Lawrence hosts tutorial

Beth McHenry and Veronica DeVore

Last weekend, Lawrence welcomed 90 professors and administrators from 10 liberal arts colleges and universities for a conference entitled “Tutorial Education: History, Pedagogy, and Evolution.”
In particular, the conference hosted a number of representatives from Oxford University, one of the first institutions to embrace tutorial education. The conference examined the history and future of tutorial education through speakers and panel discussions.
Of most interest, the conference served several purposes for improving tutorial education at Lawrence and worldwide. In a larger scope, it helped Lawrence obtain international recognition for efforts so far in tutorial education.
Lawrence faculty learned about techniques used at other liberal arts institutions; and finally, universities like Lawrence made a statement about the value of tutorial education.
President Jill Beck, who has played an integral role in encouraging tutorial education at Lawrence, found the views of the guest presenters from outside universities especially beneficial.
“It is vital for Lawrence to welcome such visitors to our campus for the purpose of conversations on matters of significance to undergraduate education,” she said.
The conference began with opening remarks from Beck, who gave a brief overview and definition of tutorial education. She then shared her initial experiences with tutorials at Lawrence, stating that soon after assuming the presidency, “the drumbeat I began to hear was that the tutorial was a ubiquitous phenomenon at Lawrence and that it had a long history.”
Beck outlined the steps that have recently been taken to improve and understand tutorial education at Lawrence, including detailed research of tutorial trends and her own trips to Oxford University to better understand its longstanding tutorial tradition.
Finally, Beck raised an issue that would be echoed by speakers throughout the conference, voicing concern over the federal government’s recent efforts to “call for something like ‘no undergraduate left behind’ . by raising the specter of standardized tests for college students.”
Beck argued, “The approach of standardized testing cannot begin to measure the methods of teaching and learning practiced at many leading liberal arts schools.”
The Lawrence president then introduced the keynote speaker Alan Ryan of Oxford University, who eloquently outlined Oxford’s long history of tutorials and explained the significance of essay writing in tutorial learning.
He also expressed his dislike for the term “individualized learning”: “A lot of education is making a subordinate of our individuality to the demands of a discipline and the demands of a skill,” Ryan stated.
“An individual interpretation is worth praise only because it sheds light on something other than the individual, namely the work in front of us.”
Following Ryan’s remarks, a panel of speakers took the stage, composed of Lawrence professors John Dreher and Paul Cohen as well as representatives from Ohio’s Wooster College and Maryland’s St. John’s College.
Professor Dreher was first to speak, outlining and explaining the tutorial-esque relationship between Socrates and his pupils in Plato’s “Republic.”
Next, the president of Wooster College spoke on Wooster’s mandatory Independent Study requirement. He explained, among other things, the tradition of IS day, when seniors are paraded around campus with bagpipe accompaniment to celebrate the completion of their Independent Study papers.
Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College, explained how his school relies heavily on tutorial education. St. John’s students have no majors; instead, they all experience a large program of study encompassing literature, foreign language, mathematics, lab sciences and music.
Lecturing is not permitted in classrooms, and students are discouraged from taking notes so that they may focus completely on contributing to the intimate discussions that St. John’s views as central to a good education.
Lawrence Professor of History Paul Cohen then posed questions to the presenters and asked for audience input, raising issues such as the practicality of tutorial education for faculty and the merits of mandatory Independent Study programs.
The afternoon programs explored the pedagogy of tutorial learning, and Lawrence Visiting Professor of Education Rob Beck began by outlining how numerous components work together to make the tutorial an effective learning tool.
Next, Barbara Kaplan of Sarah Lawrence College shared her school’s approach to the tutorial, stating that “the tutorial is at the heart of everything we do, and the students treasure it.”
Finally, Gavin Williams of Oxford University presented his unique experiences with tutorial learning in South Africa and at Oxford.
Following his remarks, Lawrence Assistant Professor of Education Robert Williams acted as discussant, asking the presenters about their remarks and engaging the audience in a question-and-answer session.
Saturday’s conference finished at the Memorial Chapel, where Lawrence Associate Professor of Music James DeCorsey explained how the music master class fits the model for tutorial learning.
Finally, elementary school students performed songs and dances from numerous world regions under the guidance of ArtsBridge scholar Kyle Traska.
Sunday’s sessions began with a keynote address from David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford University. Palfreyman discussed many of the financial issues behind tutorial education.
In the U.K., the university system has experienced a huge increase in students. Twice as many students are attending university as compared to the 1980s, but the funding system has not changed. This means that educators face a challenge in maintaining a standard of teaching despite the need to educate twice as many students with the same funding.
To meet this challenge, priorities have shifted in universities from undergraduate teaching to faculty research. In response, students view classes not as opportunities for learning but preparation for exams.
In addition to the external threat to tutorial education – funding – Palfreyman also mentioned the internal threats that must be addressed by professors.
Faculty specialization and insecurities can also negatively affect the tutorial system as faculty might turn away students who wish to discuss subjects outside of their realm of expertise.
In order for tutorial education to work effectively, professors must, to a certain extent, learn with the students.
The day continued with panels discussing methods of tutorial education. A panel of professors from Williams College representing a variety of disciplines described the methods of tutorial education utilized by their respective department.
The Williams College panel also raised questions of which course level – upperclassmen or underclassmen – is most suited to tutorial education, how science courses can be adapted to tutorial education, and whether mandatory tutorials would be possible or advisable.
The final panel of the afternoon discussed models of individualized learning from Lawrence and Sewanee, the University of the South.
Faculty from Lawrence, including Associate Professor of Biology Beth DeStasio, Associate Professor of Psychology Matt Ansfield, Associate Professor of English Tim Spurgin, and Cohen were able to share their personal experiences with tutorial education.
DeStasio emphasized the advantages of the conference. In addition to promoting and facilitating the exchange of ideas, the conference also allowed Lawrence to bring “international exposure to the excellent work that faculty and students do together at Lawrence.”
DeStasio also commented on the advantages for Lawrence faculty, who were eager to hear about the unique approaches to tutorial education taken at other prestigious colleges and universitiesy.
According to DeStasio, the conference was especially helpful for faculty as they had “the chance to take a step back from our daily work to think about our goals for students, our goals for teaching and learning, and how we can best achieve them.