Give the Tutorial System a Chance

The Lecture and Its Drawbacks:
The lecture is a systemic feature of the American university system. Let me be clear: I have a fairly broad definition of the lecture. It could consist of anywhere from 15 to over 1,000 students. The primary feature of the lecture is that the professor controls all of the talking, and each individual student only participates when called upon or when he needs to clarify points made in the lecture. Sure, there are seminars and independent studies available, but the basis of the American university system is the lecture.

The lecture has two obvious advantages. First, it’s efficient: A single professor can teach many students at once. Second, it reinforces what you learn: Some students are not as good at learning information from textbooks, so having them learn a solid chunk of the material from a live lecturer may be beneficial.

To be frank, though, these advantages pale in comparison to the many drawbacks of the lecture. The lecture system does not cater to the individual student, but, rather, caters to the lowest common denominator or—at best—the median student. This is a necessity: Teaching to the upper-echelon students would leave the majority of students behind, clearly an unacceptable outcome. Moreover, the lecture makes individual students anonymous. I do recall a Statistics lecture where the professor took the time to learn everyone’s name, but I recall this because it was so exceptional. For the sake of efficiency, it is rare to see a lecture that offers individualized treatment and assignments to different students. As a result, students with different backgrounds, interests, and goals are seen as identical students through the eyes of the lecture.

Elements of my past critique of the solo lecture as a form of presentation hold here as well: Most professors are not good public speakers, and most professors are not held accountable in lecture. Students who speak up too much in lecture (and god forbid, challenge the professor) are frowned upon. The combination of these two factors leads far too often to a subpar learning experience.

Is there no hope? Are we stuck with the lecture system? If this is what I believe, my title certainly is misleading and I’m not one to mislead.

Introducing the Tutorial System:

So, I think America should give the tutorial system a chance. It is employed at Oxford and Cambridge (I was lucky enough to benefit from it as a Visiting Student at Oxford) and a handful of other universities throughout England and Europe more generally. In the tutorial system, one to three students meet with a single tutor (professor) once a week for about an hour to discuss their readings and some form of writing assignment to accompany the readings, usually an essay. The norm is two tutorials per week: so that’s only two hours of tutorial total each week.  As a result, the vast majority of the students’ education occurs outside of the tutorial when performing the week’s readings and writing assignments in the library. Additionally, there are no grades (!) on the writing assignments. Sometimes there is written criticism and sometimes the student must read the essay aloud and prepared to be interrupted at any time by the tutor. (I once had the unfortunate experience of having to read an essay aloud when I had an itchy throat; I agonizingly completed my essay readings after three ventures to the water fountain down the stairs).

In Praise of the Tutorial:
The tutorial system encourages engagement and intellectual rigor. When I would describe the tutorial system to friends and acquaintances back home, there were generally two reactions: 1. Intrigue and fascination about the individualized nature of the tutorial; 2. An immediate distaste for the concept, usually followed by some comment along the lines of “I could never deal with that.” Suffice it to say, I preferred the first reaction. The tutorial is catered to students who want to learn, who have an interest in ideas. Each week, the student receives a reading list and, while there are some necessary readings, the student can generally choose some readings that interest her to supplement the necessary readings. If you’re more interested in Aristotle’s views on justice than friendship, than you can indulge that interest by reading more on justice. Regardless of what you read, you have no choice but to engage with the tutor. There is an hour of time with just you and the tutor and if you haven’t done the reading, you’re in for some embarrassment. Rarely—if ever—have I taken notes before a lecture, but I would take copious notes before a tutorial, not to mention the intense mental preparation if the tutor were particularly tough.

Unlike the lecture system, the tutorial system caters to the individual student. It was not uncommon in the first tutorial of each term to have a discussion with the tutor about which topics I was particularly interested in studying. During tutorial, it is common for the student to redirect the conversation towards a topic that particularly interested him. Of course, if the tutor thinks the topic is superfluous, he could offer a reason for not covering that topic in depth. Regardless, at least there is a conversation that focuses on the individual student. The end-of-year exams are even catered to the individual by allowing him—generally—to pick approximately three essays out of twelve. This gives students extra incentive to study what they wish. Psychology has taught us that people learn better when they are interested in what they are learning. While there are still sure to be some tutorial topics that don’t interest the student, there is way more flexibility in the tutorial system than in the lecture system.

When the only system you know is the lecture system, it’s hard to conceptualize any educational system not based solely on grades. Admittedly, students do take exams in their tutorial subjects either at the end of their first and third years, but this can occur more than a year after the tutorial is taken. It’s simply not feasible to successfully “cram” for eight or more exams in a series of a couple of weeks. The result is that the tutorial system provides a strong incentive to actually learn the material in the long term. At the very least, the middling student will want to understand the material in the short term to avoid being embarrassed in front of their tutor. Especially when you are reading the essay out loud, you need to ensure that each individual line contributes to the argument your making. However, more often than not, students recognize the utility (and the fun) of actually engaging with the material and the tutor on a weekly basis. Learning becomes less of a chore and more of a rewarding challenge. And, because the exams are centrally written (i.e. not written by the tutors), the system cannot be gamed nearly as easily as the lecture system, where students can get away with studying purely for the exam, catering to the professor’s idiosyncrasies. In the tutorial system, the exam is a long-term concern but serious engagement with the tutor is an important short-term challenge.

One more benefit of the tutorial system is that there is inherently less wasted time and overlap. In the lecture system, it is all too common that the lecture has substantial overlap with the textbook and the readings. This is because the lecturer often doesn’t know if the students actually do and comprehend the readings. In the tutorial system, the readings have to be done to avoid humiliation, making repetition unlikely. Rather than spending 10-15 hours in lecture each week, you generally only spend two hours in tutorial with optional supplemental lectures. The result, then, is that the student has much more flexibility and a schedule that provides incentive to read, learn, and comprehend.

Responding to Criticisms of the Tutorial:
I acknowledge that there are trade-offs. I’ve heard from students who have taken math-intensive tutorials such as Econometrics that the tutorial system is not sufficient: A lecture is necessary to understand some of the more challenging mathematical concepts. This is probably a fair critique, although I could envision a tutorial being structured in a way so that half of each tutorial is spent explaining the new concepts and the other half spent reviewing the problem sets. Moreover, most tutorials are supplemented by optional lectures, which can be helpful if utilized correctly.

A second criticism I’ve heard is that the tutorial system only works for the top tier of students, students who are already motivated to learn. First, I really don’t think this is the case: As I explained earlier, there is an incentive to avoid being personally embarrassed in front of your tutor. This incentive holds for all students. Second, the fact is that the lecture system rarely facilitates legitimate learning for those who don’t have an inherent drive to learn. Rather, it tends to facilitate finding past exams or pandering to a professor in an essay (I have used the phrase “In other words” far too often for this reason) in order to get a solid grade. So, even if it is more difficult for certain types of students to read and write independently, they are not benefiting any more from the alternative system. But, third, the university should be catering to the top students, to the students who want to learn. What is a university if not a place to foster intellectual excellence? Any system that cannot sufficiently challenge and adjust to the needs of top students is in need of reform.

I believe that the American university system is stuck in an unfortunate equilibrium. I acknowledge that some students are still able to meaningfully thrive in such a system (some students can thrive in almost any system), but too many students are driven towards mediocrity. Your desire to participate in class should increase once you enter the world of higher learning not decrease. Yet, in the lecture system students are driven to conform, to listen, and to remain quiet for most of class.  So, let’s take a lesson from the English and start adopting the tutorial system for the sake of education.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Laura Fong on August 11, 2009 at 11:03 AM

    i very much agree.


  2. Posted by Laura Fong on August 11, 2009 at 11:14 AM

    but, i think the problem, really, might be the cost of hiring so many tutors. (this is sort of linked to the efficiency criticism, perhaps).

    And even though you mentioned this in your piece, I’d like to reemphasize that our perspectives (as PPEists) is very different from those in the math and sciences. Whereas politics/philosophy can be informed by constructive & active debate, I’m not sure if discussing problem sets is extraordinarily useful to the overall learning experience.

    But another thing I think we should take away is that in a lot of our subjects, we already had the sufficient background knowledge (taken from foundation classes for two years taught through lectures–lectures which sometimes made us memorize facts, learn the professor’ interpretation of events, etc.) to enable us to go forth and explore politics/philosophy with greater vigor, sometimes by challenging our preexisting notions about certain concepts.

    I met a lot of freshers who floundered in their first-year classes because they didn’t have the requisite background knowledge to enable them to pursue the more complex nuances of political systems/pol theory, and I’m not sure if I hadn’t had some amount of American-styled university education (as boring and stifling as it often was), that I’d have been able to step up to the challenge of tutorial-styled education.


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