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.