The Time and Place for the Tutorial Method (I)

Part I: Finding Time

This is the first of a two-part “Space-Time” series on the tutorial method of teaching.  The basic challenges are finding the time to hold tutorials and finding the right space to hold them. So, here we go with Part I, Finding Time.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan, there are these cave-dwelling creatures on Mercury named Harmoniums who feed off music. Some come too close to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and die of ecstasy.  Maybe there’s a moral in there, but from my point of view, we’re all Harmoniums. We just have to find out where the food is.

What sustains me as a teacher is when I am able to take students to the edge of their thinking and set up camp there. To give them space to work out their fundamental ideas and to usher in whatever is coming next in their intellectual development.  When I started teaching in 2002, I realized that this was missing from the lecture and group discussions model. I knew from my own experience with my undergraduate mentor that there are more intensive and effective tools for teaching available. Eventually I found an answer in the Oxford University tutorial method.

The method goes like this. In a class such as Introduction to Literature, students write two major essays per semester. For the first essay, tutorials are held around the middle of the course. In these tutorials, two students meet with me for an hour after having read each other’s essay. In turn they present the main argument of their essays followed by critique and discussion. For the second tutorial at the end of the course, my expectation is that they will have developed the ability to take more responsibility during the tutorial. For the sake of continuity, I have students hold tutorials on shorter essays periodically during our class time. I teach specific skills they will need in the tutorials such as how to analyze arguments and how to formulate discussion questions. This modified version of the Oxford tutorial works. It is not as intensive as Oxford’s system where students might have twelve tutorials a semester, but the outcome is similar as students grow in their capability for critical and creative thinking.

The obvious issue for those working in public universities is time. The first question that is posed to me when I am discussing the tutorial method is this: “How can you meet with so many students? I’m busy as it is, I can’t really add on to my schedule.” It is a question that I initially posed to myself, and one that I am now revisiting as I begin my work as an Assistant Professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Cayey. I’ve taught multiple courses before, but four is pretty tough.

Image by Jenny Yu:

When I was a teaching assistant at UMASS Amherst I typically taught one course per semester. With about 30 students (15 pairs) and two tutorials in the semester, that’s 30 hours of tutorials total during the semester. I might have three tutorials a day for a week. Or more often, five tutorials a day for three days, with classes cancelled those three days. Two weeks of 15 extra hours is not too terribly difficult.

The problem I think arises when you add more than one course. If I were to keep the same system at UPR, I would be doing 120 hours of extra work during the semester. This seems impossible.

Here are some solutions to the problem of time:

1. Hold Mini-Tutorials of 15 minutes (or any shorter amount).
2. Only hold tutorials for the upper class courses.
3. Not be present at the second tutorial. In other words, the students will do the tutorial by themselves and then report on it.
4. Hold tutorials of larger groups: 3, 4, even 5.
5. Only do tutorials during class time and rotate around the room.
6. Cancel more classes than you do (usually just the days the tutorials are being held)

More than likely I’ll implement #2 and #3 this coming Fall 2015. I’ll only use the tutorials in my upper level U.S. Puerto Rican literature course, not my Introduction to Literature course. The reasoning is simply that the students will be more able to take on the kinds of individual research projects for which the tutorials are particularly suited. I don’t like this reasoning because I think that introductory students may benefit even more from the jolt that students get from the tutorials.  Nevertheless, it seems the best solution now.  In addition, I will be present only at the first tutorial. This is something I have actually tried out in the past when I was teaching multiple courses and it worked pretty well. Even if students fake it (by not meeting) they would still have to do the tutorial report, which would amount to doing simply a milder version of the tutorial. But my experience is that in reality students enjoy meeting and discussing their work. They want intellectual stimulation even if it’s not something that they tell us all the time.

Even with this condensed tutorial method, it’s a pretty big commitment. I’m not going to go into all the virtues of this method here.  But, most importantly, because students are required to take charge of the tutorial discussion they learn to take responsibility for their work and they grow in critical and creative thinking. This is the primary goal. Beyond that, it quickly becomes apparent to anyone who uses the tutorial method that the opportunities for plagiarism, simply because it would be so difficult for students to discuss a plagiarized paper for an hour, are enormously reduced. The tutorials not only encourage students to avoid plagiarism, but also to write honestly and to write what they truly think about a topic. In face-to-face meetings such as a tutorial, I can ask students to clarify parts of their writing that are unclear, something that can’t be done when just grading a paper. Professors gain as well. It’s exhausting yes, but that doesn’t last more than a week. After so many great conversations you feel energized, you feel that students have such great potential, and that all we need to do is to live up to the ideals of our profession.  Quite the Harmonium moment.

The upshot is that I’ll be using a modified version of the tutorial method this coming semester.  I may not have all the time in the world, but I think I’ll have enough.

Here are a couple of links for more information:

Williams College

Oxford University

If you’re interested in finding out more about tutorials or if you have any questions or ideas for improvement, please post comments or email me at

Until Part II…

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