Education under supervision

How does the tutorial system at Cambridge work? And how has it helped to create intellectual leaders for eight centuries?

Something that marks Oxbridge colleges out among British universities is the way in which undergraduates are taught. It’s known as the supervision system at Cambridge and the tutorial system at Oxford, and it’s a labour-intensive style of teaching that has become the educational lodestone of both institutions – and one you won’t find in many other universities.

Once or twice a week, each student meets his or her tutor – usually one-to-one, sometimes in pairs or very small groups – and is assigned a task that requires a completely independent course of study. In recent years, cuts in funding have put the model in which just one student is supervised by one academic under threat. However, even when two or three students are involved, there is an emphasis both on independence of thought and the ability to defend a thesis that prepares them – from the word “go” – to think like top professionals in their discipline.

Although the supervision itself has tantalisingly unquantifiable values, this labour-intensive method of teaching seems to have contributed strongly to keeping both Cambridge and Oxford in the top five of worldwide university rankings. Different Oxbridge colleges vary but, on average, most students have two supervisions a week that last roughly for an hour.


Power and privilege

In the humanities subjects, supervisions will take the form of a discussion based on an essay the student has prepared, while in maths and the sciences students are often asked to look at methods for solving a specific problem. The means by which students are invited to explain themselves has been described by some as the Socratic method, comparable to the way the classical Greek philosopher would ask his students a series of leading questions until they would be forced to address their lack of knowledge. One recent graduate provided a more modern analogy, when he described the best tutorials as being “like Newsnight with the tutor as Jeremy Paxman”.

At Cambridge or Oxford, it’s not just the style of debate that counts. It can, at best, prove to be an extraordinary chance to thrash out ideas with someone who is a world leader in his or her academic discipline. The regular close scrutiny that this involves promotes a thoroughness of research, independent thinking and rhetorical proficiency that will serve any student strongly in whatever career they may go on to choose.

On average a student is expected to spend around 13 hours preparing for each supervision, knowing they will be asked to defend themselves in some depth. Intellectual sheep will find it difficult to survive. The emphasis is on independent thought – not just from the supervisor, but from the sources that the student will have consulted to prepare for the teaching session. The principles asserted by an American graduate in 1941 still hold. “The tutorial prevents [the student] from being over-impressed by big names and the printed word. It teaches him to examine evidence and to think for himself … he should have cultivated what is the greatest essential of these times: the critical spirit.”


Reconciling the two cultures

So what are the differences for arts and science subjects? “Supervisions are similar in both, but there are differences in the way in which they are structured,” says Jonathan Norton, who switched from a BSc in physics to a BA in philosophy in his second year at Cambridge. “The arts supervisions are almost always one-to-one, because they will be reviewing a submitted essay and scrutinising it in detail. Science supervisions have more than one student present – usually two or three – and are more like school lessons, in that you will be asked to review questions that are based on recent lectures.

“There is a popularly held idea that the sciences are about rote learning and the arts are about free thinking,” he continues. “But you quickly learn that this is not the case. Rote-learning is there just as much in English as it is in, say, chemistry, even if it is not acknowledged as such. An English literature student will be expected to summarise the reading list and have an understanding of various different standpoints. Likewise, you can’t be really good at sciences if you only know what it says in the textbook – exams will try to test for that bit extra, the marks of insight, and that’s something that the supervision system is designed to assist.”


Clicking with a tutor

In the hands of the university’s greatest teachers, the supervision can be both exhilarating and liberating – a process that promotes verbal and intellectual agility at the same time as it provokes intellectually. However, having unmediated access to the world’s greatest minds doesn’t always work. The brilliant 20th-century economist Joan Robinson had many admirers, including Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Yet her style of supervising at Cambridge was divisive.

“We had a tumultuous relationship,” recalled Joseph Stiglitz, one of two of her students who would eventually go on to win a Nobel Prize in Economics (the other was Amartya Sen). “Evidently, she wasn’t used to the kind of questioning stance of a brash American student and, after one term, I switched to Frank Hahn … who was flamboyant, and always intellectually provocative.”

Yet this account in itself demonstrates that while the intimate structure of the supervision system can inevitably lead to clashes of personality, as a result of this structure problems can also be identified quickly and alternative arrangements made. Richard Dawkins – who studied zoology at Baliol College, Oxford under Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen – has provided a more straightforward account of what the tutorial/supervision system can be like when the chemistry works out.

“I still think the Oxford one-to-one tutorial was the making of my entire career,” he declared. “But if I am honest, I think this might have been so even if my tutors had known very little more than I did myself. The important thing was the knowledge that my essay, when I eventually completed it, would be the object of one hour’s undivided and serious attention from somebody qualified to judge it and discuss its topic with me at least as an equal.”


Not for the faint-hearted

Various factors, of course, contribute to whether a supervision proves to be a source of perspiration or inspiration. For a student, it is most important to remember that the supervision or tutorial is a relatively free form, which will not be structured in the way that lessons were at school. Once the basic preparation has been done, the student needs to demonstrate both intellectual courage and initiative to make a supervision work.

Louise Turner, a former classics student at Cambridge, remembers a supervision with a don at King’s College that began on an apparently flippant note. “There were four of us, and it was our first supervision,” she says. “We knocked on the door, but he didn’t answer till eventually we pushed the door opened and he greeted us, saying, ‘I wondered how long it was going to take you to dare to do that.’ It was a very basic psychological game, but it set the tone in terms of the attitude he wanted. That particular supervision ranged from classical literature to modern politics and back – there were no limits to what could be discussed. We were challenged to think as originally and wide-rangingly as we could.” It’s an important principle that it is as much up to the student to push boundaries as it is for the tutor to expand them. “What happens in a tutorial depends so much on the two or three personalities taking part in the exercise that the keynote is variety,” said William G Moore, a tutor at St John’s College in the 1960s. “Almost anything may happen … Students vary, especially when on their own: some pretend to be stupid, some are stupid, some are lazy and plausible, some are easily discouraged, few work well without praise, many conceal their real attitudes, not many are able to help the tutor to be both clear and interesting.”

Yet an equally crucial factor is how well an academic can respond to what a student has to offer. Another lesson from Stiglitz’s experience is that, while some great professors can be inspiring as lecturers or authors, they will not benefit students if they choose to be patronising or intransigent in a supervision situation. Being a legendary thinker is not necessarily the same as being a great teacher. Some academics can be cripplingly shy, some, at the worst end of the scale, can prove to be intellectual bullies.


Director’s choice

At Cambridge, where most supervisions are organised by the colleges, a lot can be influenced by the Director of Studies’ negotiating powers. On a qualitative level, a good Director of Studies can sort out a change of supervisor if a student has reached an impasse with one of their teachers. It should be emphasised that this kind of impasse will be a rare occurrence. One of the many advantages of the rigorous interviewing system is that the Director of Studies has a strong idea of who and what will help the student to flourish from the word go.

John Deighton, a former English student, says: “At Cambridge, my director of studies organised for me to be supervised by three different people. One of them was one of the world’s leading experts on Renaissance manuscripts; another was a prominent Marxist who had influenced Eric Hobsbawm, among others; and the third was an internationally renowned interpreter of modernist literature. Each had very different supervising styles, but each taught me ways of thinking that I still refer to decades later in my work as an arts critic.”

There is also a degree to which the sense of the difficulty of a debate is essential within a supervision or tutorial context if a student is to progress. The 1966 Franks Commission on the running of Oxford University declared, “In [the tutorial] discussion the undergraduate should benefit by struggling to defend the positions he [or she] has taken up.” To return to the Socratic analogy, in Plato’s dialogues, there is typically a moment where Socrates’ interlocutor experiences a sense of “aporia”, which translates as philosophical puzzlement or doubt – a state that initially feels disconcerting, but leads to more profound knowledge. Most supervisors and tutors would concur that they wish to provoke a similar intellectual progression in their own students.


College to college

On a more prosaic level, a director of studies can impact a student’s overall supervision experience at a quantitative level. An investigation in the university newspaper Varsity in 2013 revealed that students at some Cambridge colleges could receive “over 100 per cent more time in supervisions and college classes than their peers studying elsewhere”. All students in the survey were paying identical tuition fees. While some might expect the wealth of individual colleges to be a contributing factor, in fact rich colleges such as Trinity and King’s had average scores in subjects like economics (though, in English, Trinity had one of the best scores). The most obvious difference was that in subjects where there was less of a disparity between colleges – such as law, or HSPS (human, social and political sciences) – supervisions were more likely to be centrally organised by the faculty.

The same survey raised the question of students being supervised not by the leading academics in their field, but by graduate students. It’s a key part of the Oxbridge experience that undergraduates come into direct contact with leading academics, but Professor Mary Beard is one of those who has rightly leapt to the defence of doctoral supervisors.

“In Cambridge, doctoral students have been teaching undergraduates in small groups/one-to-one (in supervisions) for all my career,” she wrote in her column in the Times Literary Supplement. “One of my best teachers ever was the then graduate student (now retired professor of philosophy) who introduced me to the hard edge of Greek philosophy in 1973. And I think I didn’t do too bad a job in teaching ancient history myself in 1978–9. Doctoral students taking a hand in teaching isn’t a new phenomenon.”

The most important thing to realise is that it is an extraordinary privilege to be at a university that offers the level of scrutiny and specialist attention that is involved with a supervision or tutorial. Yet the same independence of thought and willingness to work hard that gets a student through the entrance process is going to be needed to help make the most of what is on offer. “Inevitably some teaching is better than other teaching,” says Professor Beard. “In Cambridge, at least, the best supervisions are when both sides are giving their all to it. And I imagine that is the same everywhere.”