The Pedagogy of Oxford Tutorials

It’s funny how blind one can be.

This article, by Robert Beck, outlines the Pedagogy of the Oxford Tutorial system, the jewel in the University’s crown.

Essentially the process is research (reading, writing, lectures, chatting with friends) – essay – presentation of essay – discussion with tutor.

A couple of things caught my eye, now that I have a teacher’s hat on.

First, a comment about marks:

there is an extreme aversion among the Oxford tutors in my study to provide letter grade evaluations to essays. While formative feedback, nuanced notes and other annotations are used copiously, there was no tendency to grade essays, which is regarded as inhibiting motivation. Why? Perhaps, because grading violates the open-ended quality of the tutorial and suggests a sense of finality or, at least, may be taken that way

Second, an observation about feedback loops:

When a tutor asks a question about some claim within a student’s essay or presentation, he or she is requesting information from the student, but the intent may also range from uncertainty, to doubt, and even outright dispute and opposition. While the phrasing of the question may be subtle, relatively non-specific, and indirect (“what are you getting at here?) or direct and specific (why do you claim that economic factors alone led to WWII?) or challenging (Aren’t you dead-wrong about this?), in each case the tutor is referring to possible errors in the student’s argument. At the very least, the tutor is indicating that more information is needed to answer the question and is offering clues in potentially useful directions. But when the student responds to such questions, the answer may indicate further problems in the student’s thinking, and the tutor’s subsequent feedback in the next exchange(s) will indicate how adequate the answer was, thus pointing out additional errors; for example, the student may not have understood the question or may have provided answers that are deficient in evidence or a relevant warrant (Toulmin, 1958).

This process is very different than the mindreading and guessing games some teachers employ when they ask: who knows the capital of Wisconsin? Rather, in tutorials questions and feedback are used to induce students to repair their reasoning, although some direct corrections of information are inevitable. … In fact, on close examination of this process, I have observed that the tutorial hour involves an almost continuous formative assessment of students’ arguments that result in the identification of many points of error, some of which may be repaired successfully by students. And, in this process, contrary to argumentation theory, the object is not explicit agreement between tutor and student, but to induce the student to make his own repairs to his argument and thus, to learn to think for himself.

So there’s metacognition, project-based learning, assessment for learning and more in the Tutorial System.

I grew up in Oxford. My father’s a don. I worked as a research associate in Oxford for a couple of years. And I have only just made the link between home turf and modern schooling. Depressing really.