Oxford Summer Courses
How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help Improve your Self-Confidence

One of the best side-effects of the tutorial system is the increase in your academic self-confidence and belief in your own intellectual ability.

Being put on the spot – and finding that you give a sensible and interesting answer to a difficult question – genuinely makes you feel good about your intellectual ability. More than that, of course, you deepen your knowledge of your subject immensely in a very short period of time. Realising that you understand something that only a couple of hours ago was very fuzzy is quite an exhilarating experience!

What helps this? Firstly, it is just you and your tutor in the tutorial, so there is none of the anxiety that comes with asking a question in lecture, or even in a class full of people. Instead it is just you and your tutor! Now that might sound scary, after all your tutor has been thinking about these things for years, and you’ve had no more than a few days. But it is nothing like that, because your tutor wants you to do well!

This is the best thing about the whole experience, you are sitting one on one with an expert in the field who is there to help you better understand – that is the point of their Job. I cannot think of the number of times I have said something in a tutorial, and not been sure whether it was brilliant or brilliantly stupid, but whichever one it was it was used by the tutor to take the discussion forward.

It is really liberating being about to speak your mind, and be challenged and questioned about it in a safe environment, away from the judgement and the loud interruptions of your class-mates. You will leave your tutorials feeling more self-assured and more confident in your intellectual ability.

Most importantly, as you gain in this self-confidence you will come to realise that you are able to understand these questions, and more importantly, you get the feeling that as you continue to study you’ll be able to understand them even more!

Strange Oxford Traditions: Ascension Day

Oxford is a place of old traditions. This is never more in evident when linked to the Churches in Oxford. To this day, on Ascension Day, when the Church remembers Jesus’ going up into Heaven, celebrated 30 Days after Easter, you will see something very odd happening in Oxford. Something that has happened in England since before 1066, indeed it is recorded from the time of Alfred the Great!

At around 11am, after a short service, a large group of school children, no older than eleven or twelve, accompanied by Teachers, Parents, a Priest, and normally a fair few students, emerge from the different Churches clutching long wooden sticks.

The group proceed to walk from the Church to different points in the city, through shops and Colleges alike, to do something known as ‘Beating the Bounds’. What they are doing is marking out the boundaries of the Parish (the area for which the Church is responsible)… a practice which made much more sense in a time before maps.

This is done in a peculiar way - drawing a marking on the wall (or the floor) at different points in chalk, normally a cross, with the initials of the Church and the year in each quadrant. The children (and often students too) then take the wooden canes and hit the marker, to encouraging shouts of “Mark! Mark! Mark!” At each point, the marking is often followed by the singing of a Hymn.

This happens in Shopping Malls and in Colleges. Indeed, it even happens on the floor of the world famous Codrington Library of All Souls College, something for which there is a special Act of Parliament giving right of access.

Often the Colleges will provide a welcome and refreshments to the parishioners, as they wind their way through the city, carrying out this tradition which has been observed for over a millennium.

How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help you defend your argument better!

One of the great strengths of the tutorial system is that you are forced to defend your position. The benefit of having to present, clarify and defend your argument is that you are forced to take a side and get off the fence on important issues. This might seem mainly to apply to humanities, arts, and social science subjects, but it’s often the case in the “hard sciences” as well that key positions are up for debate, or at the very least their consequences and political implications. Often, unless you have to defend a position in reasoned (if sometimes heated) debate it’s difficult to see the full strengths and weaknesses of that position.

Having to defend your argument also sharpens your rhetorical and presentation skills, and improves your confidence, of course. But I think even more valuable is the fact that you know you will have to stick up for what you think. That forces you to make your mind up and genuinely think deeply and carefully about tricky issues.

Some tips for defending your argument in a tutorial:

First, you have to prepare your argument with a view to what sort of facts somebody unsympathetic to your position might bring up. How do you deal with those facts? Are they anomalies that can’t be explained by your account—or is the person disagreeing with you misinterpreting those facts? Can those facts be put into a different narrative that actually supports your argument? This is an important insight in any academic context (and in many contexts outside academia).

Second, the tutorial doesn’t end when the Tutor calls time on the discussion, there are wealth of books and articles out there to read, and if someone at OSC has had a tutorial on the same topic then you will have all afternoon, and the next day to sit and talk together about it, to unpick the issues together and ask new questions of one another’s arguments that you hadn’t covered in your respective tutorials.

How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help you understand your subject better!

The whole point of teaching is that the pupil leaves with a better understanding (or at least on the way to a better understanding) of the topic that is being taught. In that sense, it is very easy to tell when a teacher has failed – the teacher has failed because the pupil doesn’t understand anything better after the teaching.

I am sure we all know the feeling of leaving a lesson or a lecture thinking ‘I got nothing out of that’ or  ‘I didn’t understand a word of that’. That feeling tells you that something has gone wrong – either you weren’t paying attention and the best efforts of the teacher made no impact, or they were doing something wrong, maybe going too fast, maybe too slow, maybe too much depth or maybe not enough. Sadly, when teaching 10, 20, 30 or 50 people, that is what happens. The teacher cannot make the lesson work for everyone there.

Tutorials are the complete antithesis of that. Because it is one-on-one the tutorial will progress at the pace and in the directions that you need it to. Which is wonderful because it means you will leave with a better understanding of the topic, whether or not you entered the tutorial understanding it or not.

I remember two stories from my second year which illustrate this well. The first was in a philosophy tutorial, we were studying metaphysics – and asking questions about what sorts of things are ‘objects’, the whole thing was incredibly confusing and I got to the tutorial, having done all the reading but really not understanding it at all. Over the course of the hour the Tutor slowly and methodically helped me to unpick my confusions and misunderstandings until I began to feel like I might be able to understand the topic one day. I knew leaving the tutorial, that I still didn’t fully understand, but that I knew I COULD understand if I did some more reading. So I took a day and a half to do just that over the vacation and finished understanding a topic which had been completely incomprehensible to me before, thanks to the careful and considerate direction of my tutor.

The other story is of a politics tutorial, we were discussing the idea of freedom in political theory. What does it mean to say of someone that they are ‘free’? So, is someone without a plane ticket free to fly to America? If not then what makes them not free? If they are free then what would make them not free? It is a fascinating topic which can have some vitally important implications for how we conceive of other things like rights and duties. I entered the tutorial with a good grasp on the literature, but a few conceptual confusions. By the end of it my tutor and I had moved at a wonderful range of speeds through a series of thought experiments designed to help clarify my thoughts, and by the end of it I felt like I wanted to take back the essay I had written and rewrite it, because I knew it could be so much better!

All this goes to illustrate that wherever you are with your understanding of a topic, the tutorial will help you to better understand it. In helping you understand your subject better it will give you the increased confidence in your own abilities which is so important!

Strange Oxford Traditions: May Morning

The first of May is celebrated across the world, no less so than here in Oxford. The day begins the night before, as the most popular dance nights swing into town for all night parties, ending just before six in the morning. At daybreak, as the sun rises, the townspeople and students congregate together underneath the Tower of Magdalen College, on the High Street and Magdalen Bridge, for what is a special occasion each year in Oxford.

As the sun rises on the thousands of revelers underneath the tower, many in their dinner suits and ball gowns from the night before, the choir of Magdalen College begin to sing from the top of the tower, something that has happened there on May Morning for five hundred years!

After the singing of the Hymnus Eucharisticus, there is a prayer for the City and University. Then the wider festivities begin, from brass bands to Morris Dancing troops, the city’s streets are filled with traditional entertainment to welcome in spring. Finding people dressed as trees is not uncommon as one winds one’s way through the crowds and into the many pubs and coffee shops which open early for the revelry.

After a pint, or more likely a large coffee it is time to roll back into College, grab breakfast and then collapse in the library for another day at the books (or more likely fall asleep on the quad!)

It is not an experience to be missed for any Oxford Student: completely bizarre and a smashing good time!

How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help Improve your Essay Writing Skills

The Tutorial is structured around the essay you write. Before you go to the tutorial you will write an essay on a question set by the tutor, they will give you some reading to do and from that you will write them an essay before the tutorial itself. If this sounds a little scary then don’t worry! Not only will you have all the reading, but you will also have the residential deans (all Oxford students or alumni) to give you advice. Once you’ve written the essay the next stage is the tutorial itself. The tutorial will take your essay as the starting point for the discussion, the tutor will work through the argument you’ve made and take the discussion from there.

I found, as I had my first tutorials here at Oxford that I really had no idea how to write a good essay, but my fears were quickly allayed. While I wasn’t happy with what I had written my tutors were so helpful in guiding my arguments, helping me to understand what I had missed and how better to present it in my essays.

The good news is that along with your tutor at Oxford Summer Courses, the Residential Deans are there to give you advice. When you leave us at Oxford Summer Courses I can guarantee that you will not only have more confidence in writing your essays, but you’ll be writing better essays!

The discussion of your essay in the tutorial can be invaluable if you find that you’ve missed out some important content, or missed an argument – or (hopefully) whether you’ve managed to cover all the content you needed to! As you talk about your argument you’ll also see how you could improve your essay structure, you’ll also get comments from your tutor on the essay, which will help you with writing the next one.

This is incredibly valuable since writing essays is vital both at school and university, but it is really quite difficult to get right. It took me a long time to work out how to do it well. But, unlike submitting an essay to a teacher or to a lecturer you will be able to talk in detail about what you wrote with the person you’ve submitted it to. This is incredibly valuable and one of the best things about the Tutorial.

Benefits of the Tutorial System: Introduction

For these blog posts I thought I would write a series on the value of the tutorial system of teaching. Oxford and Cambridge, as I noted in an earlier post, are rightly famed for the tutorial system of teaching, which sees you taught by a tutor in groups no larger than two or three (and often one-on-one).

You can see my earlier blog post for more on the system in general, but it is one of the things which makes Oxford Summer Courses so special, we teach our courses through tutorials rather than lectures or workshops, making sure you get a true taste of Oxford’s education system!

In the next few blog posts I will cover some of the benefits of tutorials, including how they improve your essay writing skills, how they improve your self-confidence, how they help you better understand your subject, and how they help you learn to defend your argument. These are all different aspects of the tutorial system and each one deserves a blog post in its own right.

So check back in a week or so for the first installment: “How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help improve your essay writing skills”

The Politics of the Oxford Union

Having shared with you some photos of the Oxford Union and some information about its illustrious history, I thought I would give you all the inside track on a part of the Oxford Union that you don’t see unless you’re at Oxford. Its internal politics:

The Oxford Union is known for the debates and speakers it has - as well as the debaters who, from the Union, represent Oxford in international competitions around the world.

What is less well known is the internal politics: To hold the illustrious office of ‘President of the Oxford Union’ you have to climb the greasiest of greasy poles in student politics. It isn’t tame and it is sometimes very nasty, but it truly makes the Oxford Union a training ground for the rough and tumble world of Westminster politics (or even international politics).

Those students that succeed in getting the hundreds of votes needed to win (without breaking the many rules for elections that the Union enforces) will drink and dine with CEOs, Presidents, Prime Ministers, International Businessmen and Financiers, Politicians, Authors, Musicians and Royalty. Not only that, but the experience of running the Union, and the prestige associated with it will give you the most impressive of CV points, invaluable in the world of work - whether that is politics or not.

The prize of being President of the Oxford Union is one worth fighting for. Your name will join that of Prime Ministers and Presidents who have held the position previously, and your chances of being an MP if you choose to enter UK politics are 1 in 3!

When you examine the Presidential photos which line the walls of the Union, you will see not just incredibly capable and promising people (many of whom are now internationally known), but people who have, against all the odds, secured the most coveted of elected positions in students politics, who have fought their way to the top of the pile, and won.

When you get a chance to visit the Oxford Union with us at Oxford Summer Courses, shown round by students, some of whom have been involved in the politics of the Union, and many of whom will have regularly attended talks and debates at it, you will get a true glimpse into and account of the side of the Oxford Union often not seen by those who just visit by themselves.

The Gleaming Spires

Oxford can be beautiful in all types of weather, be it snow in winter covering the Bodleian, or the mist on an autumn morning on Christ Church Meadows, but really it is in the sun that Oxford is at its best!

When the sun is shining the buildings in Oxford gleam, the local sandstone catches the light and throws it back on you – the intensity of it makes it seem as though the ancient buildings are alive, dancing with light and vibrancy.

Of course, England is often known for its rain and its dodgy weather – so it isn’t everyday that you see the buildings in their full glory. But when you do it truly is breath-taking.

We had a day like that yesterday, a warm front had come in, and the weather was pushing 19 oc which is great for England at this time of year. Warm enough to be outside without a coat, it felt like the best of spring. The sky was cloudless and so the sun was shining brightly – and the buildings were a dazzling spectacle of gleaming stonework – when Oxford is like that it is a million miles away from the outdated stereotype of doddery old Dons shuffling around in gowns from place to place with piles of papers in their arms. Instead it feels like it is surging, breaking out, straining the bounds of the possible.

When the Colleges gleam like that the University feels like a place where truly anything can happen, where the latest breakthrough is only a moment away.

It is rare to have that experience during Hilary Term (our spring term) – but it reminded me of last summer. We had a beautiful summer here in Oxford last year, and when you walked into the centre the Colleges felt just like that. It is such a buzz to be in the city when all around you the Oxfordshire stone is glistening in the summer sun.

So come along next summer, and experience Oxford at its brightest and best!

Student’s View: “Going to Oxford Summer Courses was the best decision I ever made”

We’re thrilled to be able to share this reflection on a summer spent with Oxford Summer Courses with you, written by one of the students who studied with us last summer. You can find him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/anishkatariya.

To apply for OSC this summer click here!

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Going to OSC was the best decision I ever made. I studied physics during my course .The things I leant during the course were invaluable. We went to the Oxford Physics Research labs where our classes were held. There we saw experiments happening in front of us, which not only help us learn but also amazed us a lot.

We got to know why the things we learn were significant and how they were used in everyday life .Our tutor was really helpful, and was happy to help us in any way we needed and was always ready to clear our doubts. He also challenged us from time to time to make sure we made the best out of the 2 weeks that we were there. He told us about how physics was taught at Oxford and how we shall proceed if we wanted to pursue physics in the future.

The Residential Deans at OSC were really helpful and caring. They could be approached at any time and they would be happy to help. All of them were Oxford alumni, and were like mentors for us. They told us a lot about the Oxford life and what the colleges were like. They were the perfect people to ask about anything related to Oxford. They were very friendly and we could talk to them about anything from global issues to the silliest things like haircuts or looks.

In fact my course director took me for a haircut and told me how to do my hair because all the girls loved his hairstyle. Our Residential deans took us around Oxford, from the best restaurants to the oldest museums. They also took us for activities among which my favorite was punting. And may I add the best part about punting was pushing Harry (the course director) from his boat.

One of the best things about the course was witnessing a stand up act by the legend Matt Lacey. He was hilarious and his character Tarquin was amazing. Bill Spectre’s Ghost tour was really scary and awesome as well!

Even though I studied physics in the two weeks I was there I learnt much more than just physics. We had a debate night in which we got to know about the point of view of people belonging to different cultures on a certain topic! We also had TED style talks in which we had guest speakers talking on a topic each! My favorite one was Matt’s talk on how YouTube has taken over, and about the commercial side of YouTube! He also told us more about his viral video (Gap Yah!), which has over 5 million views on YouTube. We also had a quiz night in which we got to know exactly how dumb we were (Yes my group came last).  

The friends I made in Oxford are invaluable; meeting people from different countries and backgrounds was amazing. I learnt so much from them. The formal dinner we had in Wadham College was amazing! Our graduation ceremony was held at the famous Oxford Union, we also had an award ceremony before our graduation ceremony in which I won the award for the best haircut (Thanks to Harry!) Even though we were in Oxford just for two weeks we had bonded so well with each other that everyone was  really sad when the course was over. According to me the two weeks I spent in Oxford were the best two weeks of my life!