Tutorials without tutors?

Image description: An empty classroom from the front.

A hallmark of the University of Oxford’s educational approach is its tutorial system. Yet controversies and concerns about this system have risen over time. For example, in April 2015, Cherwell reported a controversy over comments made by Jonathan Black, head of Oxford’s Careers Service. According to Jonathan, the tutorial system was not adequately preparing students to develop certain skills relevant for employability, such as teamwork. The report also noted that, according to a spokesperson for Oxford University, surveys of recruiters likewise reveal that Oxford students did not score better than other university students on the measure of teamwork. Subsequently, in July 2015, a comment in The Conversation raised the question of whether Oxbridge tutorials are still the best way to teach students. The authors noted that, despite the challenges and criticisms, the tutorial system continues to evolve. They concluded that if the strength of the tutorial system is its adaptability, reports of its likely demise are exaggerated. A question then arises: how can and/or should the tutorial system evolve to further enhance student learning, particularly in terms of developing teamwork skills?

Recent research has been exploring the potential benefits of facilitating and/or complementing existing teaching methods, such as lectures and small-class tutoring, with some variations of tutorless tutorials. For example, in 2017, John Hayton experimented with Student-Led Tutorials (SLT). His research presumption was that students may approach learning in any of the following ways: ‘surface’, ‘deep’, or ‘strategic’ learning. While ‘surface learning’ focuses on simple memorization and application of information to the extent necessary to pass assessments, ‘deep learning’ involves more ‘active’ engagement with the subject and is therefore preferable. He identified concerns and allegations that in large classes (such as lectures) students do not have the opportunity to actively engage in the learning process and that, consequently, these conditions do not facilitate ‘deep learning’. Under these conditions, students merely receive information passively from their teachers.

In light of this, Hayton undertook to experiment with the SLT model of learning, which requires having students self-direct their tutorials without the involvement of a tutor. This model presumes that such learning conditions would initiate unavoidable ’active’ engagement, which in turn facilitates ‘deep’ learning and could support ‘strategic’ learning. This model, if proven to be effective, could also help students develop their teamwork skills by engaging in order to learn from each other.

Have models of ‘tutorless tutorials’ been thus validated? Hayton conducted his experiment by requiring a small cohort of students at a university in the North West of England to conduct SLTs throughout their term of study. Based on the students’ feedback, he concluded that this approach could support ‘deep’ learning. He noted that students particularly valued the social aspect of the SLTs, which enabled extended peer-to-peer interaction. Their feedback suggests that they gained a sense of responsibility for and ownership of their learning.

It should be emphasized, however, that his findings were essentially based on a qualitative analysis of students’ subjective feedback in surveys and focus groups, which may or may not accurately gauge whether the students actually gained deeper learning through their self-directed tutorless sessions. Unfortunately, he did not follow the approach of an earlier study by Hayashi, Tsunekawa, Inoue and Fukuzawa. Their study more objectively compared the performance of students in tutorless and tutored conditions, based on their performance in written exams as well as by self-contentment assessments. While the performance [of the tutored and non-tutored students] in the written examinations were comparable, the tutored students reported better self-contentment with their learning experience. Therefore, the opportunity of self-direction in tutorless tutorials did not produce ‘deeper’ learning as the model may suggest. Had it done so, this would expectedly have been reflected by their better performance in the examinations.

Yet, even if studies were to provide both subjective qualitative and objective quantitative evidence of ‘deeper learning’ from tutorless tutorials, the studies on this issue would also need to ensure theoretical saturation in order to adequately support this model of learning as being applicable to university students at a general level. While this was acknowledged by Hayton, his suggestion that, as a rule of thumb, three to five different studies would be sufficient to support the model is questionable. To support a model that would apply to university students generally, rather than reflect only the outcomes of a particular cohort of students, a more comprehensive investigation would be necessary. As David and Sutton explain, “the variation between three and five will depend upon the composition of the group and the level of structure. The more diverse the group composition and the more open ended the structure, the greater number of groups required. The ‘three to five’ rule of thumb applies to research into one segment of the population. Of course, many research projects will seek to compare the beliefs and experiences of different segments of the population…” David and Sutton go on to suggest that:

The number of focus groups actually carried out should not be determined strictly by a formula. Rather, the researcher should apply the grounded theory method of gauging saturation as they move from one focus group to the next… Saturation is the realization that after so long the researcher begins to be able to predict what will come out in the next group. Once the researcher comes to hear nothing significantly new from one session to the next, the purpose of continuation starts to diminish.

Even if the model could be validated at a theoretical level, there remain other practical hurdles. As Hayton discovered from his students’ feedback, tutorless tutorials would only work if all (or the majority) of the students actually do their readings and engage with one another. Otherwise, as Hayton acknowledges, “where commitment and contributions to the group process are uneven and inequitable, resentment and discord within an SLT may be fomented.”

Thus, to answer the initial question of this comment, the tutoring system could evolve to include some variation of ‘tutorless tutorials’, assuming that this model of learning proves to be effective. However, even if the model’s efficacy was established in theory, necessary mechanisms would need to be applied to ensure that, in practice, the model is properly and effectively executed by students.