5 Reasons Why Tutorial-Based Education Consistently Outperforms the Classroom

At New Oxford Collegiate Academy, we follow the time-tested and distinctive teaching style used by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, called “the tutorial system.”  The tutorial system centers each students’ educational experience in very small, weekly meetings with experts in each subject.  Students prepare by spending time in between tutorials producing work that serves as the subject of each discussion.  This post discusses five reasons why tutorial-based education consistently outperforms the “traditional” classroom.

In terms of student outcomes, Oxford and Cambridge are the two highest-achieving universities in the world.  They have produced countless artists, leaders, scholars and scientists.  They count many saints among their alumni.  Yet both of these universities do so without the very thing that many Americans take to central to the educational experience: the classroom environment.  

How is it that Oxford and Cambridge, and New Oxford Collegiate Academy, are able to outperform classroom-based education so well?  Below are five reasons why tutorial-based education consistently outperforms the classroom

  1. Tutorials are personal, classrooms are impersonal.  When teaching happens in an extended, conversational mentorship, the tutor is able to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of his students incredibly well.  This puts him in a far superior place to see the next steps each student needs to master the subject.  When a teacher must supervise a full classroom of students simultaneously, such detailed knowledge simply isn’t possible.  The tutorial system can address each student’s individual needs in way that stays light years ahead of what can be done in a standard classroom environment.  
  1. Tutorials promote active learning, while classrooms promote passive listening.  Students learn best with guided, active learning.  In a tutorial context, the student takes ownership of mastering a subject by accomplishing work assigned by an expert and then receiving individualized guidance in next steps over the course of several years.  The pacing of weekly meetings allows this to occur very naturally.  In addition, no student can “hide” in a tutorial meeting, which adds a healthy amount pressure to do the work and learn the material to the best of one’s ability.
  1. Tutorials do not require time-consuming classroom management. When students are grouped for long, physically inactive periods with peers of the same age, this creates strong temptations to distracting behavior that requires time and energy to manage in the classroom.  Tutorials easily avoid this, because smaller group settings are socially self-regulating.  In smaller meetings, the teacher can simply focus on teaching and discussing the subject with the students directly in front of him.
  1. Tutorials are socially balanced, while classrooms favor extroverts.  The typical classroom environment is successful for only the middle 40% of students, missing those at the both top and bottom of traditional achievement metrics.  Educational experts have pointed out that, historically speaking, it was not meant to do more1.  Also, according to a well-regarded Myers-Briggs study of extroversion and introversion, around 50.7% of the students not served well by classroom instruction lean toward introversion, which means larger classroom environments are difficult for these students2.  Given this, a case could be made that a typical American style classroom is a true success for only 18% of its students, leaving a full 82% educationally disadvantaged.  This is not acceptable.  With the tutorial system, this is not so.  Even in “Socratic” or seminar classes, a handful of talkative students tends to dominate the classroom environment.  Quieter and more contemplative students are often less able to engage in productive discussion.  In a tutorial, naturally reserved students feel a much greater freedom to speak and engage, and talkative students are much less likely to dominate discussion because of the natural social rules found in smaller group settings.  Our problem is that we’ve thought about learning in too “classroom-bound” of a way.  
  1. Tutorials allow students to explore new ideas, while classroom environments encourage conformity, limiting the scope of the mind.  Students feel more comfortable and confident asking questions, exploring new intellectual questions and concepts, and engaging meaningfully with their peers, in a supportive small group environment, especially as they come to know their tutors incredibly well.  Classrooms increase the “embarrassment” factor of sharing a new or creative idea that might be wrong, especially for students who tend to be more reserved.  Conversations are the perfect places to explore ideas, trace out their implications, and learn to become one’s own young man or woman intellectually. 

Many other reasons could be mentioned, but these are important reasons by way of comparison with what has come to be standard fare in the United States.  If we move things to a more personal, focused and conversational environment, we will see our students make progress in each subject that will truly surprise and delight us.

It is not a new, but proven method.  Oxford and Cambridge have been doing it for a millennium!

 1 See John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down.  A very brief overview on Gatto and Dumbing Us Down is here.  

 2 See Dr. Jennifer Guttman’s “Introvert vs. Extrovert: How Does It Affect Social Anxiety,” in Psychology Today, as well         as Michael Godsey’s, “When Schools Overlook Introverts,” for The Atlantic.