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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction



By David Alexander, on 16 August 2021

Professor David Alexander looks back on his experiences of tutorials in the 1970s.


The tutorial has a long history in education. In one sense it probably dates back to the days of Plato in the 400s and 300s BC and the schola, a semi-circular seat where, at the centre, the master would hold audience surrounded by the best of his pupils.

Weekly tutorials and consultations were a constant feature of my university education in the 1970s. As a new undergraduate, my first tutor was a Senior Lecturer who was nicknamed “Auntie Evelyn”. Tutorials involved a great deal of squirming, looking out the window and suppressing yawns. As soon as Margaret Thatcher’s university ‘reforms’ came into effect, she was pensioned off and disappeared into the mists of the Scottish Highlands, never to be seen again. My second-year tutor was the redoubtable Dr John B. Thornes variously of the LSE and King’s College London. For our first meeting he told us to report to the basement laboratory (we were three students of rather diverse backgrounds). We walked down the steps and found him bending over the mudflow experiment. His tie had become trapped in the mud churner and it was dragging him into the mud bucket by his neck. He extracted himself, squeezed the mud out of his tie, glared at us and shouted by way of greeting, “Take down this essay question: discuss the meaning of the following terms: shear strength, Bagnold’s dispersive stress, and modulus of elasticity.” As a tough, intellectual Yorkshireman, Dr Thornes could make his views known in no uncertain manner, but he loved to be contradicted as it led to the kind of sincere debate in which he revelled. In the second tutorial, he taught us to change THORNES to THOSNER using entropy modelling. Student’s tended to be terrified by his tutorials, although I gradually came to have great affection for him and profound respect for his insights.

Years later as a postdoctoral fellow I ended up doing tutorials myself at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge for two, three or four students at a time. This gave some leeway for experimentation. In some cases it was a matter of working out how to get them to say something – anything. In other instances, it was more a matter of how to shut them up. Often, one had to work hard to encourage them to think, or at least to articulate their ideas. It had to be done in a friendly, non-threatening way. One of my tricks was to give them a stone, a heavy, rounded piece of gneiss which I had picked up from a stream bed. I would ask them to describe it. It is remarkable what could be deduced from this smooth, grey bit of rock.

I found that the optimum size of face-to-face tutorials was three students. It was common to have one who was more articulate than the other two, but there were enough opportunities to divert the conversation to the others. I hope they learned something useful from me, but I certainly learned from them.

All in all, the tutorial has survived all manner of vicissitudes. In the 16th century a monk who taught at Salamanca University in Spain was arrested while in the midst of a discussion with his students. The Inquisition flung him into prison and there he remained for eight years. No doubt he was tortured and fed on gruel. Once released, he returned to the classroom, gathered his few remaining students together and started again with the words “As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted…”