my secondary tutor preferred this system, and I began each tutorial session by reading through my essay. Like me, Ben Fiedler was unaccustomed to this tradition, but he says

“I have come to embrace this system. Reading my words aloud, to an Oxford tutor and an expert on the subject at hand, has taught me to own my essay and my ideas in a way that I did not before.”

My first term at Oxford ended last week, and I believe I have done well in both of my tutorials, but I have no way of knowing for sure. At my US home college, each essay, each test, every part of class was graded, I always knew what my grade situation was and could plan accordingly; some classes even had interactive website pages where I could see every minute grade change. The Oxford academic system does not have similar grading transparency: fulltime students grades are usually derived wholly on the basis of their final exams, and 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. Instead I want you to try new styles of writing, and 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 twelve citations, some have none. Some argue the viewpoints of scholars and critics, others are full of my own. I believe that my analytical skills are improving in ways that I do not yet realize and both my tutors tell me that 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 essays yet.

“My grades were better than expected, but then again, I have worked harder”, Aashu Jha from Bates College says. “Two terms in and I feel more accomplished than I ever have. The feedback from my tutors has been pleasing. Oxford has been an incredibly intellectual experience, which basically means I am finally convinced I can do physics!” I identify with her: I believe that my grades won’t be terrible enough to torpedo my GPA, and in fact, they might even be better than I’m hoping for, and even if they aren’t, just studying under Oxford’s academic system has been a great learning opportunity.

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