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The Gold Standard: The One-to-One Tutorial

Catherine Brown | January 17, 2017

‘It is the gold standard’, Professor Anthony Grayling says frequently of the one-to one tutorial. He founded the New College of the Humanities, London, in part on the basis of this belief. Every week at NCH, each student receives a tutorial on their own with a qualified tutor.

Research shows that most school leavers believe that they will receive considerable individual attention during their time at University. They are, mostly, wrong. The one-to-one tutorial was always rare, and is now a dying breed. In fact, it hardly exists. When I took my BA at Cambridge just before the Millennium, I received only a few one-to-one tutorials, nearly all when I was working on dissertations. When I then taught at New College, St. Hilda’s, and St. Catherine’s, Oxford, nearly all the tutorials that I gave were to two or three students. I gave one-to-one tutorials only to those who were working on dissertations, or to visiting American students, who were paying a considerable sum for the privilege. Even the one-on-two or -three tutorial is hardly known on a weekly basis outside Oxbridge; and inside Oxbridge, graduate students are heavily relied on.

I confess that when I joined NCH I was sceptical about the vaunted ‘gold standard’. Would not the students lose a huge amount in not experiencing the common and mutual learning of shared tutorials? It turned out that I need not have worried. First, NCH also gives what it calls ‘group tutorials’ to between two and four students (and NCH lectures are what anywhere else would be called seminars, involving as they do no more than around twenty students). Second, there are a host of benefits to the one-to-one tutorial, of which I had not previously been aware. In the one-to-two or -three tutorial, which I had used at Oxford, I was always struggling to hold the attention of all the students. One student might read out the essay that she or he had written during the previous week, but – because of the freedom of topic choice that students tend to have under the tutorial system – this might be on a work of literature that the other/s had never read.

I might get the first student to summarise this work, but this would rarely be enough to fully engage the other/s in the essay. Either I would have to move away from the essay as a basis for discussion – thus invalidating the main point of an essay-based tutorial – or I would have to sacrifice the interest and engagement of one or more of the students for much of the hour. If I had marked the essays in advance of the tutorial, then the giving of feedback to each student would disengage the other/s even more, because they had neither heard nor read the essay that was being commented on. The tutorials that worked best were what Cambridge calls ‘practical criticism’ tutorials, with both students working simultaneously on a passage that neither of them had seen before. But such work inevitably forms a minority of literary teaching. The discussion of student essays is also necessary, and it cannot be conducted wholly satisfactorily with more than one student in the room.

In the one-on-one tutorial I have the liberty to concentrate on an individual: their essay, the type of critic that they are and are becoming (whether inclined to history or philosophy, psychology or linguistics, poetry or prose, page or stage), and on their own areas of weakness. Freshers arrive at university from many different school backgrounds and prior levels of attainment and experience. Some have dyslexia; some are weak on history; some are weak on abstract thought; some know little about religion. In the individual tutorial the student can be met where they are. The tutor can assess the kind of help they may need, and give it, without this being witnessed by fellow students. For this reason, although tutorials leave a student with nowhere to hide, they are good for students who may initially lack confidence. As with an individual appointment with a doctor, problems may be discussed, and addressed, in complete privacy. Confident and gifted students, on the other hand, can be pushed hard and as far as possible, without the tutor being concerned that other students in the room are being left behind.

If New College of the Humanities is in part a zoo for the endangered species that is the one-to-one tutorial, it is also a zoo for the endangered subject species that are the arts and humanities – and the two are made for each other. That is, the one-to-one tutorial is particularly well suited to subjects in which the best work – in the words of our Visiting Professor Sir Christopher Ricks – is ‘both new and true’. In subjects such as medicine, where there are more definitively and objectively right answers, individual teaching may be less important. In subjects such as English, philosophy, politics, and history, what is rewarded is saying something that is both ‘true’ to the matter in hand, and ‘new’ because nobody has ever made quite that point before. An hour’s conversation between a tutor and a tutee is supremely adapted to fostering the skill at finding the ‘true’, and the independence of thought that is needed to generate the ‘new’.

Several of our students come to us from universities from which they dropped out because they were unhappy with how little individual attention they had been receiving. They had been anonymised in large lecture theatres, and received feedback only in written form (on the occasional essay, and as exam results). Those students, who have experienced the norm as a standard of comparison, are particularly appreciative of what they find at NCH. What has happened at most UK universities over the last two decades is that academic appointments and promotions have become dependent on research output. This has given academics every incentive to spend as little time as possible teaching, and as much time as possible researching. Over the same period, tuition fees have rocketed. This has created a contradiction, into which our country’s students have fallen. They have been paying ever more for ever less individual attention.

New College of the Humanities exists to resolve that contradiction.It offers unrivalled attention not just from its full-time academics, but also from its visiting professoriate. I was teaching at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, when Sir Trevor Nunn happened to be there as a visiting professor. I saw him give lectures to packed lecture theatres. Most students, and even most academics, were never able to speak with him; I was only able to do so because we happened to be seated proximately at a dinner. We became friends, and when I joined NCH, I invited him to become a Visiting Professor there.

At NCH, he has been speaking to groups of around thirty students. He has given individual advice to students thinking of making a career in theatre. Sir Christopher Ricks has taken our students out for pizza. Howard Jacobson has taken our students down the pub. It is through such individual contact that students grow. The admissions interviews at NCH give a taste of the one-to-one tutorial that we offer. Some may find that it is not for them. But for those who take study seriously – there can be nothing better.

Catherine Brown

Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in English