What I Learned From Oxford Tutorials

I was at Oxford for only four-weeks but the experience honed analytical and speaking skills that I employ decades later. It was a summer course in the late 1960s comprised of 80 students from universities in America and Europe. It was organized by the university’s Institute of Education and the program continues to this day.

We were housed at St. Anne’s College. Our course was on contemporary Britain, its politics, arts, and economy and how the UK fit into to a changing Europe. There were two daily lectures, voluminous readings, and an hour-long Friday tutorial of eight or so students led by a skilled facilitator.

Oxford’s recruitment materials emphasize the university’s unique tutorials.

We follow the Oxford University’s unique and famous tutorial method of teaching where students are given one-to-one tuition and supervision during tutorials comprising small group of students generally not exceeding four. The tutorials supplement the lectures and allow students to discuss and debate the points raised during the lecture. Such interactions are extremely useful in clearing the students’ concepts and allowing them to discuss various topics with leading experts in their fields.

For me the tutorials were peak experiences. Everyone had to participate as there was no place to hide. If you hadn’t done the reading or were too shy to speak, you endured public embarrassment. Since no one was allowed to monopolize the discussion when your turn arrived you seized the chance to present your perspective as succinctly as possible. You quickly became aware that verbal hesitations—‘ums’ and the like—were serious distractions. Confronted with well argued opposing views you either defended yourself or retreated into silence.

Importantly the tutorials were conversations among equals but deviations from the topic at hand were not permitted. The essential component was the tutor asking individual participants what he or she thought of a particular idea. The discussions became like verbal essays where logic, reason, and clear expression were paramount.

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In a career as a radio journalist I learned long ago that the clock is a cruel task master. In our internet age the requirement of getting to the point quickly has become even more important. Either the reader, listener or viewer is hooked on the first sentence or he may be gone.

Economist C. Fred Bergsten, who is quoted in the media more than most economists, shared with me how he mastered the art of speaking clearly.

“Many years ago,” said Bergsten, “NBC economics reporter Irving R. Levine interviewed me on camera, after which Irv said, ‘Fred, you’ve given me far too much as I have to get your sound bite down to nine seconds.’ I learned from that experience to get to the point quickly.”

Rare among academics Bergsten possesses the gift for answering questions directly and speaking in crisp soundbites that are easy to edit.

From the Oxford tutorials I learned the basic elements of speaking—eye contact, being heard, articulation. Having one’s peers agree with something I said promoted self-confidence.

This Socratic method of learning—called tutorials at Oxford and conversations at Cambridge—has survived the test of time. Obviously they differ with the situation and current students will say that that their tutorials are typically no more than three people.

So why has this tested learning method not become common in the States? To be fair some colleges—like Williams– do incorporate the Oxford method, but generally it is uncommon. One reason may be that they’re time consuming, labor intensive and thus expensive.

Those answers aren’t good enough.