Really small tutorial supervision

Many years ago when I was a student, I visited a friend in Oxford. As I arrived he had just come from a tutorial, at which he had been alone with the tutor (which was normal in Oxford). I had always envied Oxford students their one-on-one tutorials, but as he explained his experience I changed my mind, and I have never again thought of it as educationally good. He had been asked to prepare an essay in advance. He had read this out to the tutor during the session, as the tutor stood looking out the window. When he had finished (after perhaps 25 minutes), the tutor rummaged around on his shelves and then handed my friend a book, opening it at a particular chapter. He asked my friend to read this, which took a perhaps another ten minutes. Then the tutor asked my friend to suggest ways in which the chapter he had just read was relevant to his essay. Then the tutorial was over.

About three months ago I drew attention in this blog to Oxford’s recent attempts to raise philanthropic donations to resource their one-on-one tutorials, and to the possibility that the university might have to abandon them because of the cost involved. Yesterday the Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge University may also end one-on-one tuition (called ‘supervisions’) in order to save £600,000 each year, as part of a general review of costs.

If I were in Oxford or Cambridge I would also be arguing for the ending of this particular teaching practice, but not for budgetary reasons. I think it is pedagogically wrong. As research has shown, the value of small group teaching lies not just, and maybe not even primarily, in the interaction between student and instructor, but rather in collaborative learning between students. For this to be effective the groups have to be small, but they do need to contain more than one student. The teaching methods used traditionally in Oxbridge have probably helped to create a sense of having been through a special learning process, but I would doubt whether they have really nurtured the students’ analytical and critical skills to the fullest extent. It may be, therefore, that financial pressures will force Oxford and Cambridge to make reforms that will, in the end, improve the quality of the learning available there. And if a byproduct is greater value for money, then so much the better.

For the rest of us, however, it may be worth reflecting again (as I have suggested before in this blog) that small group teaching is a major strength of our higher education system. We should not lightly let it go. In many institutions it has already been lost.

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19 Comments on “Really small tutorial supervision”

  1. Fred Says:

    I have no “inside information” from Oxbridge by my thought is that stopping one-to-one tuition is not a matter of actual education value but a matter of distinctiveness and (classical English) tradition. So, to me the educational value of one-to one tutorials is a (maybe important) by-product today.

    But keeping small groups is of paramount importance for UK universities.

  2. Martin Says:

    You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve heard from a number of Oxford & Cambridge students who say that one-to-one tutorials are already disappearing. Some staff have also sent me tweets suggesting that two or more students in a tutorial is fast becoming an accepted norm.

    A two-or-more student tutorial makes sense. It’s still a small group, with room to discuss and collaborate, as you mention. It is important, however, to maintain the availability for one-to-one meetings to take place when necessary. Abolishing single contact altogether would be just as pedagogically wrong.

    Luckily, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that. Yet. *shudders*

  3. anna notaro Says:

    there might be some discipline-specific considerations relevant to this topic, as far as I am concerned I treasure the one to one tutorial (mostly UG or PhD supervision), it also has some merit when providing students with feedback (although not very efficent timewise). On the issue of feedback I just spent the whole morning at a staff development event devoted to it but I left in horror before the end when the lecturer argued that in assessing students’ work one ‘should not pay any attention to trivial matters like grammar and syntax’ (sorry this is unrelated, just voicing frustration!)

    • I agree with you about grammar and syntax. Communication, as I keep saying, is really important, and someone who cannot put together a coherent sentence is in real trouble. It’s not a minor matter.

  4. Rachel Says:

    The fact that your friend had an uninspiring experience at a “one-on-one” tutorial in Oxford does not establish that this format is pedagogically wrong, any more than the bad biology lecture that my friend attended last week can be cited as evidence that lectures are the wrong format for learning biology. The piece of research from the Higher Education Academy that you mention does not (as far as I can see) discuss one-on-one tutorials at all, it reports on some students’ positive experiences of a collaborative learning environment. How does a discussion of the benefits of one tutorial style constitute evidence that another is wrong?

    • Rachel, I wasn’t using my friend’s experience as anything other than a lead-in to an issue I have wondered about; though to be fair it’s not that unusual an assessment of these sessions. My complaint rather is that it is, in my view, pedagogically suspect.

      The assessment I referred to *is* relevant to one-on-one tutorials, since these do not allow student to gather collaborative working skills.

      Finally, single student tutorials are also inherently elitist, for the simple reason that in any normally funded higher education system they are totally unaffordable, and if they exist at all will be offered predominantly to the wealthy elite (as they are now).

      • Rachel Says:

        The question of whether single student tutorials are elitist is a separate matter from whether they are pedagogically valuable. I didn’t, and don’t, question the value of collaborative small group tutorials for developing collaborative working skills; however the development of such skills is surely not the only purpose of higher education, and single student tutorials may well be valuable in other respects not considered in that article. I am not a particular advocate for the Oxbridge-style tutorial system and I’m not very familiar with it – however from personal experience I identify strongly with what Dan has to say. The opportunity to consult people more expert than myself, on a one-to-one basis, always has been and still is of great value to me when I am trying to learn hard stuff. In my opinion (which I suspect you may not share, Ferdinand!) this expert advice is still the most important thing that universities can offer to learners, and the more individually focussed it is the more valuable it is. It doesn’t mean that I think all tutorials should be conducted on a one-to-one basis.

        • Dan Says:

          …and I agree with Rachel! When I posted my thoughts and looked up, I saw her post there and thought; “hmmm…that’s interesting, we both saw similar things in Ferdinand’s post!”

          Incidentally, Ferdinand, I thought that ‘research’ ‘article’ you cited was a bit silly, pleased with itself and hardly warrants support to your dislike…or your anecdotal friend’s of years ago dislike of single student tutorials (and I accept we agree on the role of very small group tutorials).

          Anecdotally speaking (!), I’ve been using precisely those small group (ie groups of 4-5 students each) collaborative learning activities in both large theatre lecture situations (250 students) and with smaller student groups (c30) for several years. It would never have occurred to me to claim (or to publish it) that one technique should replace another. Each fulfils a pedagogical role.

  5. Dan Says:

    Ferdinand, your friend’s report of many years ago is an example of one person’s bad experience rather than a valid criticism of an entire pedagogical tradition (can I gently say, incidentally, that you often use odd bits of anecdotal evidence to back up an argument; whether it be your thoughts on the poor use of teaching technologies such as PowerPoint in a conference you once attended or a general lack of student evaluations in universities….)
    Tony Judt wrote a wonderful article (Meritocrats; recently republished in The Memory Chalet) for the New York Review of Books giving his perspective on the old tutorial system at Kings College, Cambridge. In his experience, these were dons of little public renown, who published little, but who were devoted, careful and skilled teachers. They enabled him through gentle and respectful questioning in tutorials, to challenge and rethink his own youthful ideologies and shibboleths by teaching him to think critically and for himself.

    So, here’s my anecdote…;-) In UCD in the early 1980s, while studying history, I first encountered this type of university learning through small-group (3 students) tutorials with a man, who I suspect did not publish hugely himself. I remember my first essay submitted was about the Great Famine and slowly and carefully, he let me dimly see for myself that I was simply parroting what I read in books, rather than thinking about what I wrote. Of the massively attended lectures in Theatre L, I remember little other than there was impressive drama and performance; but those tutorials have remained with me since. I would be very slow, if I were a rich Oxbridge college, to throw that teaching tradition away so easily…

  6. I have never doubted the effectiveness of small group tutorials!

    And no, I only use anecdotes to lead into an argument, or to explain why I am interested in an issue; never as evidence of my point being correct!

  7. anna notaro Says:

    on the use of anecdotes, I know that as academics we instinctively smell a rat when we come across one, as they are not ‘proper evidence’, still if used as a leadt-in to a topic I’m fine with them because let’s not forget this is a blog (web log, i.e. a diary) and not a piece of ‘academic writing’, albeit written by one

  8. Dan Says:

    Ferdinand’s blog provides an excellent forum for debate about matters 3rd level and academic – it’s the best one out there, is generally balanced and inclusive and he keeps it sparkling and interesting by constantly introducing topics of wide and varying interest. In my opinion, it’s fine of course to use anecdotes to kick off a topic, but to be honest, there are times when this blog asserts fairly strong positions – and sometimes ones that undoubtedly influence public opinion and perhaps even creates eddies in the tides and currents of government education policy. I should have commented before, but I have found that there have been blog entries about, for example, inappropriate use of teaching technologies, lack of student evaluations and the role of single person tutorials (in this case) that are presented as statements about ‘what should be done’ and sometimes they are based on flimsy enough evidence (IMO).

    Unlike the rest of us, Ferdinand does have the opportunity to communicate to the public through his Irish Times education column and he uses that wisely and well nearly all of the time. But, for example, there was one blog entry that soon after became an Irish Times article, about inadequate teaching approaches using powerpoint that made me feel ‘critically-minded’; because I didn’t recognise my teaching in it, or indeed my colleagues’ or indeed virtually any academic teaching lecture that I’ve attended. Nonetheless, the image was then presented to the Irish public that Irish 3rd-level lecturers give boring, uninspiring lectures and make no use of active-learning tasks, problem-based learning or innovative collaborative teaching technologies. In my opinion, that blog and Irish Times article was anecdotally derived and not reflective of actual teaching practice in 3rd-Level.

    There was a piece by Ed Walsh in the Irish Times the other that would have the public believe that many Irish academics are slackers who are protected by ‘vested interests’. After a while, or even already, the Irish public will come to believe that there is NO aspect of 3rd-level education that isn’t in need of urgent reform – which I think is untrue.

    That’s why I objected to this blog with the anecdote and the back-up evidence consisting of a very flimsy research piece about collaborative teaching. I mean seriously, did you read the questions in their student survey and this was considered publishable? The questions were all variations on “How brilliant is our course?” This is the quality of the evidence cited – really?

    …and finally(!), this blog is not “written by one” (as interesting as Ferdinand’s writings are): what makes it fascinating is your and everybody responses to it, that make in a discourse rather than a monologue.


    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Dan, obviously I’m aware of the collective/public dimension of this blog (and others), agreed, ‘written by one’ was not the best way to express what I intended (I was referring to Ferdinand as an academic himself. Having said that, I agree with you that the ‘impact’ of what is argued in such posts can be significant due to Ferdinand’s established exposure in the media (particularly in Ireland)and his professionally influential role. I trust that he is quite aware of this (public)dimension to his activity as a blogger/twitter/columnist. Also, I would not necessarily conflate the activity of writing a column for a newspaper with that of writing a blog entry, one might lead to the other however the degree of interactivity and the type of public that the two media attact are not necessarily the same. The use of the anecdote might be inappropriate for substatiating an argument, however it is appropriate as far as the ‘personal’ dimension of a blog entry is concerned and this regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the argument put forward. As you rightly say we are as much actors in this blogging arena as Ferdinand with our comments (this is the egalitarian aspect of social-networking etc.) and I believe we do a pretty good job in responding/critiquing etc.

    • Dan (and Anna) – I have become particularly aware of the fact that this blog has become something of a discussion forum, which I really welcome. The diversity of views expressed here is more important than anything I start up saying. It’s something for me to reflect on further, as ideally I’d like to find a way of broadening the ‘ownership’ and extending its reach as a result. Something I may write a post about shortly…

      • Dan Says:

        Keep it up Ferdinand, great blog – and we appreciate the chance to argue it out. I’m also convinced that as well self-critical questioning, we also need leaders who will fiercely and articulately defend and promote the quality, worth and commitment of people working in 3rd level education…what’s your next Irish Times article about? 😉

        • anna notaro Says:

          what we need is academic leaders, (currently in the vast majority men,just to insert a gender dimension)who are able to construct and put forward a coherent *narrative* of what is the role of university in the 21st century, keeping in mind that issues like accountability and PR (often discussed in this forum) are supporting actors in this ‘story’ and not the main protagonist(s). I used the term narrative purposefully because it is one of the principal ways we organize our experience of the world – a part of our cognitive tool kit for too long neglected by psychologists and philosophers.

  9. litljortindan Says:

    Do you also think that one to one extra academic support outside of service teaching and timetabled tutorials is not academically good? That is, services provided by centralised support departments to help with study skills, writing skills, numeracy and the like.

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