Tutorials are a distinctive feature of undergraduate education at Oxford and make a significant contribution to maintaining Oxford's standard of excellence in teaching. College Tutors are responsible for organising much of the tutorial teaching, though the tutorial may actually be conducted by a different academic (lecturer, reader or professor) or a post-grad or post-doc researcher, all of whom will be an expert in the field. Alternatively, he or she may be an active researcher at post-graduate or post-doctoral level who will be at the forefront of the discipline. Although this might seem a little intimidating at first, students quickly realise that the tutorial is not a confrontational situation and the Tutor is equally keen that the tutorial should be a worthwhile and productive experience all round.
Typically, students will have a planning meeting with their College Tutor before the start of each term to confirm teaching arrangements for the current term and again at the end of term to review tutorial performance using reports provided by the specialist tutors.
In Biological Sciences, students normally have one tutorial per week, usually in the company of one or two other undergrads from their college or indeed students from other colleges who have the same interests. Though students have to produce separate, independent written work, interactions with each other during the discussions can be very beneficial. They are expected to undertake a significant amount of work in preparation for each tutorial. Typically, this will be reading for an essay that is handed in before the tutorial so that the tutor can read and comment on it prior to the discussion. The tutorial essay is intended to encourage the exploration of a particular aspect of the subject in depth and to provide an opportunity to put forward personal ideas and opinions, and to present a critical analysis of a particular problem or proposition.
A tutorial is not simply a vehicle for the tutor to provide the right answers to a list of questions or to impart factual information that could be better obtained through background reading, lectures, etc. Work on a tutorial essay involves library searches, reading, thinking and writing. This continuous refinement of analytical and critical skills should serve well in any discipline after leaving Oxford, even if it is not Biology - this is one of the reasons why Oxford undergraduates are highly valued in the job market.