Variation in students' experiences of small group tutorials

  • Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: Variation in students' experiences of small group tutorials.

    Author(s): Paul Ashwin
    Institution(s): University of Oxford
    Session: Research Seminar  

    Ramsden (1991) found that students' perceptions of their learning environment can vary, within a single context, across five factors that are related to the quality of their learning. The more students perceive that they experience good teaching, appropriate assessment, appropriate workload, clear goals and standards, and independence in their learning, the higher the quality of their learning is likely to be. By these measures the learning environment at the University of Oxford would appear to be extremely supportive of students' learning. They are expected to regulate their own learning, they are provided with a supportive domestic environment with outstanding library resources, and they experience very small group tutorials with tutors who are often leaders in their academic fields. It is this tutorial system that is at the heart of the learning environment at the University of Oxford.

    There has been much informed opinion on the nature of the Oxford tutorial and tutor-student interaction. For example, Moore (1968), based on his experience as a tutor at Oxford, emphasised three cardinal principles of the tutorial: catering for the individual, the co-operation between tutor and student and a particular view of knowledge. He argued that the individual nature of the tutorial allows each student to learn at their own pace, and ask any questions they may have and the tutor to adapt the process to the student's learning needs and to give students immediate feedback on their performance. He argued that the tutorial relationship should be one in which two minds worked on the same problem. It is an opportunity for intellectual growth for the student and the tutor, in which the student should gradually acquire independence from their tutor. Finally, Moore argued that, in the tutorial, knowledge is seen as contested. The undergraduate has the opportunity to put forward his or her own ideas and present a critical analysis of a particular problem or proposition.

    However, there is little, if any, research evidence of how students experience this type of tutorial, and how that experience is related to the quality of their learning. This paper, rather than comparing the learning environment at Oxford with other higher education contexts, focuses on what it is about this teaching and learning system that leads some students to experience it as more supportive than others. It will describe this aspect of the learning environment from the students' perspective and consider to what extent Moores description of the tutorial is one that is borne out by students' perceptions of their tutorial experience. It will examine the qualitatively different ways in which students' experience tutorials and how students' conceptions of tutorials relate to their conceptions of learning and their approaches to learning. The Oxford tutorial system remains one of the few large-scale naturalistic settings in which to study one-to-one and one-to-two teaching interactions, and as such the findings of this study may have implications for the development of both virtual learning environments and peer learning systems that seek to support individual students.


    Moore, W.G. (1968) The Tutorial System and Its Future. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

    Ramsden, P (1991) A performance indicator of teaching quality in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 16, pp.129-150.