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Critical Thinking in the Oxford Tutorial


Rush Cosgrove

Critical thinking is widely lauded as one of the most vital educational goals today. Oxford’s tutorial system, in turn, is a historically celebrated and influential approach to teaching. Yet, to date, little is known with regards to which critical thinking skills and traits, if any, are being systematically fostered by teachers and learned or developed by students in the tutorial. The primary purpose of this study is to break ground in this important and under-researched area. It is a small scale exploratory study based on qualitative interviews with three tutors and seven students, including four tutorial observations within the Department of Politics.


The tentative results show that, with regards to critical thinking, tutors are primarily concerned with students’ ability to clarify central questions, define key terms, and question important assumptions within the writing of their tutorial essays. Participating tutors seem less focused on students’ approach to evaluating important intellectual treatises or constructs, with the manner in which they understand and learn new ideas, or with their development of intellectual traits of mind, all of which tutors seemed to believe would develop naturally.


Students, for their part, articulated their approach to writing essays, including clarifying central questions, defining key terms, and questioning important assumptions. They expressed no clear approach to intellectual evaluation or the understanding of new ideas, nor did they appear to have deeply considered the intellectual traits they considered most important. The main provisional hypothesis is that students appear to internalize that which is explicit and required, and to largely miss those aspects which are more implicit and optional. This suggestion, if justified, has implications for tutorial pedagogy.

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