Teachers' e-guide


The tutorial system and academic life

What are the courses like?

Selecting the right course is the most important decision. Usually, students cannot change course after they start (where this is possible, the course page mentions it). All our degree courses are academically rigorous and theoretical in nature. For example, the Oxford Law syllabus comprises topics chosen primarily for their intellectual interest, rather than for the frequency in which they arise in practice. But at the same time, the skills of researching, thinking about presentation developed by the Oxford courses are eminently suited to practical application, and employers recognise this. All courses have a compulsory core, plus various options students can choose from to tailor the course to their personal interests.

Oxford offers many degrees that combine subjects – often referred to as joint schools – and even link art and science subjects, such as Physics and Philosophy. Students follow one course, but choose elements of each degree perhaps special joint options, which are sometimes called ‘bridge papers’. There is strong competition for combined courses, and therefore students must show their aptitude for each part of the degree.

Oxford, like many other universities, offers subjects that students may never have studied before, such as Earth Sciences, Archaeology and Anthropology or Medicine. For this reason it is important that applicants develop their own passion and commitment for their subject and should undertake further reading which fosters that interest.

How are students taught?

Oxford bases its teaching on the tutorial system, which means more individual attention and teaching from tutors, tailored to the student’s learning needs.Tutorials will usually be held with one or two other students (perhaps up to four), to discuss an essay or solutions to set problems.

Tutorials are central to study at Oxford. They give students the chance to discuss their subject with an expert in their field. The tutorial provides individual support and encourages students to develop their full potential. As well as tutorials in college, students share lectures, classes and practicals in their department, depending on their subject.  The Oxford system combines the best of one-to-one or small group teaching in college with a wealth of resources in the University.

Tutorials usually take place at least once a week and it is up to students to research and prepare for them. The aim is to review answers or theories and explore ideas that arise in discussion. A tutorial relies on the exchange of ideas between the student(s) and the tutor. Students do not need to be experienced in debating; they just need to be willing to present and defend their opinions, listen to others and accept constructive criticism.

What resources are there for students?

Oxford University offers its students excellent resources to support of their studies.

Some resources are provided by the colleges, while others are provided centrally by the University. For example, the University library, known as the Bodleian Library, is the UK’s second largest library and has more than 8,000,000 volumes on 117 miles of shelves. The Bodleian is a legal deposit library, meaning it can claim a copy of any book or periodical published in the UK or Ireland. Most college libraries also stock the core materials for our courses, with multiple copies of the most popular books and titles on tutors’ reading lists. College libraries have generous lending arrangements, have long opening hours (in many cases 24 hours) and are quiet places to study. The college librarians can help students find what they need in college and elsewhere in the University, and they are often happy to buy in books specifically requested by college students. There are also subject-based libraries and research libraries available to students. For further details about Oxford’s facilities and resources click here.


For most courses students sit exams in their first year, which they must pass to continue the course, but do not count towards their degree

Following this, they work towards their final exams, which usually take place in the last term. Science students sit some exams in the second year. Some exams may be replaced by projects or dissertations. Most science courses have a fourth year; this may be entirely research-based or part research part exams.

Non-science (‘arts’) students also sit finals in their last term – typically several exams, each lasting three hours, within a two-week period. In some subjects like Modern Languages, there is also an oral exam. Some exams may be replaced by thesis and/or extended written work.

It is important to make students aware that assessment at Oxford is largely based on examinations, in which case they need to consider whether this form of assessment is going to be suitable.