Preparing for Study - Guidance for Undergraduates

Tutorials

Tutorials (or ‘tutes’) provide the focus of learning at Oxford. All undergraduates have one or more tutorials each week for the eight weeks of the teaching term. The individual attention and contact time provided in these sessions is a large part of what makes an Oxford education so special. They are given by the relevant subject tutor, who will normally be a permanent Fellow of the College, but may also be a Stipendiary Lecturer, or even a Fellow or Lecturer at another college.

Faculties and Departments will organise lectures. Scientists will also have compulsory laboratory periods for practicals.

Tutorials and lectures are the formal elements of your timetable; most of your working time, however, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences, will be spent in independent study, preparing for tutorials and classes.

When you meet with your tutor for the first time in 0th Week (the week in which you arrive), a time and place will be arranged for your first tutorial. This will usually be held in the tutor's office or study in College, or may take place in their office in their department. You will probably be given a reading list and a subject for your first essay or, in the case of scientists, a set of problems to prepare for working over in the tutorial.

Not every tutorial is the same; the form it will take will vary from subject to subject and from tutor to tutor. Presenting your work in a tutorial can be daunting at first, but it is an excellent way of judging whether an argument really stands up, or whether you fully understand the answer to a problem or the method that you used to solve it.

You will get the most out of your tutorials, and enjoy them most fully, if you follow these guidelines:

  • Do enough work and more in preparation – otherwise, you won’t get the points made in discussion or understand the solution to problems, and you won’t be able to participate actively, and contribute to the discussions.
  • Pluck up courage to put forward your own views – tutorials are about the exchange of ideas and tutors are not there to lecture you or entertain you! Stand up for your own ideas. Tutors enjoy argument, and won’t be offended if you disagree with them, provided that you have good reasons for doing so. Moreover, be prepared to argue and discuss with your tutorial partner(s) inside and outside the tutorial – you can learn a lot from each other.
  • Use tutorials to get your questions answered and don’t be afraid to reveal your ignorance! Tutors will not expect you to understand perfectly the complexities of everything you have read whilst preparing for a tutorial. If you come across something that you don’t understand, make a note of it and use your tutorial time to ask about it.
  • Don’t spend the whole tutorial taking notes. However, it may be helpful for you when you go back to your essays or problems for revision to have some record of the course the discussion took. For instance, you could note down headings, and then after the tutorial fill in more details – do this soon afterwards or else you will forget! Ask your tutor for advice if you are uncertain about the type of notes to take.

What will my tutor expect from me?

Your tutor will expect you:

  • To attend each tutorial on time. Tutorials cannot be cancelled unless you are ill or there is some other very pressing reason, agreed with your tutor in advance. In either case, you must ensure that your tutor is notified; simply not turning up is just not acceptable.
  • To let them know in advance if you are having problems with a particular essay or problem sheet.
  • To have read the essential reading set for the tutorial.
  • To produce work by the date and time specified.
  • Failure to meet satisfactory standards of application to academic work will have serious consequences. Christ Church’s academic disciplinary procedures are detailed in the Blue Book.

What should I do if I am not happy with my tutorials?

Occasionally, problems may arise about your tutorials which you may feel are not of your making. For instance, you may not get on with your tutorial partner, or perhaps you think that your tutor is not explaining some points adequately, or not making it sufficiently clear how well your work is progressing.

Usually the best course of action is to talk frankly to your tutor (by making an appointment to see them outside the tutorial). If you are reluctant for any reason to speak to your tutor, arrange to talk to the Senior Censor.

There will also be an opportunity to comment on the teaching that you receive through the College feedback forms distributed at the end of each term. Do please take a few moments to complete these; the information is very valuable in ensuring that the right levels of teaching provision are being maintained. You may also be asked to contribute to feedback questionnaires by your faculty or department.

How will I know how well (or badly) I am doing?

Continuous monitoring of students’ progress is a central part of the education process. It is particularly important at Oxford, where most undergraduates have only two sets of public examinations during their programmes of study.

At Christ Church, progress is monitored in a number of ways:

  • End-of-Term reports: at the end of each term, your tutors are required to submit a written report to your Organising Tutors or Personal Tutor, who will then arrange to read these to you before you go home. You will be required either to attend End-of-Term Collections or Tutors’ Collections at which your reports will be considered. All undergraduates have End-of-Term Collections once a year: this is a short meeting at which the Senior Censor is present as well as the subject tutors. Gowns are worn. Tutors’ collections happen in the other terms and are more informal. Your reports will be made available online, and you will receive details of how to access them.
  • Collections: at the start of each term, and occasionally at other times, tutors set college examinations known as ‘Collections’, the purpose of which is to help with the assessment of your progress. These examinations are less formal than the University ones, but good performance and evidence of excellent progress may be rewarded, and a serious view is taken of inadequate performance or failure to attend.

If things are going badly, how can I get support?

Remember, if your work is going badly, then other worries are likely to crowd in. But sometimes it is the other way round, and personal problems can cause your work to suffer.

We all recognize that adjusting to the academic demands of a degree course, on top of the other changes that go along with moving to Oxford, can be challenging, and student life can sometimes be stressful. Consequently, we are keen to provide you with several sources of additional help and support, should you need it. All students can turn to their Personal Tutors or to a member of the Welfare Team (Chaplain, College Nurse, Welfare Coordinator or Welfare Tutors), who form the front line in dealing with welfare issues. You can also approach the University’s Counselling Service independently. Students with disabilities can seek advice and practical help from the University’s Disability Advisory Service, or from the Academic Registrar.

Details of all these and other sources of help and advice are set out in the Blue Book.

Lectures

As well as tutorials, you will have access to lectures, as in any other university. While tutorials are the responsibility of Colleges, lectures are organised by the various faculties of the University. Your College tutor will advise you on which lectures to attend. Lecture lists will be available on the University website.

In most subjects, lectures form an integral part of the course and are viewed as complementary to tutorials and classes. In a few – mostly science – subjects, they are intended to be the main form of teaching.

Lectures also have the following advantages:

  • The lecturer is often more up-to-date than the textbooks or even your tutor since they have access to a wider range of source material, and the latest ideas, usually because they are doing the research themselves.
  • The lecturer may have a different viewpoint, or a different way of explaining things from any text or your tutor (and you may learn more by comparing different approaches than by relying on a single source).
  • The lecturer may just be very good at making his or her subject more interesting, exciting, or relevant.
  • The lecturer may be so well known in your subject area that it is a precious opportunity to hear them ‘live’.

In subjects where the source material is diverse and scattered, the lecturer will have spent time and energy searching out material, sifting it and bringing it into order.

Scientists will also be busy with practical classes, so you should appreciate the time-saving aspects of lectures! When planning work for tutorials, you will need to bear in mind the timing both of lectures and of time-consuming practicals, together with the need to write up practical work. Think ahead! Practicals are not just important, they are compulsory.

Examiners may use the lecture courses to decide on the sorts of things they will set questions on, and the depth of knowledge they expect in the answers (i.e. use the lectures to define the exam syllabus), as well as basing specific questions on material that they know has been covered in detail and is available to all students (unlike material covered in college tutorials).

All this means that you should take lectures seriously and get into the lecture habit early. Apart from anything else, it's a good way of meeting your contemporaries in your subject from other colleges, and of hearing their tutors holding forth. You may later regret having missed the chance of hearing X or Y speak on your subject.

It is a good idea to take notes during lectures, if only to help you concentrate on what is being said. But the first priority is to understand what is going on. Don't try to take hurried, over-detailed notes during the lecture. Listen. Take down major points about the overall thread of the argument. You could then 'write up' your lecture notes at greater length after the lecture.

Even if you feel that you are not getting anything out of the first lecture or two, it is worth persevering. You may have done the work already - but you will probably understand the subject better for having gone over it twice. You may feel that the lectures are not relevant to work you are doing at present, but they may be relevant to work that you will be doing in the next term or next year. You may have difficulty understanding what is going on, but even if you understand only 10% of the ideas, that still gives you a 10% start if you have to tackle the subject later in tutorials or classes. You may find the lecturer boring, but that doesn't devalue what they have to impart. Give lecturers a chance to 'warm up' before you decide to drop them. It is particularly important in the sciences not to drop any lectures lightly, and also in some specialised areas in which your college tutor may not have the same expertise.

Reading and note-taking

Approaches to reading

Reading lists can vary considerably in their format and function. Some are quite specific and set out the essential reading the tutor expects you to do (perhaps with some suggestions for further reading if you have time); others range more widely, giving you all the background information you might want, and not only the material which it is necessary to read in order to do well in your course. In the latter case, it is more important to choose wisely what to read, and to read intelligently, than it is to read a lot. Don't be afraid to ask your tutor to indicate priorities on the reading list, or to comment on them. With a very long list, it may be quite impossible to read everything, and it would not be productive to do so. The information on our website about active reading and note-taking gives advice that will be useful to your learning.

It’s also important to remember not to just take the first book on the reading list back to your room and assume that it will suffice. Usually, there will be some material that is vital, and then further reading that will expand the subject, and lead you to think in new ways about it. Learn to tell the difference. Get into the habit of using books as tools: select what you need to read, using the index, list of contents, preface or introduction. Different books cover the same topics in different ways – one author may be clearer to you than another, so look through several textbooks when trying to understand a topic.

It’s worth browsing along the shelves in libraries to get some idea of what’s available. Don’t forget that the Librarians are experts in helping you to locate the items that can help you in the Library. Oxford has a wide range of libraries apart from the College Library, and you will be introduced to these during your first week.

Attitudes to books vary amongst subjects; for instance, lawyers need advice about reading cases and using casebooks; English students need a clear sense of primary and secondary sources; science students need texts that will cover the relevant material.

Get used to classifying books as to their functions; this will define the way that you use them. For instance, material relating to arguments or theories needs to be read fully and understood, whilst a source of factual information is best used by looking at the index to find what you seek.

Different types of reading matter need to be read at different speeds: a high-powered article might be worth spending a whole morning on, whereas in some subjects even a fat book can be perused in half an hour. If you have a particularly difficult piece to tackle, you may need to read it more than once — first to get the gist, and then more closely to get the answers to the specific questions you have in mind. You may find it helps to go back and read a simpler text as an introduction.

Reading is about what you take in, NOT the volume of pages you get through. If you get too tired, take a short break.

There are other decisions to be made early on, about typing or writing, about how much to photocopy, what type of files to use for storing material, whether you want to start a card index system or develop a database. These are all matters of common sense and personal taste, but if you have difficulties, discuss them with your tutor and/or with students doing the same subject in the year above. It’s helpful if you devise a system early on which will work well for the whole of your time at Oxford.

Organisation of notes

All this work will generate a lot of paperwork. Take time to get those papers organised so that you can use them. Get ahead – buy files and folders before you need them so that you’ve always got somewhere to store stuff. And when you put it in files, think about how you need to organize it – keeping topics together, or having a lecture series stored sequentially, or the notes for an essay followed by the essay itself. Once you’ve got a system, stick to it; it won’t be perfect but at least you’ll know how to get around your work. Try and finish each day with a clear desk if you can; it helps when you start the next day’s work if you haven’t got a pile a papers to look through first.

Time management

If you have read this far you may be wondering how on earth you can cope with all the work that is required during a single week to keep up with tutorials, lectures and laboratory practicals.

University is not like school, where every hour is pretty much timetabled for you. The challenge here is to construct a sensible and workable timetable for you and your own study programme. Few if any of you will have worked in this way before, so don’t expect to find it easy, or that everything will slot into place straight away. Leaning how to get the best from the resources available, and to work in ways that are most efficient for you, is a matter of trial and error at first. Take opportunities to talk to other students, especially those at the later stages of the course, about what works best for them, but at the same time, recognize that this may not work best for you.

You will have a number of fixed activities during the week (tutorials, lectures, practicals, classes), and you will also need time to study on your own. You must of course also find a place in your timetable for meals, social life, clubs, sports, music, laundry, shopping etc. In fact, planning your own time here effectively may be the most crucial skill that you need to acquire during your time in Oxford. Try to plan your time so that when you do work, you do so efficiently.

What is important is how well you achieve your objective, not how long you spend doing it. Think about arranging your time to maximise efficiency. Here are some points to bear in mind:

  • There are fixed points around which you need to organise your work (lectures, tutorials, classes and (for scientists) practicals), as well as deadlines to meet. Clearly there is no point in allocating the three days immediately before a deadline to completing a piece of work if those three days have already been filled with other fixed commitments.
  • Don't underestimate how long you need to spend on a piece of work, so allow some flexibility when planning your work. Different people need different amounts of time for the same piece of work, so don't just do what everybody else seems to be doing.
  • Try to work evenly throughout the week, to avoid overload when deadlines suddenly loom. As a guide, you should aim to work two sessions a day, six days a week (thinking of the day as having three sessions: morning, afternoon and evening, each comprising three to four hours).
  • Different people work best at different times of the day or night. A nine-to-five programme, Monday to Friday is unlikely to work for you, and by the same token, you should not regard the weekends as ‘free time’, as you will nearly always have some work to do, and as a consequence you may wish to take some of your non-working time in the ‘working week’.
  • Work at a pace that suits you. Don't try to work when you are too tired – it’s better to take a break than to sit for 15 minutes in front of a page taking in nothing.
  • If you are finding some subject or topic very difficult, it may be worth putting it to one side and coming back to it a day or so later.
  • A few hours of good work are worth much more than a lot of hours of poor work. On both the academic and non-academic side, you're likely to find yourself very pressed for time in Oxford during term. You can remove some of this pressure by making good academic use of the lengthy vacations. In a number of subjects, the vacation is the time for reading large amounts of essential texts; in others, it is the time for extended essays or projects. It is most important not to neglect this work since failure to cover the texts or other preparatory work in vacations can seriously impede your tutorial work in the following term. This is also a very good time for general background reading and for tidying up work left over from the previous term. Your tutor may also set specific vacation work. If you leave this until you come back to Oxford at the beginning of the next term, then you will just create more problems for yourself. It is crucial to plan your vacation work before you leave Oxford in order to make sure that you have available all the information and resources that you need (e.g. borrowing books you need from Oxford libraries, photocopying articles, or arranging the use of a library close to where you will be staying during the vacation).

If you do have problems organising your time, then ask your tutor for guidance, preferably before the problem becomes too large, and definitely before you fail to meet a deadline as a result of the problem. It might help to keep a detailed record of how much time each day you actually spend working. It is also possible that you are being given too much work to do. So for instance, if you are a science student with a particularly heavy practical load one week, then ask your tutor to take account of this when arranging tutorial work.

Further resources

It is important that you avoid plagiarism in your written work. Please see the University’s guidance on plagiarism: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism?wssl=1.

Here are some references to books and websites that may be of interest:

The Good Study Guide, Open University (Chambers and Northedge) – there are versions for both Arts and Science (about £10 each).

The Study Skills Handbook, Stella Cottrell (Palgrave Study Guides) (about £9).

There are also small booklets published by Blackwell’s on How to Write Essays, Taking Notes from Lectures (about £2 each).

If you would like to read some descriptions of tutorials and accounts of their purpose written by tutors across a wide range of humanities and science subjects, then you might be interested in The Oxford Tutorial: 'Thanks, you taught me how to think', edited by David Palfreyman published by OxCHEPS, 2001. There are copies in the College Library, and the book is available in Blackwell’s. None of the essays (all by eminent Oxford academics) is long, but all are lively and interesting to dip into.

Oxford University Student Union has some useful resources available https://www.oxfordsu.org