How we teach

The essential message is that you are responsible for your learning experience at Oxford! 

The bulk of a historian’s time is spent in the library reading and making notes.  Your tutors will require evidence of a lot of reading.  Fortunately, Oxford is very well endowed with libraries, so you can vary the learning environment: you can choose to work in the College Library, the History Faculty Library, the University Library (both a minute's walk from Hertford) and an enormous number of other Faculty and specialist libraries (American Studies at the Rothermere Institute, Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House...).  You’ll need to become familiar with these libraries and the extensive range of services they provide.  Increasingly books, journals and even primary sources are located online: learning how to find the information you need is one of the transferable skills inherent in a History degree.

Being in charge of your own working week means that you have a lot of flexibility, but it also means being very disciplined about how you use your time.  An Oxford education really only works for self-starters. 

Teaching provided by the University

There will be lectures or classes connected to every paper which will be organized by the History Faculty.  Classes for First Year Options, Further Subjects and Special Subjects are usually organized as seminars, with eight to ten students working with one or two tutors to tackle primary sources or methodological problems.  Lectures (in particular for British and General History papers, but for other papers too) are normally given in the Examinations Schools building on the High Street, five minutes away from the College. They are well worth attending.  In addition to lectures directly related to the papers taught, there will be other series where Oxford historians or visiting professors develop new approaches, new understandings.  This way you can get to hear the work of leading historical thinkers before its even published. 

Teaching provided by the College

Most of the teaching you will receive will occur through College-based tutorials and classes.  College teaching is very different from that which you’d experience at almost any other university.  At most universities you’re taught what you need to know and examined on how well you can remember what you’ve been told.  But at Oxford you do the work first, and then your tutors will tell you what’s good or bad about it. 

For each paper you’re taking in a term, your tutor will set you a weekly (sometimes fortnightly) essay.  The tutor will provide you with a question and a reading list of relevant books and articles, but then it’s up to you to go away and devise an answer in the form of a 2,000-2,500 word essay.  At the end of the week you’ll attend a tutorial with your tutor for an hour.  There will usually be no more than two students attending a tutorial.  At that tutorial you’ll discuss your work: your arguments will be challenged by your tutor, your choice of evidence criticised, your use of the reading assessed.  You’ll need to defend or amend your argument as it is critiqued not only by the tutor but by fellow students.  Arguments improve through being tested in discussion and debate. Tutorials are not mini-lectures. They are not designed to be a medium for imparting facts, though you should use them as an occasion to ask questions.  The success of the tutorial is therefore a joint responsibility of tutor and student.

You’ll receive feedback on your work in the tutorial and on the comments that accompany your essay.  You’ll also receive a report at the end of term.  And at the beginning of the following term you’ll probably be expected to sit an exam in College (called a collection) to make sure that your grasp of that paper is secure.  None of this -- the essay, the collection, the tutor’s report -- counts towards your final degree.  Rather these are all opportunities for you to improve your work before it really counts, which is in the exam.