The Oxbridge Tutorial System Explained

The Oxbridge Tutorial System Explained

7 min Read|February 07 2024

Ever wondered what goes on in an Oxbridge tutorial? In this article, some of our Oxbridge tutors dive into the details of their experiences at these top universities.

Oxford and Cambridge are renowned for their tutorials, but what are tutorials? How do they work? And why is this style of teaching so highly valued? In this article, we go through everything you need to know about the Oxbridge tutorial system, and some of our Oxbridge tutors tell us about their experiences.

Number of Oxford and Cambridge students: UK and international

Number of Oxford and Cambridge students: UK and international

The Oxbridge tutorial system, used by the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, is a unique and renowned approach to higher education that has been in place for centuries. This system is defined by small group learning sessions with a tutor, usually as weekly meetings, with an emphasis on critical thinking and independent learning.

The Characteristics of the Oxbridge Tutorial System

One of the defining features of the Oxbridge tutorial system is the small group aspect. Most tutorials are one-to-one, two-to-one, or sometimes slightly larger depending on the subject. These tutorials typically last one hour and cover a specific subject or topic. During these sessions, students engage in in-depth discussions with their tutor about the work they have completed that week and the general topic. Tutorials usually take place on a weekly basis and students are expected to complete independent work in between these sessions.

The Oxbridge tutorial system places a strong emphasis on critical thinking and independent learning. Tutors are trained to encourage students to think for themselves, to challenge their own assumptions, and to explore new ideas. This emphasis on critical thinking is a key factor in the success of the Oxbridge tutorial system.

For students, this means that tutorials can be quite intense. After having spent a lot of time writing an essay or completing a problem sheet, the tutor will directly challenge you on the answers you have given, and how you came to the conclusion you did. This means you have to develop an argument on a topic, identify and justify any assumptions you are making so that you can defend your point of view. Rather than just a series of questions and answers, tutorials tend to develop as a discussion, with the tutor adding the perspectives of other scholars and developing the student’s theoretical understanding further.

The small class size allows for a significant amount of attention and a close working relationship between students and tutors. This can be very beneficial for students, but can also put them in the spotlight, as they cannot rely on others to answer for them. Students do not only learn from tutors, but in tutorials where there is more than one student they often learn from each other. The tutorial system therefore fosters a very intimate and collaborative learning environment.

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Experiences of Oxbridge students

Tutorials follow the same basic structure, but there is some variation between subjects and tutors. In this section, a few of our Oxbridge tutors discuss their experiences in tutorials (or ‘tutes’ as many students call them).

Philosophy

"Philosophy tutorials tend to be two-to-one. The format of the tutorial varies between tutors, but each week you write an essay before the tutorial. In some cases, you are expected to summarise your argument at the beginning of the tutorial, to be scrutinised by the tutor and your tutorial partner. Although some tutors prefer for you to send your essay to them and your tutorial partner before the session, so that they can prepare some areas to challenge you on. This can create quite an intense environment, with two people picking holes in your essay, but you quickly realise that it is constructive and teaches you to think critically about your own work and respond to challenges. It is also hugely helpful to read the work of your partner and practise scrutinising someone else’s argument. My tutorial partner and I often found that we had taken completely different angles into the essay and sometimes came to drastically different conclusions, particularly on topics such as scepticism and free will. After discussing the essays, the tutorial usually focused more on the broader topic that the essay is situated in, and other debates and challenges in this area. I found Philosophy tutorials incredibly challenging due to the breadth of material which was covered in each week. For example, a week would be spent studying ‘Knowledge’ or ‘Justice’ which are both huge topics in themselves. Nevertheless, it was hugely valuable to be able to speak to experts in the field about their understanding of these age-old problems."

- PPE student, 2019-2022

Geography

"In Geography, the tutorials are less focused on individual essays and the reading we have done that week and instead on the topic more generally. Topics across the whole discipline are linked with each other and you think critically about how different theories fit together. Most of my tutorials are in a three-to-one format, but the discussions vary slightly in human and physical geography. Human geography tends to be more theoretical so discussions are mostly amongst the students with the tutor steering the discussion. Physical geography tutorials are more tutor-led, with processes and explanations clearly outlined. After a week of challenging independent work, it is so valuable to have an hour to discuss your ideas and any areas you struggled with – you really feel like you are valued and your perspective matters."

- Geography student, 2020-2023

Economics

Economics tutorials are often a bit larger than your usual essay-based tutorials and usually involve completing a problem sheet rather than an essay. Problem sheets tend to have several mathematical questions and sometimes a longer written question at the end. The tutor and students usually work together step by step through the problem, with each student explaining their calculations and answers whilst the tutor adds a deeper understanding of the theory behind the problem. Having personalised support and being able to ask direct questions to a hugely knowledgeable tutor was so rewarding. Often my tutorial group would work together on a problem during the week with none of us being able to solve it with the lecture notes and textbooks alone, we needed that extra guidance which we were offered by our tutor. Tutorials were hugely valuable in teaching us not only how to solve the problem, but also the general theory and assumptions behind the question which really situated the problem within a broader economic debate or paradigm.

- PPE student, 2019-2022

English literature

"My English tutorials have often been one-to-one, but have sometimes been two-to-one, depending on the module. The format of a tutorial usually involves us taking turns to outline what we have argued in our essay, before we have a discussion of the points we have each made. The tutor challenges you on particular elements of your essay and suggests further reading or ideas which you may want to integrate into your work or approach to the subject. Tutorials were always the highlight of my week, it was an opportunity to discuss a particular author or style of literature from a particular period with an expert in the field who offers an unmatched breadth of knowledge and understanding. It is the most unique and rewarding style of teaching I have experienced."

- English student, 2019-2022

Politics

"Politics tutorials follow the same pattern of most essay-based subjects, with weekly tutorials in a one-to-one or two-to-one format. You write an essay each week which is often the focus of the tutorial, with you explaining your argument and discussing it with your tutor and tutorial partner. Some tutors prefer to discuss the topic more broadly, rather than only the essay. For example, alongside an essay question you may be given a list of questions to think about for the week which relate to the main debates in the literature, these questions are then used to structure the tutorial. I found that it was useful to prepare for these questions, to avoid being put on the spot and struggling to find something to say. Getting a broader perspective on areas of the literature which I hadn’t written my essay about, but might get asked about in an exam at the end of the course, was hugely useful. I found tutorials daunting at times, but by being pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to think critically in a way I hadn’t before, I developed a skill set which continues to benefit me now I have left Oxford."

- PPE student, 2019-2022

Final thoughts

The Oxbridge tutorial system is a unique and renowned approach to higher education that has been in place for centuries. Characterised by one-on-one learning sessions with a tutor, weekly meetings, and an emphasis on critical thinking and independent learning, the Oxbridge tutorial system provides students with personalised attention and support, while fostering critical thinking skills and intellectual development. The value and success of this approach is why it continues to be a model for other education systems around the world.


We hope this article has given you some insight into the Oxbridge tutorial system from the perspective of some of our tutors who studied there. For a brief taste of a mock tutorial and the perspective of a tutor, have a look at this video by Trinity College Oxford. If you’re considering applying to Oxbridge, want to know more about the process and whether the tutorial system would be a good fit for you, speak to one of our expert Oxbridge tutors today.

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If you’re looking for assistance with your Oxford or Cambridge application, get in touch with the TutorChase team and we’ll be able to provide you with an expert Oxbridge tutor. We’ll be there every step of the way!

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Megan Isaac

Written by: Megan Isaac

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Oxford University - BA Politics, Philosophy, and Economics

Megan recently graduated from Oxford University, achieving a first class degree in PPE. She has has six years of tutoring experience, teaching a range of subjects at GCSE and A-Level, as well as helping students with their applications to university including Oxbridge.

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