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Should Tutorials be required for Williams students

In a recent post, DDF wrote:

Take a tutorial every semester. The more tutorials you take, the better your Williams education will be. There are few plausible excuses for not taking a tutorial every semester. Although many tutorials are now filled, others are not.

Too many first years take a big intro class because they think they “should.” They shouldn’t! Even a “bad” tutorial at Williams is better than almost all intro courses. If you are a first year and you don’t take a tutorial, you are doing it wrong. Note that, even if you don’t have the official prerequisites for a class, you should still enroll. The pre-reqs almost never matter and professors will always (?) let you into a tutorial with empty spots.

By the way, where can we find data about how popular tutorials are? For example, do most/all tutorials end up filled? How many students attempted to enroll in each one? More transparency!

DDF asks, and we (collectively) can try to answer!

Williams has, very helpfully and very transparently, provided a list of tutorials for the Fall 2019 semester.  According to the list, 61 different tutorials were going to be offered this fall.  If each were full, that would allow for 610 tutorial spots (I think each tutorial has room for 10 students (5 pairs of two kids each)).  If each student were limited to 1 tutorial per semester, that would mean less than one student in three could take a tutorial this fall.  So there is no way for every current Eph to take DDF’s advice.  Moreover, of those 61 listed tutorials, 5 are shown as having been cancelled, presumably either for lack of interest or some issue for the faculty member running the course.  That leaves 56 tutorials for the fall.  Of the 56 tutorials being offered this semester, 10 currently have openings, though its not clear how many openings there are for each one.  That means that 46 are full.  If we assume that the open tutorials have anywhere from 6-8 students currently registered for them, then approximately 520-540 students are taking one this fall.  That’s about 1 in 4 students, which is a pretty good amount.

Tutorials were introduced at Williams in 1988, which was shortly after the Williams at Oxford program really got going. (My recollection was that the Oxford program began sometime after 1986, when I was at Williams, but according to this web page, the program dates to 1985).  I took a tutorial (Heterocylic Chemistry) in the Spring of 1990, right before I graduated.  I only did it because I thought I should (its the same reason I took a Philosophy class my junior year and an introductory tax class my second year at law school), because it was, at the time, a pretty unique educational opportunity.  But I liked the class, and it was a good opportunity to get to know the professor (Hodge Markgraff) in a way that never would have happened otherwise.  I’m not sure I learned more heterocyclic chemistry than I might have in a more traditional chemistry class, but I thought it was very valuable to go through the tutorial process.

I’m not sure I agree with DDF that taking a tutorial freshman year is necessarily a good idea, but I do agree with him that taking one or more tutorials is a good thing.  According to this page, “more than half of all Williams students take at least one during their time” at Williams, so I guess many students agree with me.  But obviously a pretty large chunk of the student body (presumably close to half) never takes a tutorial.  Should the College make taking a tutorial a requirement for graduation?  On the one hand, it is an excellent and, if not unique, at least an uncommon educational opportunity.  Williams might be justified in nudging (forcing?) those students who won’t take one on their own into trying the experience.  On the other hand, as laid out above, it might be difficult for students to get into a tutorial in a subject in which they have significant (or even any!) interest.  It could create some real scheduling dilemnas for seniors every year.  What do you think?


“Williams College tutorials get top marks”

Dave Fehr writes for the Berkshire Advocate and quite often about Williams College. Here is his latest story from the Advocate <div

Posted: 03/09/2011 01:34:50 PM EST

Wednesday March 9, 2011

“For a change, write something nice about Williams College.”

This was suggested recently by one of my nine loyal readers. It made me wonder whether I’ve really been that tough on them, so I did a quick check of 150 or so columns written for The Advocate and The Transcript before that.

Williams appears in many of them; if I’m going to “write local,” what other subject is more interesting? Well more than half showed the college in a positive light. While many of the athletic facilities are dreadful and the policy on athletic admissions is unrealistic (there were also tongue-in-cheek rants about the curious aversion to air conditioning), few other columns were negative save for the time they essentially stopped serving lunch at the Faculty Club.

Everything else, especially teaching, which is obviously what matters most, and athletics, which matters most to me (!), gets top grades. I also believe the college is a good citizen and is generous to the town, but it seems that opinion is not universal around here.

So how about this for “something nice”? Tutorials are one of the most exciting innovations in American undergraduate education, and Williams is right in the forefront of this initiative. At a time when (especially at large universities) class sizes are expanding and many courses are essentially taught by graduate assistants, tutorial programs go in the opposite direction.

They constitute as close to pure learning Read more


Waiting To Get Clubbed

From Swarthmore Professor Tim Burke:

While they’re here [at Swarthmore] their writing may improve, their skills in using various academic disciplines may deepen, their knowledge of a particular subject or field may grow very impressively. But many students who grow in those ways do not necessarily become better at speaking or at presenting themselves effectively, not even in the controlled environment of classroom discussion. To be honest, I think some of our students become worse at self-presentation and speaking skills in their time here. Some adapt too strongly to the narrow particularity of academic conversation. Other students get too used to political or social engagement with a community that politely indulges most of their demands or arguments or has a fairly strong consensus culture, never really experiencing serious disagreement or plurality of opinion. I’ve occasionally suggested, semi-seriously, that I feel like we train some students as the speaking and presentation equivalents of baby seals on the ice, waiting to get clubbed.

Indeed. I like to imagine that tutorials help with this. I have heard that some tutorials involve some serious and contentions back-and-forths between the students and with the professor. True? What was your experience in tutorials? One of the main reasons to end all lectures is that, the more small classes that students are in, the more they are forced into speaking in a public setting, even if it is one as supportive as a Williams classroom.


Williams Tutorials

I’ve heard a little bit about tutorials here on EphBlog, how unique they are to Williams, how they have been one of Morty’s pet projects, how they should be put on the ever-growing list of “things that need to be budgeted”, but I don’t recall hearing much about them from those who have been, or are currently, enrolled in one.

This article on the Williams website says:

More common in older universities in Britain, the tutorial format is rare in U.S. higher education.

How rare? Does anyone know where else they are offered?

How a tutorial course is conducted does vary, but usually 10 students will be enrolled. At the beginning of the term, the instructor divides the students into five pairs. Each pair meets with the instructor each week for about an hour. At these weekly meetings, one student will deliver a prepared essay or presentation about the assignment for that week. The other student and the instructor offer a critique. The following week the students switch roles.

I’d like to hear more about this. Does the prof determine the pairs, or can two students decide they want to partner?

Student course evaluations for tutorials are very high – generally significantly higher than for other courses at comparable levels. In a survey of alumni from 1989 through 1996 who had taken at least one tutorial, more than 80 percent indicated that their tutorial was “the most valuable of my courses” at Williams.

Any of those 80 percent reading EphBlog? If so, could you tell us about your tutorial experience?


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