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Queen's Access Podcast Episode 2: Tutorials

Listen to Episode 2: Tutorials on YouTube.

Below is a transcript of the episode.

Kyla: Hello and welcome to the Queen's Access Podcast. It's so lovely to have you here and I hope you find this a useful resource in learning more about life at Oxford, but more specifically about life at The Queen's College. My guests this week are Francis Lawson, a second year studying Spanish and Beginner's Russian, Austin Haynes, a second year studying English and Jesscia Wen, a third year materials scientist. The four of us will have a chat about tutorials at Queen's and generally how our academic lives work! My apologies for any poor audio, these interview have all been conducted over Zoom and the internet connection isn't always completely reliable. For a transcript of this episode, please visit the Queen's website. I hope you enjoy!

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Kyla: Hi everyone, I hope you're doing well and thank you so much for agreeing to be part of this podcast, I'm really excited to record with you guys! To start us off, could you each tell me a little bit about your Queen's journey, so how did you end up in college. Francis, do you want to go first?

Francis: Yeah okay, so I come from Hackney in East London. I went to a sort of middling state comprehensive, there was nothing particularly amazing about it, there was nothing particularly terrible about it. And it was while I was there that my languages teacher in year 11 was the first person to really pop the idea that 'oh, have you maybe thought about applying for Oxford or Cambridge when the time comes? I think you stand a decent chance.' And I sort of humoured him for a bit, but I didn't really ever think of it as being a really serious possibility. I put it down on the application and went along with the stages, still just thinking it would be a great experience, just the interview process. Then, I kept going further and further and ended up here! So I looked at Queen's when I came to visit on the open day and I thought it was definitely the college that suited me best, and yeah, that's how I ended up here really!

Kyla: Fantastic! How about you, Austin?

Austin: So I'm from Tamaki Makoto, Auckland in New Zealand and I also spend a lot of time living in Melbourne in Australia. Maybe a year or so before coming to Oxford, I decided that I wanted to study in the UK for various reasons, like how uni courses are structured in the UK and also I have a bit of family over in the UK. I think also, I'm kind of lucky enough to come from a background where my family is able to kind of pay for me to study overseas. I suppose that my journey in coming to Queen's was a bit of an arbitrary choice. Queen's has a really good music programme, which was really attractive to me, it's a typically pretty college and the cohort for English students is quite small, so that was all attractive to me. And a few things ended up happening and I ended up at Queen's just because of music and course stuff.

Kyla: Lovely, and Jess, what about you?

Jess: So I came from a private school in South East London, kind of Kent area, and I was there on a bursary and a scholarship. That school was very intent on sending people to Oxbridge, so we had a lot of support, which I was really lucky to have. So, how I ended up at Queen's... So I study materials science, and because it's a really small course, only seven colleges do materials. So, that means that I had very little choice to start off, with which is actually quite a good thing, because I was kind of less overwhelmed when it came to the open day, and I knew kind of which colleges I had to go and see. I had kind of a selection criteria in mind- the biggest one was accommodation, so I wanted accommodation for all four years of my course, just because I didn't want to think about renting and stuff, and Queen's is one of the colleges that currently offers four years of accommodation. Then I went round the colleges that did offer accommodation for all four years and I just really liked Queen's the best and the library just took my breath away. So I was like, 'this is the college for me.'

Kyla: Fantastic, yeah, the library is insane! So, this episode is focused on one of the most important aspects of being an Oxford student, which is the tutorials, which are really what make Oxford quite unique amongst a lot of institutions. So, for each of you guys, let's start off by saying how many tutors did you have and are your tutorials organised by your college or by your department. So Austin, do you want to start us off?

Austin: Yeah, so I had four tutors in my first year and it's roughly the same thing across each of my three years. I'm. Most of my tutes were organised within college, so with tutors from my college who teach other students at Queen's. Every now and then, you'll get sent to another college to work with a tutor who is as an expert in that subject. For example, for my 19th century literature paper, there wasn't anyone who was qualified to teach me that at Queen's, so I got to go to Brasenose college, which is about a five minute walk up the high street, to work with a tutor there who was more specialised in that.

Kyla: Yeah, fab. Francis, how about you?

Francis: So I do Spanish and Russian, so my degree is totally split between the two. In my first year, I had two Spanish tutors and three Russian tutors. Each language tends to be split into the language side of the course and the literature side of the course. So the literature side was organised in college- my Spanish literature tutorials took place at Queen's, whereas my Spanish language tutorials and oral classes all took place in the modern languages faculty. The Russian ab initio (beginner's) course is almost completely centralised, so all of my tutorials for that took place in the modern languages faculty with the two Russian tutors there. But, in the third and fourth years after the year abroad when you start literature, all of the literature is based with the tutor at St Edmund Hall, which is just across the road, as Queen's and St Edmund Hall share a Russian tutor.

Kyla: Okay, fab! And Jess, how about you?

Jess: So, in first year I had about five or six tutors, I believe. With materials, because again it's quite small, most of the tutorials are kind of set at a certain time. It's organised within the college, but it generally follows the lecture courses, which are done by the department. So, at Queen's, we actually share tutors in materials between Mansfield, and when I was in first year, also Corpus Christi. But then, because the year is expanding, I think Corpus pulled out. But we still share tutors with Mansfield, which means there are about five tutors in total that you'll get tutorials with. Depending on the speciality of the tutor, you'll have tutorials with the tutor who knows the subject the best. Yeah, that's pretty much it.

Kyla: Great! So like Jess, I'm a STEM student, but chemistry is a massive department in comparison to materials, so we have about 170 students every year. This year I had four tutors, because I have the three sub-disciplines of chemistry and I also took a maths course in first year. But, after that year, I go back down to three tutors and my tutorials are organised within college. Maths is departmental for chemistry, so we all get given the same problem sheet and we all have a 1 hour maths class every week and my maths tutor tutored at multiple colleges. So maths can be quite set by the department, but generally, for chemistry, it's quite college-led in terms of the other tutorials. So, what kind of work do you have to do in preparation for each tutorial that you have? Jess, can you start us off?

Jess: Yeah, so I think generally for STEM students, we have problem sheets. So, the problem sheet is usually just a list of problems and it can take anywhere between five to eight hours for me, depending on how badly I don't understand! But yeah, for materials, they're set by the lecturer, but then you take them to your tutor, which is usually run by your college.

Kyla: Francis, how about you?

Francis: Yeah, so the Spanish literature tutorials work on an alternating basis week by week, so we take two weeks on each text that we study. The first week we would be given a set of passages or poems to look at and analyse and we'd be asked to read them beforehand and pick through absolutely everything that we would think was noteworthy in the extracts. Then, in the other week, we would write an essay on a question that is set about that text, and then we would go on to discuss that in the tutorial. So we'd write the essay beforehand and then get it back in the tutorial. For language for Spanish, we would normally just get prescribed grammar reading or grammar exercises to finish, and sometimes translations that we would have to write and then send off to the tutor. Then for Russian, most of the beginners Russian course in the first year is run based on one particular textbook. So, before each lesson or at the start of each week, we get a set of exercises from the unit that we'll be looking at that week. Then we just get told that by each day, you have to have done X number of exercises, and then we go through them and correct them in the session.

Kyla: Brilliant. Austin, what about you?

Austin: Okay, so for English, what happens is that, each week, you'll have a group of texts or an assignment sheet from your tutor that'll say something like: 'Next week we're going to be talking about pre-raphaelite poetry and so you'll be looking at Christina Rossetti, Dante Rossetti and William Morris,' maybe. So, you have the list of writers you're studying and then you have an essay question, so maybe something like 'talk about medievalism in pre-raphaelite poetry.' Then, in addition to that, you'll have about two pages of suggested reading for you to do your research and answer the essay using. In the week that you have to write your essay, I generally spend about two days panicking because I know nothing and I think I'm an idiot and that I don't belong at Oxford. (everyone laughs) That's something that I'm personally working on! But once I've gotten over that, I'll go to the library and spend two or three days reading as much as I can and then I'll put together an essay and I'll send that to my tutor the day before. Then, on the day of the tute, you kind of rock up wanting to kind of discuss your essay, so in that time, you've got your essay, you've done your reading and your research, you've developed an argument, you've put your essay together and then you go to the tute prepared to defend your argument.

Kyla: Brilliant. I think it's interesting as well, because it's so different from my experience. So I'm similar to Jess, in that I am problem sheets based. But the difference for me is my maths sheets are departmental and they follow the lecture course chronologically. But for organic and inorganic this year, I didn't necessarily always have the tutorials after I'd finished covering the topics in lectures. So, in a way more like a humanities student, I often had to do quite a bit of pre-reading before I did my tute sheets, which was always interesting, because it made the tutorial sheet perhaps more challenging, but also it was then really good because you went into the lectures with a baseline understanding already and it meant that you really understood the lectures in a lot of detail. So that's just based on tutors' preferences or on what hours they work, in terms of in what order you'll have tutorials versus lectures. So, for example, I had most of my organic tutorials before I done the lecture courses, but that's because, at the start of first year in chem, what they currently do is they start you off with quite a lot of physics and maths, because that's generally where people have to kind of catch up to close a gap between people who've done different A-levels. So you don't actually start a lot of organic chem until later on in the term, but obviously they still want to run the tutorials and they still want you to be getting that understanding. So you often do the tutorials before you've actually covered it in lectures, but yeah, it just works differently based on different tutors' preferences. So, we talked a little bit about it already, but what happens in your standard tutorial? So Francis, can you start us off there?

Francis: Okay, so in a Spanish literature tutorial, once we've brought in the pre-reading that we've done or the essay that we've done and had that back with some feedback, most of the tutorial is directed by a worksheet that we would get given, which largely consists of various different quotes from critics about the text that we're studying in that particular week. Essentially, we would all take it in turns to look at each quote in particular and really pick it apart: agree with it, challenge it, have a discussion and a debate between us. Sometimes, if we've done an essay for that tutorial, the tutor will lift particular quotes out of your essay say, 'Francis, in your essay, you mentioned such and such... Can you either explain this, justify this, develop this point further, or maybe even challenge it?' So, it's very discussion based Spanish side. Then, on the Russian side, a lot of the time each week is dedicated to focusing on new grammar points and new areas of vocabulary, so we would spend a lot of time doing doing grammar exercises and doing vocab building exercises to put into practice. We get to grips with the rules on our own over the weekend and then we spend the whole week just putting them in into practice. We dedicate a lot of time as well to oral practice, so we do a lot of reading poems, or even sometimes doing role play exercises just to start getting comfortable with speaking in Russian and practising spontaneity, because the oral exam is one of the exams that you take at the end of the first year, so that's a skill that they really focus on building.

Kyla: That sounds really good! I think that the difference between the two is really interesting to highlight- the fact that you take a language that you're very familiar with and a language as a beginner, that's a really interesting contrast. Austin, how about you?

Austin: So, a standard tutorial for me as an English student is generally a tutorial for which I would have written an essay beforehand and my research for and become kind of an expert in the topic in the time I've had. I'm usually doing a tute with one or two other students who've done the same essay. So you get to the tute and you basically chat about your essay with the tutor and the other students there and you ask questions and the tutor will ask you questions to kind of push you to test how your arguments will work under pressure. This is usually an interesting opportunity to kind of test out your ideas with somebody who's an expert in their field and also to compare your ideas with those of students around you who you have gotten to work with over the last few months. Other things you might do include discussing a lecture that the tutor knows you've seen or discussing some articles that you've been given beforehand. So a tute is an opportunity as an English student to take your ideas further to get them an extra stage of refined from the essay that you've already written.

Kyla: Yeah, I get you. Jess, what about you?

Jess: So after us having handed in the work usually a couple of days before the tute, the tutor then gives the marked work back to us in the tutorial. There's usually two or three people per tute, plus the tutor. Then, we go through the questions that we didn't really understand or didn't get right. It depends on the style of the tutor, so some tutors would prefer to go through the questions themselves whilst some tutors would ask people who understood the question to then go on to show everyone else how to do it. But most of the time, it's just discussion based, so they try and prod us to apply the knowledge that we've learned in lectures to try and get to grips with the questions that we were given.

Kyla: Yeah, so for me, in my standard tutorial, there's usually two or three of us, but then for maths classes for me, it's all of us and even then, there's five of us in my year, so it's not like there are loads of people. So our class sizes vary depending on what the tutorial is about. Similarly to Jess, most of the time we just go through the problem sheet, sometimes with students explaining and sometimes with the tutor explaining. Then also, what my tutors will often do is they'll bring either extra resources or extra questions or they'll try and contextual what we've done using current research. So sometimes, my tutors might say, 'actually, here's a current research topic that's still being debated that vaguely relates to this. What's your opinion on that?' It's not an exam, it's just a way to really broaden the depth of your understanding and that can be really, really helpful. So, for each of you, what does a week look like in your life at Oxford? So Jess, can you start us off?

Jess: So, I guess Monday to Friday it's quite standard, so quite a lot of lectures and contact hours, including labs and tutes. So, in the mornings, I generally have lectures from nine to about 12, usually two to three hours of lectures (if we're lucky, we get an hour's break in between). Then I would head back to college for lunch and just have lunch with my friends, which is quite nice- it's one of the highlights of my day. Then, in the afternoon, I would usually go and work in the library. I might have maybe one hour of a tute or if it's labs, then it would be three hours, so from two until five. Then in the evening, I usually have some kind of activity on, so it might be badminton, or I play an orchestra, or table tennis training, or just chatting with my friends. Then on the weekends, I would usually have maybe football or table tennis, or just generally working in between the times when I'm doing other things.

Kyla: Austin, how about you?

Austin: So in my standard week, English students will have lectures usually scheduled in the morning or around midday. So you've got to decide whether you're going to get to the 9am lecture or to the 10am lecture, depending on how tired you are. Then once I've done the lectures at the English faculty, I walk back to college and have lunch with my friends, which is usually really nice and I think a lot of people really enjoy that. Then, in the afternoons, maybe two days of the week I'll have tute and I might have one or two classes, depending on what day it is. The rest of the time is usually filled up with being in the library, doing research or reading or writing an essay. In the evening, I try to do some extracurricular stuff, so that I'm not just stuck in a book the whole time. So I try to do a lot of music or learning to cook really badly at the moment. It depends if I'm working on weekends. Sometimes you'll have a really lovely free weekend to kind of rest and see friends, but one of the kind of realities of Oxford is you're often spending, at least during the day at the weekend, doing some work, but I'm kind of okay with that, because I really enjoy English and it's just reading. Other things... Oxford's really nice, because everything's really close, so you can manage to put in lots of small activities if you want to. So, the days are quite variable, but, you know, a lot of reading and then a tute two or three times a week.

Kyla: Nice! Francis, how about you?

Francis: My days aren't very typical of each other, because no two days are really the same in the week of a modern languages student! In terms of weekly organisations, for Spanish, I have one 90 minute literature tutorial every week and in my first year that was on a Friday afternoon. On top of that, there are three language classes for Spanish a week: one grammar, one oral and then one that is either dedicated to oral or translation, depending on what week it is. Then there are also three lectures during the week that are to do with the text or the literature that we're studying that particular term. In Russian, we have eight Russian classes every week, and within these eight classes we have three weekly tests. So we have a vocabulary test, so every Friday, we get a rather long list of new words to learn that ranges from anywhere between about 60 and 200. Then on a Wednesday, we get tested on some of those. On Thursday, we do a dictation, which is largely to test our listening skills, and also our ability to recognise new words in spoken Russian. Then on Friday, we do a unit test, which is kind of an assessment of all of the work we've been doing that particular week. My timetable unfortunately means that I have to have lunch out a lot, so I very rarely make it back to college for actual lunch, which is a shame. But it does mean that I spend a lot more of my lunch break with the people from other colleges who are also doing beginners Russian, which is very good because we go abroad together in the second year, so it's good to get to know them. In the evenings, I do a mixture of casual socialising with my friends, or would do an extracurricular activities. I've been to a few events organised by societies that interest me, like the International Relations Society or, this is going to make me very unpopular, but I have done a few things with the Liberal Democrats in my first year. Weekends do vary depending on the amount of work, but I often quite like to just escape Oxford for the weekend and I quite like to go home. Most of my family live near Hull in East Yorkshire, so I often really like to go back there for the weekend and it's relatively cheap to book tickets there. I think it's a really nice opportunity to just get away from the pressure cooker for a second and see a lot of my family again.

Kyla: Lovely! So, for me, chemistry is a very contact hours heavy degree (you'll find that at most universities), because of the lab requirements. So, this year I had 10 lectures a week, so 9-11 every day. I then had labs from 11-5 two days a week. I had a maths class every Wednesday and then I would have probably one to two tutorials outside of that. There was a couple of weeks where I had like four tutorials a week and they were a bit insane! Yeah, so I have a very structured day- I get up at the same time every day. I'm not somebody who's super productive in the evenings, so I generally make it a rule that, unless I have a very impending deadline, I don't work past dinner. Like the others, I tend to just socialise with my friends in the evening and I also do quite a lot of access things and I volunteer. So, I went to a primary school to help young children learn how to read every Tuesday last year. I'm involved in some music things, and just generally I go to some events that are put on by my scholarship. So it's generally quite a balance. Then, of course, I have my fun- we go out sometimes, our group and go and have a laugh at the weekend in a club or in a bar. I found that having a work-life balance was significantly easier than I thought it would be- I found I had a lot more time to socialise than I maybe thought I would before I got to Oxford. So Austin, can I just ask, as an international student, how did you find settling in to Queen's and to Oxford in general?

Austin: I mean, it's a lot of fun, it's a really exciting time being an international student in Oxford. I suppose, when I first moved, especially for the first three or four months, it was really difficult being far away from my family, because the time difference is 9 or 10 hours, which means I'm either. I'm really tired in the morning when I phone my family or my family's really tired in the morning when they're talking to me. So it's the little things that kind of annoy you every now and then. One really lovely thing is that this is now something that will probably be a lot easier, now that the whole world has had to adjust to things like Zoom, or using FaceTime regularly, because of Covid, so I'm really looking forward to being able to use that to keep in touch with my friends back home once I'm back in the UK. I think broadly, I find it really exciting learning and living in a new country and getting to know a new culture, because I mean the stereotype for me as somebody from Australia and New Zealand is that English people are all really cold and not emotionally available. It's been really lovely learning that that's fake once you know people! It's so much fun.

Kyla: Good, I'm so glad! As a close, I'd just like to ask you, what is your favourite thing about college and why? So Jess, can you start us off?

Jess: Well everyone always says this, but, it's the people that you meet. So, this is going to be true no matter which college you go to, but the nice thing about having a collegiate system is that you get to meet people studying all kinds of different subjects. So, amongst my friends, there are loads of people who do humanities, as well as STEM and arts. It's a real mix, and everyone's so lovely!

Kyla: That's really nice! Austin, what about you?

Austin: I suppose this is pretty similar to what Jess was saying, but meeting new people and living near new people who are fascinated and passionate about what they're doing and being able to chat to them about what interests them and their ideas is one of the things that I find most enjoyable about being at Oxford.

Kyla: Yeah, definitely, I don't think many people often mention that. But yeah, being around people who are so passionate about things that so different from perhaps what you're passionate about. It is such a learning opportunity that, yeah, I think is quite underrated. Francis, what about you?

Francis: Yeah, I would echo what both Jess and Austin said. But I think another thing that I really like, and it's a slightly strange one, is the location of the college. For me particularly, it's so refreshing, because normally, when I want to go shopping or go out and socially, I either have to get a long train into central London if I'm in London, or a long train into Hull when I'm up in Yorkshire. So it's really nice to me to just be in the centre of the city and just have about a five minute walk to almost everything. It's really nice refreshing change and I think it's a great part of being at Queen's, but I think that a lot of people maybe take for granted and I think it needs spelling out.

Kyla: Yeah I'd agree with that, fantastic. Well, thank you guys so, so much, that was super interesting and I'm sure everybody who listened learned absolutely loads! You guys have been fantastic guests and I'll speak to you all soon!

Jess: Thanks, Kyla!

Austin: Thank you!

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Kyla: Thank you so much to Jess, Francis and Austin for that insightful conversation and a massive thank you to all of you who listened. There are loads more access resources on the Queen's college website at and you can find out more about the college in general through its website, Twitter and Instagram, including on the access Twitter, @QueensOutreach. That's all from me, have a lovely week and hopefully I'll see you again soon!