How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help you understand your subject better

Date of Publication: 30 May 2014

The whole point of teaching is that the pupil leaves with a better understanding (or at least on the way to a better understanding) of the topic that is being taught. In that sense, it is very easy to tell when a teacher has failed – the teacher has failed because the pupil doesn’t understand anything better after the teaching.

I am sure we all know the feeling of leaving a lesson or a lecture thinking ‘I got nothing out of that’ or  ‘I didn’t understand a word of that’. That feeling tells you that something has gone wrong – either you weren’t paying attention and the best efforts of the teacher made no impact, or they were doing something wrong, maybe going too fast, maybe too slow, maybe too much depth or maybe not enough. Sadly, when teaching 10, 20, 30 or 50 people, that is what happens. The teacher cannot make the lesson work for everyone there.

Tutorials are the complete antithesis of that. Because it is one-on-one the tutorial will progress at the pace and in the directions that you need it to. Which is wonderful because it means you will leave with a better understanding of the topic, whether or not you entered the tutorial understanding it or not.

I remember two stories from my second year which illustrate this well. The first was in a philosophy tutorial, we were studying metaphysics – and asking questions about what sorts of things are ‘objects’, the whole thing was incredibly confusing and I got to the tutorial, having done all the reading but really not understanding it at all. Over the course of the hour the Tutor slowly and methodically helped me to unpick my confusions and misunderstandings until I began to feel like I might be able to understand the topic one day. I knew leaving the tutorial, that I still didn’t fully understand, but that I knew I COULD understand if I did some more reading. So I took a day and a half to do just that over the vacation and finished understanding a topic which had been completely incomprehensible to me before, thanks to the careful and considerate direction of my tutor.

The other story is of a politics tutorial, we were discussing the idea of freedom in political theory. What does it mean to say of someone that they are ‘free’? So, is someone without a plane ticket free to fly to America? If not then what makes them not free? If they are free then what would make them not free? It is a fascinating topic which can have some vitally important implications for how we conceive of other things like rights and duties. I entered the tutorial with a good grasp on the literature, but a few conceptual confusions. By the end of it my tutor and I had moved at a wonderful range of speeds through a series of thought experiments designed to help clarify my thoughts, and by the end of it I felt like I wanted to take back the essay I had written and rewrite it, because I knew it could be so much better!

All this goes to illustrate that wherever you are with your understanding of a topic, the tutorial will help you to better understand it. In helping you understand your subject better it will give you the increased confidence in your own abilities which is so important!

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