[Part3]BRITAIN: Universities carry on a centuries-old tradition of small group instruction

A medieval French tutorial held in professor Helen Swift's research room at Oxford's St. Hilda's College. It has a salon-like atmosphere, with large windows that overlook a green garden. (Eri Goto)

At some colleges in Britain, teachers and pupils live together, and study is carried out through small, informal lessons. Searching for insight into this method of education, developed over hundreds of years, I visited a couple of the country’s most renowned schools.

Oxford, the oldest university in Britain, is located 100 kilometers northwest of London. Its history stretches back to the 12th century, and it is an incubator for elites who go on to make their mark on the world stage. Last November, I observed a symbol of this university's traditions: a “tutorial,” the ultimate in individualized teaching in which one teacher works with two students.

The subject was medieval French, and professor Helen Swift, 34, and second-year French majors, Tess, 20, and Christie, 19, sat comfortably on sofas in Swift's research room. They discussed essays the students had submitted earlier on 15th-century vagabond poet François Villon’s “Le Testament.”

“Your puppet show analogy is interesting,” remarked Swift to get the ball rolling.

“Characters come in and out, just like puppets,” said Tess.

They analyzed what the author was trying to say by focusing on specific words and expressions, and engaged in debate from various angles. Sometimes they fell silent. It was clear that the two students were giving serious thought to each point of discussion, prompted by Swift’s questions. Numerous markers protruded from their textbooks.

At Oxford, there are 38 “colleges” where teachers and pupils eat, study and sleep in close quarters. Every student belongs to one and receives tutorials mainly from teachers at their college according to their major.

Each teacher's tutorial has up to three students. For subjects in the humanities, they are assigned several books a week to read and write essays on. They provide discussion materials for the one-hour tutorials, held once a week in their teacher’s research room, where they delve into the subject at hand. This process of reading a huge volume of material, writing on it, and testing one's theories is repeated eight times over the course of each term. It is the ultimate in order-made education, tailored to each student's interests and pace of study.

“In tutorials you are asked questions, you try out your thought, see if it works, see what you think about it collectively, and feel required to defend your views,” explains Swift. “I’m navigating, giving them the pathway through the topic they’re working out.”

Oxford's undergraduate curriculum has a two-tiered structure of lectures provided by faculties and tutorials provided by colleges. Lectures are held for classes of around 30 students. They are one directional, in the sense that students only have to listen to the lecturer, and attendance is generally not taken.

However, tutorials remain the focus of undergraduate education. Teachers observe the strengths, weaknesses and growth of individual students, while acting as guides toward the goal of graduation. This method has a long history that can be traced to the late 13th century, when particularly proficient scholars took up residence in student dormitories and provided instruction to their juniors. The modern style of combining faculty lectures with tutorials is said to have come together in the 19th century.

James Forsythe likes the calm atmosphere that allows him to concentrate on his studies at St. John's College at Cambridge University. (Eri Goto)

Cambridge University, Britain’s other academic powerhouse, has a similar system in place. Second-year biology student James Forsythe, 19, has a dense weekly schedule: individualized instruction for three subjects, assigned reading and report writing, experiments, and university lectures. He familiarizes himself with concepts from specialized literature, makes deductions based on the results of his experiments, and also seeks mental stimulation outside of classes and experiments. He belongs to his college’s science and punting (boat) clubs, as well as occasionally participating in the university’s tae kwon do club.

Forsythe’s high school grades were mostly A’s and above, with only one B. He took physics, his favorite subject, in his first year, but the level of difficulty was much higher than he had expected.

“Cambridge physics is designed for very good physicists,” he said. He consulted with his college study advisers, and removed physics from his subjects for his second year.

The results of this attentive approach to education are also evident in these two universities’ remarkably low dropout rates. The average for British universities from 2010 to 2011 was 6.3 percent, while Oxford’s was 1.3 percent, and Cambridge’s was a mere 1 percent.

Obviously, it is extremely costly to maintain academic systems as generous as these. According to Patricia Fara, who is responsible for the education and welfare of 800 students at Cambridge’s Clare College as a senior tutor, the annual cost per student is 15,000 pounds (2.58 million yen, or $24,950). The government allows universities to charge undergraduates the maximum fee of 9,000 pounds a year, which requires universities and colleges to come up with the difference, but this is covered by donations from alumni that far exceed those in Japan.

“If they were happy while they were in college, and if they feel that their college looked after them, then they’re going to pay for us to look after students for the future,” says Fara.

Oxford professor Takehiko Kariya, an educational sociology specialist and former Tokyo University professor, points out that ever since British universities first came into being in the Middle Ages, they have been places to cultivate “free-thinking privileged citizens” through scholarship who are subordinate to neither the state nor the church.

“Reading and writing a vast amount of material with a critical awareness frees the mind," he said. "People who have experienced that become teachers, and convey their knowledge to their juniors. It is an educational method that has been perfected over centuries, which is exactly why it is so firmly established.”

Oxford and Cambridge are currently taking a wait-and-see attitude to the global trend of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Their student faculties are undeniably among the most affluent in Britain, but Oxford’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sally Mapstone believes universities like hers offer something that Internet-based education cannot.

“At the formative stage of life around the age of 20, it is really important that you learn to have, apart from anything else, the confidence to say what you mean,” she said. “Tutorials are very good training for that, a constructive way of learning through questions and challenging ideas. College is a very supportive place, and students’ experiences are broader than academics in a sense. You come to university and change as a person. Otherwise, why bother going?”

By ERI GOTO/ GLOBE Staff Writer

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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