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Oxford University is known for the unique Oxford tutorial system (vs Cambridge supervisions). In this teaching style, students get an opportunity to study in very small groups (often only two or three people) with a leading academic. But what are tutorials really like, and most importantly, how can you make the most out of a tutorial?

Studying Maths and Philosophy, I am lucky, as I know how both an essay-based tutorial and a problem-sheet-based tutorial work. Also, my course is very high in contact hours, so I am used to having 4-5 tutorials weekly.

What's an Oxford tutorial really like?

Coming to Oxford, I was quite scared as to what a tutorial would be like. They sound quite scary don't they? You, with one other person, potentially even alone, being asked questions about a subject by a leading academic.

Well, I don't have the magic potion to alleviate this fear; they're scary things. Even now, two years down the line, I still get a little nervous before my tutorials.

scary Oxford tutorials Cambridge supervisions
Your tutor may be scary, but remember: they are actually there to help you!

An Oxford tutorial or Cambridge supervision is very dependent upon the tutor and the subject you are being tutored in. Some tutors put the emphasis very much on you and expect you to lead with ideas and arguments. Others take the lead, and in that case most of the tutorial is you copying down notes on what they say.

Generally, they take the form of a discussion between a small group of people, led by an academic, about some topic you have recently been studying. They are usually held in the tutor's office, or a small room in college.

And although, yes, they are scary and nerve-wracking, and you'll be embarrassed for the rest of the afternoon when you make a simple numerical error such as 2×3=5 (been there), tutorials are the best way to learn.

You are given so much individual attention in an Oxford tutorial or Cambridge supervision and it is important to make the most of this opportunity. This is sometimes hard, so below is some advice as to how I think you can take full advantage of a tutorial.

How can I make the most out of Oxford Maths tutorials (or Cambridge Maths supervisions)?

The most important thing I have found that enables me to make the most of Maths tutorials, is to ask questions.

In an Oxford Maths tutorial or Cambridge Maths supervision you will generally go through the problem sheet you have handed in 24 hours before the tutorial, which your tutor will have marked.

In all of my Oxford Maths tutorials we go through each question, taking it in turns to write the solutions out on the board. Our tutor will guide us through and help us clarify our thoughts.

whiteboard Oxford Maths tutorial Cambridge Maths supervisions
The format of a tutorial, we take it in turns to write up solutions and explore different solutions on the board at the front. This is from a second year linear algebra tutorial.

In some of my Maths tutorials we also spend some time at the end consolidating lecture material that did not appear in the problem sheets. This is when it is so important to ask questions. It is your opportunity to understand all the complex concepts from lectures, so do not waste it!

lecture Oxford Maths tutorial Cambridge Maths supervisions
An Oxford Maths lecture, where we go through lots of concepts at quite a fast pace. A tutorial is your time to understand them!

In my first term at Oxford, I found it very difficult to ask questions in tutorials. There is a pressure to seem intelligent and like you entirely understand everything, but you are not expected to! No one understands all of the concepts immediately, even if it may feel like they do. I have got a lot better at asking questions when I'm confused. Even though I am often one of the most vocal in my tutorials, I am definitely making the most of them!

In terms of recording what you do in tutorials or supervisions, you can make the most of the concepts explored by:

  • Annotating the questions you have done on the problem sheet, with improvements and alternative methods.
  • If you have got a question totally wrong (which is fine and very normal), then I generally would re-write the solution correctly on a separate piece of paper and look over it later. I sometimes try to re-work it out for myself later too, comparing it to the correct solution from the tutorial when I'm done.
  • When it comes to generally exploring concepts, I try and just listen and assimilate as I already have most of the notes from my lectures. I only take notes if it is something I have missed, or something new.
lecture notes Oxford tutorials Cambridge supervision
My lecture notes from a second year complex analysis lecture. All my Maths lecture notes generally take this form, whilst my tutorial notes are more scruffy.

How can I make the most out of Oxford Philosophy tutorials (or Cambridge Philosophy supervisions)?

An Oxford Philosophy tutorial is very different to an Oxford Maths tutorial. As opposed to the hardback chairs and the imposing whiteboard at the front, they are generally held in a cosy office with squashy sofas. They are a more informal environment.

Mostly, Oxford Philosophy tutorials and Cambridge Philosophy supervisions happen in pairs. One of you reads your weekly essay aloud in the tutorial, and the other sends their essay to the tutor for marking beforehand. Both of you will have written your essay on the same topic, but generally you write the questions yourself, so they will differ.

The tutorial usually takes the form of a discussion, off the back of the essay that has been read. The tutor picks out key points of the essays, and you discuss them.

Although philosophical discussion can seem daunting, it is important to get involved instead of sitting in silence. It is in these discussions that you'll develop your philosophical ability.

Like Maths tutorials, you will get the most out of Oxford Philosophy tutorials by asking questions. Be inquisitive, explore the concepts further, develop your ideas, and feel free (unlike in Maths tutorials) to contradict your tutor, and have your own argument.

Also, it is important to be open in an Oxford Philosophy tutorial, and allow your ideas and arguments to change.

thinking Oxford Philosophy tutorial Cambridge Philosophy supervision
Oxford Philosophy tutorials are all about ideas, thinking, and considering other people's theses as well as your own.

In one of my first tutorials, I had written an essay on the theory of knowledge. The question I had chosen was "How can we know what it is to know?" In the end I had concluded that we can know 'a priori' truths (such as arithmetic truths), but nothing gained through our senses ('a posteriori').

However, as my tutorial developed, and we explored the concepts of knowledge more, I began to think my argument may need changing. But I was set on sticking to it, as I was worried otherwise the tutor would think I was being inconsistent. It would, actually, have been far more beneficial for me to explore a different argument.

Philosophy is all about accepting issues with arguments, even if they are your own. In an Oxford tutorial, it is important to let your ideas change, and not stick blindly to your essay conclusion.

Blackburn think Oxford tutorials Cambridge supervisions
This book contains lots of good examples of considering two sides of a philosophical debate. It is very useful to read before you go start an Oxford Philosophy degree, to give you an idea of how to engage in Oxford Philosophy tutorials.

In terms of what to record from your Philosophy tutorial or supervision, I would recommend taking hand-written notes as opposed to typed notes, as

  1. Your computer is always a distraction (universal truth).
  2. You will be more focused on the actual discussion than writing everything down.
  3. You will think more before you write down if you hand-write notes.

I also sometimes find it useful to take some brief shorthand notes during the tutorial. Then afterwards I write them up in a couple of essay-style paragraphs afterwards, to help me practise phrasing these thoughts.

How can I make the most out of a Oxford tutorials (or Cambridge supervisions) (general points)?

Although all Oxford tutorials are different, here are some general points to help you make the most out of yours:

  • Stay focused. There is no point being in the tutorial if your mind is elsewhere. Sometimes, if I find myself getting distracted in a tutorial, I ask to quickly go to the loo, so I can have one minute to clear my mind and then re-enter. (Obviously you can't do this that much, and I only do it in the longer 2-3 hour Maths tutorials, but occasionally, I find it really useful.)
  • Turn off your phone and laptop. Although not texting in a tutorial may seem obvious, in longer ones it can be tempting. However this is not only rude, but also a huge waste of your time, and will just make you more distracted.
  • Get to know your tutorial partners. It is really important to establish a good relationship with your tutorial partners. This means you can help each other out when tutorials get intimidating and you get stuck. I often meet up with some of my Philosophy tutorial partners for coffee before our tutorials. We discuss our thoughts and reading before writing the essays. This is really helpful.
  • Don't be too scared of your tutor. Although they are incredible academics, they are there to help you, so make the most of this. It is good if you can establish a feeling of mutual respect with your tutor. This will help you engage in interesting discussions and debates. Don't see them as the enemy, and try and establish a good rapport with them.
Oxford tutorial or Cambridge supervision
Just pay attention to your tutor as much as you can; their insight is invaluable!

Conclusion:

Tutorials and supervisions are key parts of an Oxbridge education, so it is important to make the most of them. In my opinion, the best way to do this, is to ask questions. Also,

  • Be engaged in debates; don't just sit there in silence.
  • Challenge other ideas, as well as your own.
  • Take notes, and be prepared to be wrong.
  • Don't be too scared of your tutor: they're human too!

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