Paul Ashwin

  • Variation in tutor's experiences of small group tutorials.

    Paul Ashwin, University of Oxford

    Research Paper

    Themes addressed: Learning and teaching methods, Theories of learning and teaching

    The tutorial systems at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge can be argued to have had a huge impact on the way in which teaching and learning is thought about in UK universities. For example, Tapper and Palfreyman (2000) argue that it was the tutorial systems at Oxford and Cambridge that led to the subsequent development of group work in English-speaking universities in a way that was different from universities in mainland Europe. The idea of Oxbridge tutorials seems to have this impact whether they are seen as the ideal teaching and learning interaction (Moore 1968) or as a teacher-centred activity that do not usually result in high quality student learning (Elton 2001). However, whilst Palfreyman (2001) offers a number of different accounts of the tutorial system from the perspective of tutors, and tutor accounts of their years at Oxford abound (see Tapper and Palfreyman 2000), there is little research evidence of tutors' conceptions of the Oxford Tutorial and how these relate to the quality of students' learning.

    This paper will build upon the results from Ashwin (2002) on students' conceptions of the role of the Oxford Tutorial. Four qualitatively different conceptions of the Oxford tutorial were constituted. These ranged from the tutorial involving the tutor explaining to the student what the student did not know, to the tutorial involving the tutor and the student in exchanging different points of view and both coming to a new understanding of the topic under discussion. These different conceptions appeared to be related to variations in students' views of the role of the work done in preparation for the tutorial, their view of the student and tutor roles in the tutorial, and the conception of knowledge that students adopted in relation to the tutorial. A further larger-scale questionnaire-based study also found them to be related to the quality of students' learning (Trigwell & Ashwin 2002).

    The current paper is based upon a phenomenographic analysis of 20 interviews with Oxford tutors. The interviews focused on tutors' understanding of the purpose of tutorials and the roles of tutors and students within them. The paper maps the qualitative variation in the ways that tutors experience tutorials and their roles within them. It also explores whether tutors and students conceive of tutorials in similar ways and whether there are systematic subject-based differences in the ways that students and tutors conceive of tutorials. This offers further insight into the different ways in which students and tutors conceive of a particular academic task, which will lead to suggestions of ways of facilitating a greater shared understanding of academic tasks more generally.


    Ashwin, P. (2002). Variation in Students' Experiences of Small Group Tutorials Paper presented at The 10th International Improving Student Learning Symposium, Brussels, September.
    Elton, L. (2001). Research and teaching: conditions for a positive link. Teaching in Higher Education, 6, 43-56.
    Moore, W.G. (1968). The Tutorial System and Its Future. Oxford, Pergamon Press.
    Palfreyman, D. (ed) (2001) The Oxford Tutorial: 'Thanks, you taught me how to think'. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies. 
    Tapper, E. & Palfreyman, D. (2000) Oxford and the Decline of the Collegiate Tradition. London: Woburn Press.
    Trigwell, K. & Ashwin, P. (2002). Evoked Conceptions of Learning and Learning Environments Paper presented at The 10th International Improving Student Learning Symposium, Brussels, September.