One of the most significant aspects of academic life at Oxford is the tutorial system. This is arguably where most of the real learning takes place. Lectures are all well and good, but in a large, dimly lit room with hundreds of other people, it is relatively easy to zone out, and surprisingly easy to take a power nap without detection. This can be useful when you have been out the night before and are feeling sleep-deprived, but it is not necessarily going to help you in your exams. In tutorials however, when you are sat in a small, ancient office facing a world-leading expert in your subject asking you to justify why you wrote what you wrote in your last essay, you can’t really help but concentrate.
Tutorials happen once or several times a week, depending on your subject, and involve sitting down with an academic who specialises in a particular topic that you are studying, and exploring through discussion the important issues relating to that topic. The academic intensity of these sessions varies, largely depending on whether you are there for one or two hours, and whether you are in a small group of two or three students, or are facing your tutor alone. Your tutor will challenge you to justify your opinions and provide evidence for how you know what you know, or at least what you thought you knew before the tutorial started.
The tutors usually have a great deal of knowledge to impart, and this process can be very insightful, and dare I say it, sometimes even fun, but only if you have prepared for the tutorial adequately beforehand. Otherwise, you better hope you can keep your tutor talking or face an hour of uncomfortable silence while your tutor looks at you expectantly.
Leading up to tutorials, you may be expected to prepare yourself in a number of ways. Often this involves writing an essay, but it is not unheard of to have some gloriously essay-free weeks where your tutor asks you instead to prepare a presentation or make detailed notes or diagrams on a certain topic. But regardless of whether or not you can avoid writing an essay, you can’t get around the preparatory reading. I spend on average 10 hours preparing for each of my tutorials, and most of this is taken up reading seemingly endless chapters in textbooks and trawling through scientific journals looking for relevant articles. It’s very tempting to try and get by with reading as little as possible, but this is something you will almost certainly regret when you are asked in the tutorial to give your opinion on an important article that you opted only to skim through for a couple of minutes the night before.
Whilst they can sometimes demand a lot of mental effort, tutorials are a fantastic learning tool and a great opportunity to talk to people who are knowledgeable about what you are interested in – that is, provided you take the time to make sure you do your ‘homework’ first.