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Fill Out the Middle

Here is some out-of-the-box thinking on tutorials.

The Williams College tutorial system was started in the late eighties, around the same time that the Williams-Exeter Program at Oxford began. The two are inextricably linked — the Williams tutorial system was based on the Oxford system, is advertised as “Oxford style”, and has continuously been compared and contrasted with the experiences of the twenty-eight students who go to Oxford each year.

The 2002 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes:

Here’s how the tutorials at Williams work: Two students — one presenting a paper, the other critiquing it — spend an hour each week with a professor. Unlike independent study, reading lists, problem sets, and assignments are part of the agenda. If all goes well, the professor stays quietly in the background.

This system works great — at times. The article goes on to describe Professor James Wood’s tutorial on World War II, and the fabulous experiences that students who took that course had. I took a different tutorial with Professor Wood: Hist 136T, on World War I. It was the best course I’ve taken at Williams so far. Professor Wood is every bit the magician that the article describes. Alternating essays and critiques each week, a great atmosphere, and nothing more than an insightful comment and a few closing remarks from Professor Wood each hour. It works great.

However, not every tutorial is in History, and not every subject is as amenable to the one-essay-a-week system.

Author Arjun Ravi Narayan ’10 continues below. He will also be responding to any comments/criticisms/questions readers might have.

Physics, Computer Science and Mathematics all offer tutorials as well. I took tutorials in statistics tutorial and computer science — and both were fantastic. However, the Williams system is overly rigid: imposing a two-student, once-a-week, hour long meeting as the “definition” of a tutorial. This is unnecessary. Just because Oxford does it that way (and they don’t. It’s how the Williams at Oxford program does it and not how a regular Oxford student does it either.) doesn’t make it the ideal.

I am currently spending my junior year abroad at Cambridge University and they do it differently. The supervisions at Cambridge, as they are called, are much more flexible and it works much better for the sciences. In CSCI 337T, a great course with Professor Bailey, we had great tutorials each week in pairs. But we had to force an ad-hoc system of a weekly lecture where all the 10 students met. There are some things that just have to be demonstrated with a lot of chalk and head-scratching. Duane Bailey, being an experienced professor, figured this out and had a weekly lecture anyway. The same with Stat 442T with Professor De Veaux. The weekly lecture was essential to the class. In Hist 136T, we just had weekly readings instead. The same is not possible in computer science.

Junior professors and professors new to tutorials don’t know this. I had an economics tutorial which didn’t work so well; we tried essays, but the class was too numerical. We needed more demonstrations outside our allotted one-hour-a-week. The course was planned within the framework of 12 one-hour meetings in pairs, yet the framework should be designed around the requirements of the course. Give the professors a thorough exposure to the possibilities, and let them design whatever system they think will work best.

I described the Cambridge system here. But Williams is a different institution, with different requirements. There are no armies of graduate students to run tutorials. Courses are rigid. Cambridge runs with 4 “papers” at the end of the year that you prepare for. Williams has a more strict system of 8 semester courses a year. But, there are several things that can be done.

First, adopt the Cambridge system of some lectures + some tutorials. A few courses at Cambridge have just 2 tutorials. Take Computer Science 256 Algorithms. There are usually about 25 students in the course. The last two weeks could be spent studying some really hard algorithms in tutorial groups. The students could even have some choice of which algorithm to study. After 10 weeks of solid grounding in algorithm analysis, the students are ready for some advanced work. Second, make the group size flexible. Some courses are popular, and tutorial groups with four students work quite well.

If Professor Heeringa could do 5-7 tutorials with 4 students each in the last two weeks, that would be fantastic.

Third, reduce lectures. I don’t want professor Heeringa to do an overview of the big O notation in the first week of CSCI 256. It’s a waste of his talents. Instead, impose a large reading list on the students before the course starts, or in the first week (or continuously!) and teach fewer lectures a week. You could start with one lecture a week and lots of reading, and transition towards three lectures a week as the material gets more complex and requires explanations. If Professor Heeringa had to teach 2 lectures a week rather than 3, and expected students to learn the easier stuff from reading, he would be more able to intersperse some more tutorial work. Especially if the tutorials were in large enough groups that he could cope with the load. It’s not your poster child tutorial, but it’s an improvement
on a lecture course.

These principles can be applied to other courses. Math 211, Linear algebra, probably doesn’t scale. With more than 100 students a term, there is no way to do tutorials without the PhD army. But Math 251 Discrete Math can fit the same model as CSCI 256 — throw in a couple of tutorials at the end. We wrote essays each week for Phil 101 (a class capped at 19). Professor Dudley shaped a large part of my writing and thinking ability. But if the last two weeks were instead two tutorials in groups of three or four, it would be even better.

Project courses work well with tutorials — the students team up in small groups and do a project. Computer science already has a few project course tutorials. But its the courses in between that are missing at Williams — the ones where a large percentage can be done in lectures and the rest in little tutorial components. Such courses would really be “stepping stones”. I expect a lot of them would begin, hesitantly, with two tutorials (one tutorial is just not worth the effort). Some of them would work great, and transition to full fledged tutorial courses. Some professors are unwilling to take a popular course and turn it into one that is limited to 10 enrolled students. Let them take on larger groups of three and four. Its suboptimal, but preferable to locking a lot of students out, or teaching the whole thing lecture style.

There is a continuum of possibilities, and Williams has embraced two ends. Now it’s time to fill out the middle.

Indeed. Although my ultimate goal is No More Lectures and Every Course a Tutorial, all of Arjun’s ideas would make Williams better. Which professors will lead the way?