Chapter 9 - Teaching and learning: undergraduate education

I: The structure of the undergraduate degree


9.1 As we pointed out in Chapter 3, the Oxford undergraduate degree is now unusual in offering predominantly three or four years of continuous residential study, in a non-modular format. We have endorsed the continuation of this basic model but for a number of reasons have thought it appropriate to question whether some adaptation to changing circumstances is desirable.

9.2 First, whilst it is evident that Oxford continues to attract very high quality applicants for its undergraduate degree courses, a complacent assumption that Oxford can maintain its position cannot be justified. The expansion and increased diversity of the higher education system in the UK presents potential students with a wide choice of institutions, many of which attract highly qualified applicants by offering more flexible courses and opportunities to study less traditional subjects; it can therefore no longer be assumed that Oxford and Cambridge will be the first choice of a very high proportion of the most able students.

9.3 Secondly, as we have discussed in Chapter 3, we believe strongly that Oxford must take active steps to attract undergraduates from a broader range of backgrounds. However, a corollary to that view is a recognition of the fact that students drawn from a wider social base are likely to come with different expectations and with a more diverse range of attainment and skills than could until recently have been assumed, and this must be taken into account in considering the structure of undergraduate degree courses.

9.4 More generally, the University also needs to respond systematically to the impact of the changing nature of secondary education on undergraduate teaching needs. Significant changes include the increasing diversity of A level syllabuses in different schools and colleges (and the small but growing use of European and International Baccalaureates instead of A levels), the increasing use of project work instead of essay-writing in humanities subjects and a move towards modular A level courses. There is also a move away from specialisation at A level, a process which has been supported and encouraged by Sir Ron Dearing's 'Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds';[104] and on which the government is currently undertaking consultation.[105] The result of these trends is that a growing number of first year undergraduates come to Oxford unprepared in terms of both skills and knowledge for the intensive, focused nature of the Oxford undergraduate degree course, its emphasis on independent, self-directed study, the high volume of essay-writing and its examination system. The University must therefore consider how to bridge the gap between the skills and knowledge its undergraduates have learnt at school or college and the preparation they need to gain maximum academic benefit from their time at Oxford.

9.5 There are a number of ways in which Oxford's degree courses could be adapted to take account of the above considerations, and in particular to make Oxford's courses more attractive by allowing more scope for interdisciplinary study. We now consider some of the possibilities.

A modular system?

9.6 Oxford's non-modular system for its residential undergraduate courses now makes it an exception in UK higher education - a recent survey indicated that over 90 per cent of institutions in the UK now have modular courses or plan to introduce them. [106] Although there is a variety of structures for modularisation, the common features are that undergraduates are taught and assessed on discrete topics in modules of a term's or a semester's duration and have the opportunity to choose from a broad range of modules in a wide variety of combinations. A modular system in some cases also allows students to take breaks in their studies and to accumulate credits over a period of time, either at a single institution or, increasingly, at more than one institution by means of credit transfer. It is clear that a modular system holds a number of attractions for students, such as the opportunity to study a broad and diverse range of topics, assessment in small, self-contained units evenly spread across the whole course, and the ability to space out study periods to fit in with other demands, which may be particularly attractive for part-time and mature students. We acknowledge the value of these features, and also note that our staff survey indicated that a substantial minority of Oxford's teaching staff (22 per cent overall, with a higher proportion amongst scientists and younger staff) favoured a modular system.[107] However, given that Oxford's aim is still to attract students predominantly in the 18-21 age group, for three or four years of continuous study, there are strong academic arguments for continuing to offer a range of intensive, coherent courses covering a limited number of subjects and for assessing students' attainments in a range of topics at the end of the second and third (or fourth) years. We believe that this approach offers a number of advantages:

  • undergraduates are encouraged by the end of year assessments to recognise the inter-relations between topics, and thus their understanding of the subject as a whole is enhanced;
  • the intensive study of only one, two or three subjects over three or four years allows time for each topic to be studied in considerable depth, giving maximum potential for the undergraduate to know, understand and analyse the subject thoroughly;
  • degree grades based on assessment at the end of two or three years do more justice to the candidate, in that they are assessed on their intellectual skills, which may have developed over the years, whilst first year assessments tend to reflect a student's pre-university education.

Recommendation 49
We recommend that the University should maintain the current non-modular nature of its full-time undergraduate degree courses.

Interdisciplinary study

9.7 Notwithstanding our arguments against modularisation, we believe that some scope for interdisciplinary studies is academically desirable because it encourages cross-fertilisation between subjects. We consider that, in general, Oxford degree courses are unnecessarily inflexible in this respect, and that they could be enhanced by making more provision for interdisciplinary study, without lowering academic standards. Below we explore three means for achieving this: the existing system of joint honour schools; sequential transfers between courses; and the incorporation of options from other courses.

Joint honour schools

9.8 A significant proportion of Oxford's undergraduates choose to study a combination of two or three subjects by reading for joint honour schools (i.e. degree courses combining subjects from more than one faculty). In 1995-6, approximately one fifth of undergraduates were reading for such degrees, in 17 different subject combinations.[108] We are fully supportive of the principle of joint honour schools, as they combine the rigour of long-term intensive study of a single discipline with the academic benefits of cross-fertilisation between subjects. However, we consider that the actual operation of some joint degree courses has significant shortcomings, owing to a failure by both faculty boards and colleges to plan and control them adequately. Problems particularly arise with the joint schools which are created from two halves of existing honour schools, where difficulty has been experienced in creating a genuinely interdisciplinary course, and in assessing the appropriate overall workload of joint schools candidates. A number of joint honour school candidates commented in our survey of undergraduate students that there was a need for more explicit links to be made between the subjects studied, and also that they had more tutorials, lectures and classes to attend than single honour school candidates (although this latter point was not in general supported by the quantitative data in our survey). Another difficulty which appears to occur from time to time is a lack of coordination of their studies at college level, and an unwillingness on the part of some tutors to take responsibility for their overall progress.

Recommendation 50
We recommend the imposition of more effective controls on both the organisation of existing joint honour schools and the development of new ones, by:

(a) giving the academic boards responsibility for the planning and organisation of joint schools;

(b) giving the Educational Policy and Standards Committee responsibility for monitoring the progress of the academic boards in this regard;

(c) appointing a single college-based director of studies for each undergraduate on a joint honour school course, with the express responsibility of overseeing the whole of the student's course.[109]

Transfers between courses

9.9 Our undergraduate survey showed that about 5 per cent of all undergraduates had changed their degree course since coming up to Oxford. A further 3 per cent responded that they had wanted to transfer, but had not done so for a variety of reasons. [110] Statistics from Cambridge show a somewhat higher rate of transfer under the 'Tripos' System: nearly 5 per cent between years 1 and 2 and nearly 7 per cent between years 2 and 3.[111] Although there are few explicit obstacles to changing degree course between the first and second public examination in Oxford (except for the need to have taken papers in certain core topics), there is no formal structure to facilitate such transfers as there is in Cambridge. We believe that this is a shortcoming in the Oxford system, in that it does not encourage students to consider the possibility of studying two disciplines sequentially, either because they wish to develop their skills in more than one discipline, but outside the joint school model, or because their initial choice of degree subject was unsuitable.

Recommendation 51
We recommend that the Educational Policy and Standards Committee should consider the introduction of a more structured system of transfers between courses, giving particular attention to the system already operating in Cambridge.

Science courses

9.10 In the context of transfers between courses, we have noted that at Cambridge the Natural Sciences Tripos begins with a broadly based course in the first year, covering four different subjects in either biological or physical sciences, and does not permit narrower specialisation until the second year. We believe that this arrangement has considerable academic merit, as it ensures that science students build up a broad base of scientific knowledge before specialising in their chosen field, and, furthermore, it gives the opportunity to avoid misguided subject choices in the first year based on experience at school. We note that some attempts have already been made in this direction in Oxford, but that they have not succeeded, and we consider that the academic board for the sciences, with its overarching responsibility for these subjects, should initiate a new approach to this issue.

Recommendation 52
We recommend that the academic board for the sciences should re-examine fully the value and feasibility of adopting a broadly-based structure for undergraduate science degree courses similar to that in place at Cambridge.

Options from other courses

9.11 For those undergraduates who do not choose to take a joint degree course or to transfer between courses, the opportunity to enhance the study of their own discipline with a smaller element of study of another subject would often be beneficial. Although there are already some opportunities for taking individual options from another degree course, these are quite limited. In some cases, the limitation is for clear academic reasons, but in others the opportunity is not there simply because of the different patterns of assessment in different degree courses, affecting the timing of examinations and the weight given to particular papers therein. Whilst some subjects have preliminary examinations in Hilary Term or in Trinity Term of the first year, others do not have any preliminary examinations but have moderations or honour moderations as their first examination, mostly, but not exclusively, in Trinity Term of year one - some being in Hilary Term or Trinity Term of year two. Although it may be argued that, in some subjects, there are sound academic reasons for the chosen timing, we believe that in several cases the timing is the result of historical factors which are not relevant today. In the absence of an effective university-wide system for planning and coordination, inconsistencies may have been overlooked and have led to an unnecessarily fragmented framework for examining and other forms of assessment. We therefore consider that it would be helpful to address this issue in the context of our proposals for an overall reform of the framework for undergraduate assessment, to which we now turn.

II: Assessment of undergraduates

9.12 For a number of reasons, we have thought it appropriate to review the arrangements for making formal assessments of undergraduates' attainments in Oxford. First, as we explained above, it would be desirable for the structure of courses and the timing of examinations to be coordinated in such a way that it would be easier than at present for undergraduates to study related topics from degree courses other than their own. Secondly, given the University's commitment to drawing undergraduates from a broader range of schools and colleges it is important to recognise the limitations of assessment at the end of the first year of a degree course, which tends to reflect a student's educational background as much as his or her achievements at university. Thirdly, it is desirable to consider whether proper use is made of the variety of assessment methods available, investigating in particular whether these are fair to all undergraduates and whether they offer opportunities for undergraduates to develop and be tested on a wide range of skills.

9.13 We therefore propose out below a number of university-wide reforms to Oxford's arrangements for assessment which take the above points into account. The core features of our proposals are that:

  • the first classified assessment should take place only at the end of the second year of study;
  • there should be an equal number of examination papers (or equivalent forms of assessment) in each year of each degree course, and these should be of equal 'weight'; and
  • encouragement should be given for the use of non-examination-based forms of assessment, particularly in the third (and, where applicable, fourth) year.

The framework for assessment

9.14 The framework for assessment which we propose is summarised in Figure 9.1 below.

Figure 9.1: The proposed framework for assessment

   Form of assessment Features
End of Year 1 Preliminary examinations
  • 3 papers only
    Not classified
End of Year 2
  • Honour moderations
    Some use of alternative methods of assessment, where appropriate
  • To assess all subjects taken in years 1 and 2
End of Year 3 (or 4 in some four year degrees)
  • Final examinations
    Considerable use of other forms of assessment
  • To assess all subjects taken in year 3 (and 4)


9.15 The explanation of this structure is as follows:

End of year 1: The chief function of these examinations would be to reassure the University, the college and the undergraduates themselves that they were academically capable of taking the degree they had chosen. We believe that this is particularly important because of the phasing out of Oxford's entrance examination and because of the increasing diversity of pre-university levels of attainment. Usually, failure in these first year examinations would indicate that a particular undergraduate was not up to the standards required and he or she should be asked to leave the University; however, as now, there would be limited opportunities for retaking failed papers. The year 1 examinations would also be useful in giving undergraduates experience in the style of Oxford examinations. However, because of the limitations of first year examinations, these should not be classified. Given the function of these preliminary examinations, we do not propose that every topic studied in the first year should be examined then; we suggest that in general only three papers need be set for each honour school in year 1, in order to limit the burden of examining. To avoid pressure on space, examinations could be held in colleges and departments as well as in the Examination Schools.

End of year 2: The purpose of honour moderations would be to test the acquisition of core facts and skills by covering the central topics of the degree course. It would therefore be appropriate for honour moderations to be mainly, but not exclusively, in the form of traditional three hour examinations; limited use of some other methods of assessment may be desirable as well, as discussed in paragraphs 9.17 to 9.21. Subjects already examined in the preliminary examinations could be examined again, to prevent the degrading of first year subjects. These examinations would be classified, with the classification counting towards the final degree grade.

End of year 3 (or year 4, in four year courses where the final year is not devoted to a research project): The subjects taken in the final year of the degree course should be more specialised than in earlier years, as at present, and only those topics not examined at the end of the second year should be assessed at this stage. The final degree grade would therefore have to reflect both the second year and final year grades.

9.16 The above proposals for adjustments to the framework of assessment may give rise to fears that the already heavy burden of examining faced by university staff would increase. Although it is true that university examinations would become more frequent, it is not expected that our reforms would result in a significantly greater burden on staff. First, it is proposed that the first year examinations should not be double-marked, except in borderline cases. Secondly, as the final year examinations would cover only subjects taught in the third (and, where applicable, fourth) year, the examining load would be split between the second and final year. Thirdly, it is anticipated that the amount of other examining would be reduced: the entrance examination has already been abolished and it is expected that there would be less need for college examinations if university examinations became more frequent.

Methods of assessment

9.17 At present, much of the formal assessment of undergraduates in the humanities and social sciences in Oxford is achieved through written unseen examinations, although a number of honour schools have a compulsory or optional thesis (or extended essay or dissertation) instead of one or more examination papers. In the sciences, on the other hand, submission of some other form of work for assessment is frequently compulsory, and there tends to be more variety in the types of work assessed, such as notes of practical work undertaken during the year, dissertations and extended essays, team projects and small research theses. We welcome the moves towards more diversity in assessment methods, but consider that further attention needs to be given to the value of different assessment methods and, in particular, to the use of written examinations.

9.18 Written examinations have a number of strengths as an assessment method:

  • they assess attainment of knowledge and the use of problem-solving and analytical skills;
  • revision for examinations encourages the review of a whole year's or two years' work;
  • examinations help students to develop the ability to work effectively under intense pressure;
  • in some respects, examinations ensure that equal conditions are applied to all those being assessed (e.g. same choices of questions, same length of time to answer, no access to outside help);
  • invigilated examinations remove the opportunity for plagiarism, an increasing problem with the availability of 'model' essays on the Internet.

9.19 However, there are also a number of disadvantages to a heavy reliance on written examinations:

  • they are not conducive to the development and assessment of other important skills, such as the ability to sustain and evaluate a long-term project, to present detailed arguments and supporting evidence coherently, to present information orally and to work in collaboration with others;
  • they are highly susceptible to favouring those who have mastered 'exam technique' over those who may have a more thorough understanding of their subject;
  • they can be discriminatory against certain groups of students, for example those who do not work well under pressure, or whose schooling has not prepared them adequately for intensive examinations;
  • they impose an intense pressure on the academic staff responsible for setting and marking examinations.

9.20 Some consideration has already been given by the University to these and related issues. For example, the Equal Opportunities Committee has commissioned research into the possible reasons for the disparity between men's and women's results in finals, a suggestion being that written examinations, or at least the questions which are now asked in them, are unfavourable to women as an assessment method. Similarly, the Dyslexia Working Party is addressing a number of issues relating to the obstacles faced by students with dyslexia, including the examination system. We welcome investigation of these issues and encourage the examination of the possible use of alternative methods of assessment to overcome these and other such problems.

9.21 In addition to our concerns about unwitting discrimination through the examination system, we also consider that over-reliance on written examinations deprives the University of an opportunity for developing students' wider skills through use of other methods of assessment. We explore the whole issue of 'transferable skills' more fully in paragraphs 9.39 to 9.41. At this stage we wish to draw attention to the opportunities offered, for example, by extended essays or mini-theses to foster skills in structuring and developing well-reasoned arguments and in conducting research; similarly, assessment of a formal oral presentation of work to a group of assessors encourages students to develop skills in oral argument and presentation. We therefore believe that it would be beneficial for the University to use a wider variety of assessment methods, whilst continuing to use traditional examinations as one element of the assessment process.

Recommendation 53
We recommend that the academic boards, in conjunction with the Educational Policy and Standards Committee, should develop a university-wide structure for undergraduate assessment incorporating the following features:

(a) classified assessment first taking place at the end of the second year of study;

(b) an equal number of examination papers (or equivalent forms of assessment) of equal weight, in each year of each degree course;

(c) increased use of non-examination-based forms of assessment, particularly in the third (and, where applicable, fourth) year.

III: The tutorial system


9.22 The tutorial system, which is a distinctive feature of undergraduate education at both Oxford and Cambridge, makes a significant contribution to maintaining Oxford's standard of excellence in teaching and has consistently attracted commendation from external teaching quality assessors. Although the nature of tutorials varies considerably between subjects and in particular between humanities and sciences, there are certain common elements which give the tutorial system its value.

9.23 First, it is in the nature of tutorial teaching that it is conducted by the tutor with an individual student or only a very small group of students. Our survey of undergraduates indicated that the most common number of students in a tutorial was one or two, and only a small proportion had four or more students attending.[112] This small size enables the tutor to set work appropriate to the level of knowledge and understanding of each student and to give undergraduates a high degree of individual attention.

9.24 Secondly, an important aspect of the tutorial system is the significant amount of work which the student is expected to do in advance of a tutorial, for example by way of background reading followed by essay-writing, or by preparing answers to problem sheets. As Figure 9.2, below, illustrates, undergraduates in the humanities and social sciences reported in our survey that they spent on average 14 to 15 hours in preparation for each tutorial; in the sciences the figure was nine hours - somewhat less, but still considerable, given the significant amount of time also spent in practicals. We consider this preparation to be an important part of an undergraduate's education, as it encourages the student to take an active rather than passive role in learning and develops skills in self-directed study and working independently, as well as analytical and critical skills.

Figure 9.2: Mean hours of preparation per tutorial - Hilary Term 1996

Subject type Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 All
Humanities 12.37 14.39 15.60 16.28 14.22
Social Sciences 14.33 16.54 15.67  8.65 15.38
Science  6.67  9.96 11.42  7.36  9.14
All 10.64 13.16 14.11 14.69 12.64

Source: Commission of Inquiry Survey of Undergraduate Students

9.25 Thirdly, the tutorial itself gives the undergraduate the opportunity to discuss particular topics in considerable detail with the tutor, who may well be a leading expert in the subject or a young active researcher at the forefront of the discipline, and to gain experience in debating and defending arguments when the student's preparatory work is discussed. This method of learning also encourages undergraduates to develop effective oral communications skills.

9.26 Finally, it is a principle of the tutorial system in Oxford that a significant proportion of the tutorials which an undergraduate attends are given by an individual recognised to be the undergraduate's own tutor. Although it is often entirely appropriate for a student to be sent to a tutor in another college for a particular topic, because of the tutor's special expertise, the principle remains valid that the tutor who is responsible for monitoring the progress and directing the studies of an individual student is also regularly involved in teaching that student through tutorials, especially in the first year of an undergraduate's course when the topics studied are not so specialised. The results of our undergraduate survey showed that 48 per cent of all tutorials were given by the undergraduate's own tutor. We believe that this approach is right, as it encourages an effective relationship to form between the tutor and each individual student; this assists monitoring of the student's progress, fosters strong commitment on both sides and can make an undergraduate more confident about approaching the tutor in case of problems.

9.27 Our surveys of staff and undergraduates support a view that most tutorials meet these aims most of the time. Reports by external teaching quality assessors also indicate the value and quality of tutorial teaching, as the following examples indicate:

'Tutorials clearly emerge as central to history teaching at Oxford...Assessors were struck by the obvious intellectual vigour in a teaching environment which is challenging and demanding for both staff and students'.[113]

'Among the characteristics of the tutorials judged to be excellent were clear aims and objectives; high expectations and a challenging and critical approach to the subject, matched to the individual needs and differing abilities of students; well prepared students, well structured sessions, with good management of time; fast but suitable pace; good rapport between tutors and students; and a common sense of seriousness of purpose and intellectual excitement'.[114]

9.28 Nevertheless, there are concerns about two aspects of the tutorial system which should be addressed; these relate to the frequency of tutorials, with the consequent heavy workload for both tutors and students, and the nature of feedback given to undergraduates on their written work. We believe that at the root of both these concerns is a degree of uncertainty about the role of the tutorial in the undergraduate course as a whole.

Role of the tutorial

9.29 Because of the natural differences between tutorials in different subjects, it is difficult to give a general definition of tutorial teaching. Tutorials in the humanities and social sciences tend to be focused on discussion with the tutor of a long essay, produced after consideration of relevant background material identified by the tutor in a reading list. In the sciences, on the other hand, fewer essays are required and tutorials are often used to go through worksheets and other exercises. Figures 9.2, above, and 9.3, below, show the considerable variation between subjects and years of study in the amount of time spent preparing for each tutorial and in the number of tutorials received. Nevertheless, despite the differences, the aim of the tutorial as a teaching method is the same: to encourage the undergraduate to explore a particular aspect of a subject in depth and to give an opportunity for the undergraduate to put forward his or her own ideas and present a critical analysis of a particular problem or proposition; it should not primarily be a vehicle for the tutor to teach the 'right answer' nor to impart factual information which could be better obtained through background reading, lectures or technology-based learning.

Figure 9.3: Mean number of tutorials per fortnight by subject type and year Hilary Term 1996

Subject type Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 All
Humanities 3.51 3.04 3.07 2.82 3.18
Social Sciences 3.67 3.10 2.57 2.47 3.12
Science 4.18 3.47 2.71 0.91 3.33
All 3.79 3.21 2.82 2.20 3.22

Source: Commission of Inquiry Survey of Undergraduate Students

9.30 The Franks Commission in 1966 had concerns that the expansion of syllabuses at that time was leading to a tendency for tutorials to be treated as an opportunity for tutors to convey additional information to undergraduates. As a consequence that Commission recommended that as a general rule no undergraduate should have more than one tutorial a week (or should write more than one essay a week); it was believed that this approach would restore the tutorial to its proper role which was 'to teach the pupil how to think'.[115] The Franks Commission's recommendation on the number of tutorials was, however, rejected by the University and, as Figure 9.3 shows, has not been followed in practice. It will be seen that the overall average number of tutorials attended by each undergraduate is about three in a fortnight. Whilst we do not think that it is appropriate for a body such as ourselves to recommend a universally applicable norm for the number of tutorials to be set, as the variations between subjects are so great, we share the Franks Commission's concern that the tutorial is sometimes misused and consequently overused. We believe that there are a number of reasons for this.

9.31 One reason is the increasing emphasis on undergraduates' examination performance. As tutorials are commonly perceived as being the best way to improve an undergraduate's examination performance, both undergraduates and tutors have an incentive to increase their frequency. From the undergraduate's point of view, the growing importance of a good class of degree in finding employment means that frequent tutorials are attractive, whilst tutors have an understandable personal interest in maximising their students' potential in examinations and in contributing to their college's academic reputation.

9.32 However, we believe that this examination-led teaching represents a misconception of the role of the tutorial and that a continued increase in the number of tutorials received by undergraduates is unsustainable in terms of the pressure which it puts on both teaching staff and undergraduates. Indeed, in some subjects maintenance of the current frequency of tutorials may well be thought undesirable. Tutors who are employed by both the University and a college are expected to give lectures, teach and supervise graduate students, carry out high quality research and undertake administrative duties, as well as to give tutorials. Unless a conscious effort is made to resist pressure to give more tutorials, academic staff will either have to work even longer hours or have to reduce the time spent on the other activities, some of which present less immediate and personal demands but are equally part of their role in the operation of Oxford as a whole. In addition, for many undergraduates pressure of work is a real concern, which was forcefully expressed in the comment sheets submitted as part of our undergraduate survey. Moreover, it is interesting to note that 80 per cent of the teaching staff who approved of the proposition in our staff survey that there should be only one tutorial a week for each undergraduate did so because they thought that this step would encourage a better quality of work from undergraduates.

9.33 A further factor in the increase in the number of tutorials is the changing nature of secondary school education, which we described in paragraph 9.4. Tutorials are increasingly being used, especially in the first year, to bring students up to a common level of attainment of skills and knowledge to enable them adequately to approach the rest of their degree course. Although this development is superficially attractive, because it encourages the tutor to respond to the needs of each individual student, it is wasteful of both staff and student time and demonstrates a need for better planning and coordination on the part of the University. Part of the regular planning process of the academic boards should be to identify the specific areas in which secondary school education commonly leaves some groups of undergraduates ill-prepared for a particular degree course and to identify the most appropriate medium, for example classes, for imparting the necessary skills or information to undergraduates. This could significantly reduce the number of tutorials given, especially in the first year, without any academic disadvantage to undergraduates. It is expected that the improved planning mechanisms which we propose, with a more flexible joint appointments system in place (on which see Chapter 7), would result in such subject-wide arrangements being much easier to implement than at present.

Recommendation 54
We recommend that the academic boards for the sciences and for the humanities and social sciences should:

(a) review the use made of different teaching methods in their subjects;

(b) particularly in the humanities and social sciences, emphasise to tutors and students that the role of a series of tutorials is not to cover all the topics in a syllabus, nor are tutorials to be regarded as substitutes for lectures, classes and personal background reading, which must be established as the prime vehicles for imparting factual information;

(c) promote greater cohesion between lecture courses, classes and tutorials; and

(d) consider to what extent lectures, classes and technology-based learning can be used, particularly in the first year, to bring undergraduates up to a broadly equal, appropriate standard for their course.

9.34 In addition to the above, it is important to note that our recommendation on the setting of norms for the amount of teaching to be provided (Recommendation 43) would naturally include norms for numbers of tutorials per term. Such norms would encourage undergraduates to have realistic expectations about the number of tutorials they were likely to receive and would reduce the pressure on tutors to give additional tutorials.

Feedback in tutorials

9.35 A common complaint from the undergraduates who returned comment sheets as part of our survey was that tutors did not provide enough feedback on essays, either by giving an overall grade for an essay or by making specific comments on the content of the essay. This was felt to lead to a number of problems: undergraduates could not use their essays for revision, because they did not know which parts were reliable; they could not try to improve their arguments, preparation or writing techniques because they could not identify their weaknesses; finally, they did not know how much they needed to improve in order to obtain a satisfactory grade in finals. A number said that their confidence was being undermined by the lack of encouragement from their tutors.

9.36 Although we appreciate undergraduates' strength of feeling on this issue, we believe that these views arise mainly from a mistaken perception of the purpose of a tutorial. The central part of the business in a tutorial should be active, two-way discussion of the student's work; the pressure for comments to be made in writing on the work in advance is part of a general trend towards 'pre-packaging',with marks being used as a measure of the efficiency with which information has been absorbed. It is a move away from a system in which the student defends his or her work and ideas, towards one in which the work is graded outside the tutorial and the meeting itself is used as a private lesson in which the tutor explains the 'right answer'. Such a shift towards passive learning would represent the loss of a key aspect of Oxford's tutorial system, and should, in our view, be resisted.

9.37 Nevertheless, undergraduates have a legitimate desire to know how they are progressing and whether their work is consistent and of a satisfactory standard. It is important for Oxford to respond to undergraduates' concerns on this point, by making it clear to tutors that undergraduates are entitled to effective and helpful written comments on their work. We note, however, that marking with grades is not always appropriate, as the standards expected at different stages of a course may vary and grades may therefore not be comparable. These practices and the rationale behind them should be explained to tutors in a faculty or departmental handbook (see Recommendation 46) and to undergraduates in each faculty prospectus.

Recommendation 55
We recommend that faculties and departments should ensure that their undergraduates are informed of their policies on commenting on and grading tutorial work, by setting these out explicitly in the student prospectus for each course.

9.38 We have noted that, in addition, opportunities for undergraduates to receive a constructive evaluation of their progress should be available through college examinations and termly meetings with tutors and others. It is incumbent on colleges to ensure that their monitoring and reporting procedures are such that undergraduates will feel assured that they have adequate feedback on their academic work, albeit not necessarily through the grading of tutorial work.

IV: Transferable skills

9.39 In the context of our recommendations on teaching and assessment methods, we have recognised that employers of graduates increasingly are assessing applicants on the evidence of broader skills relevant to the workplace (such as numeracy, command of languages, computer-literacy and leadership) as well as of academic achievement. In consequence, many undergraduates now wish their degree course to impart some element of these 'transferable skills'. The Dearing Committee has also recognised the role which higher education can play in developing students' 'key skills', in conjunction with a traditional academic training.[116] In contrast, most Oxford degree courses have been designed with purely academic objectives in mind. They continue to provide undergraduates with a highly respected academic training, which is valuable in its own right and which also develops analytical and communications skills relevant to most careers. However, it might be argued that Oxford is failing to meet an important educational need, and may eventually discourage potential students, if it does not incorporate into its degree courses more opportunities for undergraduates to acquire a broader range of skills applicable to the workplace.

9.40 Responses to our undergraduate survey confirm that there is an awareness on the part of current undergraduates that they lack opportunities to acquire such skills, and a desire for this to change. Figure 9.4 show clearly the areas in which the lack of opportunity is most keenly felt, and that these sometimes vary between subject groups. It is clear that there is a particular concern about IT skills and foreign languages, and some scientists perceive that they have only limited scope for developing either oral or written communication skills. We believe that this issue is one which needs to be considered in depth by the academic boards. In that context, the results from this part of our survey will provide a useful source of information.

Figure 9.4: Opportunities to develop 'transferable skills'
(Percentage of undergraduates responding to 1996 Survey of Undergraduate Students)

  Opportunity offered to develop these skills in your course? More opportunity wanted?
Skill Yes To some extent No Yes No
Information technology          
Humanities 10.0% 24.8% 65.2% 61.4% 38.6%
Social Sciences 16.2% 31.9% 51.9% 62.3% 37.7%
Science 40.0% 43.0% 17.0% 58.3% 41.7%
All 22.4% 33.0% 44.6% 60.4% 39.6%
Humanities 6.0% 16.1% 77.9% 38.4% 61.6%
Social Sciences 7.2% 22.1% 70.7% 45.7% 54.3%
Science 3.3% 24.1% 72.6% 48.0% 52.0%
All 5.2% 20.3% 74.5% 43.5% 56.5%
Humanities 11.5% 27.7% 60.7% 51.1% 48.9%
Social Sciences 11.5% 32.7% 55.8% 56.4% 43.6%
Science 24.6% 44.6% 30.8% 52.2% 47.8%
All 16.4% 35.0% 48.6% 52.5% 47.5%
Problem solving/
analytical skills
Humanities 59.9% 27.9% 12.3% 33.9% 66.1%
Social Sciences 65.8% 26.4% 7.8% 41.4% 58.6%
Science 74.6% 21.3% 4.1% 33.2% 66.8%
All 66.5% 25.1% 8.4% 35.1% 64.9%
Written communication          
Humanities 89.6% 9.1% 1.3% 23.0% 77.0%
Social Sciences 87.7% 10.3% 2.0% 23.1% 76.9%
Science 43.9% 34.9% 21.2% 42.3% 57.7%
All 72.3% 18.9% 8.8% 30.4% 69.6%
Oral communication          
Humanities 70.8% 24.7% 4.5% 41.9% 58.1%
Social Sciences 66.9% 27.6% 5.4% 43.5% 56.5%
Science 27.7% 45.5% 26.8% 53.3% 46.7%
All 54.0% 33.0% 13.0% 46.5% 53.5%
Time management          
Humanities 65.7% 25.9% 8.4% 37.1% 62.9%
Social Sciences 70.3% 21.8% 7.9% 38.8% 61.2%
Science 59.9% 29.6% 10.6% 36.9% 63.1%
All 64.4% 26.5% 9.1% 37.3% 62.7%
Foreign languages          
Humanities 18.9% 20.1% 60.9% 63.5% 36.5%
Social Sciences 3.7% 7.1% 89.2% 63.6% 36.4%
Science 6.0% 7.5% 86.6% 56.9% 43.1%
All 11.1% 12.9% 76.0% 61.1% 38.9%


9.41 Because the scope and means for incorporating transferable skills will vary considerably between subjects, and particularly between the humanities, social sciences and sciences, it is not appropriate for us to make detailed recommendations on how such incorporation should be achieved. However, there are a few key points which we wish to make:

  • The opportunity for acquiring transferable skills should be made an integral part of each course, rather than being added as a separate element in a way which did not allow the student to develop them in a practical context and might lead to this element being marginalised by both teachers and students. Both teaching and assessment methods should be reviewed, with the aim of using a range of methods which would extend the variety of skills which might be developed. In teaching, for instance, more computer-based learning could be introduced to develop IT skills, and undergraduates could be asked more regularly to present papers in classes, to promote presentation skills. Group projects could be introduced to encourage teamwork and leadership. In paragraphs 9.17 to 9.21, we have already discussed how assessment could move away from the dominance of traditional three hour examinations.
  • The training provided in such transferable skills must be appropriate to an undergraduate's needs; for example, tests to ascertain existing levels of attainment in such areas as languages and computer skills should be introduced, and exemptions from courses given if, for example, relevant A levels are held.
  • We welcome the developments which have already taken place, such as the introduction of a modern languages option in physics, in engineering and in metallurgy and science of materials.
  • It should be recognised that undergraduates at Oxford have the benefit of the tutorial system, which already provides students with the opportunity to develop the ability to work under pressure, to work alone, to express themselves concisely and to analyse large amounts of information. That this is the case was borne out, for example, by a recent Teaching Quality Assessment report:
    'The promotion of transferable skills seemed well in evidence here. Individual students commented to the assessors on the value of the tutorial system, and of its demands for analysis and oral presentation in particular. They also commented on the very useful training which working under pressure to demanding requirements provided for post-university life and work.'[117]
  • Although Oxford's degree courses do not in general provide scope at present for developing social skills such as leadership and teamwork, the nature of Oxford student life as a whole, with its proliferation of societies and activities based in colleges as well as in the University, gives an unusual amount of opportunity for individuals to acquire such skills through participation in the running of committees, sports teams, cultural activities and the like. This is well evidenced by the responses to our undergraduate survey, where 63 per cent of respondents considered that they were acquiring such skills through extra-curricular activities at Oxford. Undergraduates, and through them employers, should be encouraged to give appropriate value and recognition to this aspect of undergraduate life at Oxford.

Recommendation 56
We recommend that the academic boards and the Educational Policy and Standards Committee, in consultation with the University Careers Service, should consider how teaching and assessment methods might be utilised in order to develop a broader range of skills in Oxford's students.