Tutorial teaching in the sciences at Hertford

For the aspiring science student cultivating a cosy vision of an Oxford tutorial as an opportunity to discuss the finer points of a recent essay while enjoying a glass of sherry with a tutor, a dose of reality is probably required before reading any further.  Firstly, tutorial work is unlikely to consist of essays, and much more likely to consist of problem sets aimed at testing understanding of the scientific concepts covered in lectures, and secondly, at least in my tutorials, the choice of beverages is limited to tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, with the occasional biscuit or piece of cake thrown in for good behaviour.

On a serious note, tutorial teaching is perhaps the single most important factor that sets Oxford apart from most other universities.  In common with courses at other universities, science students spend a considerable amount of their time attending lectures and carrying out practical work.  These components of the course provide students with a good overview of the important concepts within their subject.  However, gaining an understanding of a topic is sadly not as simple as attending a few lectures, and generally requires a great deal of additional reading and thinking in order to master a topic at a conceptual level, followed by extensive practice at solving problems in order to make sure this new knowledge can be applied in ‘real’ situations.   It is during this stage of the learning process that the tutorial system comes into its own.  Tutorials are absolutely not a form of ‘extra lectures’.  By the time they arrive at a tutorial, tutors will expect their students to have achieved a good level of understanding of the topic under discussion, and will aim to ‘put the icing on the cake’, consolidating students’ understanding, explaining how the topic under study fits in with other parts of the course, and bringing the subject to life with examples from recent state-of-the-art research or consequences for the world around us.  Tutorials are an opportunity for students to clear up any points they haven’t understood, to receive help in solving tricky problems, and to have their ideas and understanding challenged both by their peers and by their tutor.

Chemistry students at Hertford are fortunate in that they have three tutors (covering organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry, respectively), who follow their progress through the entirety of the first three years comprising the taught part of the M.Chem. course.  From the point of view of students, their tutors become real allies as they progress through their degree course, and come to know how best to help and to provide sometimes much-needed encouragement (in a range of forms!) when required.  As tutors, we observe and assist the transition of our students from excited and often slightly terrified first years, fresh from school, to fully-fledged scientists ready to tackle any one of a broad range of careers or higher degrees.  This long-term interaction with individual students and the opportunities it offers for appreciating and celebrating their achievements, however big or small, is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of tutorial teaching.

Dr Claire Vallance, Tutor in Chemistry