The Working Life of a St Hilda’s Psychology Student - Tutors

Welcome to Psychology at St Hilda’s! There is a lot of information to absorb, so to get you going here is a very quick guide to some of the academic aspects of your course. Needless to say, it is far from exhaustive, but should provide a valuable starting point.

The Experimental Psychology Department will also issue you with a student handbook for the course. You should read it and keep it safe and to hand at all times. It contains many important details about your course and, later on, your subject choices, as well as guidance on exam regulations, marking criteria and so on. It is especially useful for those reading PPP whose course trajectory tends to be more varied and therefore more complex. Almost all questions you are likely to have can be answered by looking in this handbook.


Tutors, college officers, faculty administration and other students all keep in contact through e-mail, though paper letters are still used in some circumstances. It is therefore essential that you check both your e-mail account and your pigeonholes in the Lodge regularly. With e-mail, we ask that you should check for new messages at least once a day in term time and once a week in vacations, and that you should respond promptly to any messages received.


The number of tutorials you have in a week will vary, but it will usually be two or three. You will always be expected to have prepared some work for every tutorial you attend, although this will not always be an essay (for example it may be a presentation or some short notes).

Your tutor for any given subject may or may not be one of the St Hilda’s tutors (although you can expect to be largely taught by College-based tutors for the first couple of terms). When you are to be given tuition with a tutor from outside of College, this will be arranged for you. Please do not approach outside tutors yourselves, or arrange for extra sessions without consulting your tutor first. Nevertheless, don’t feel shy to ask us if there is someone in particular with whom you would like to study a particular option: we can’t guarantee anything, but may in some cases be able to make your wish come true.

Essay writing

Many students take a little while to adjust to different styles of essay writing, so don’t worry if you feel uncertain how to approach the task at first. Your tutors will always offer feedback, either verbally or in written comments on your work. Don’t be shy about asking for more feedback if you feel you need it. Try to ask specific questions and you will get specific answers. Many tutors do not put marks on tutorial essays (although some do). This is because the marking system used at Oxford is geared towards work produced either in exam conditions, or for the lengthy project and sometimes dissertation (in the third year). Furthermore, we want you to be adventurous in your term work and try out new ideas without the fear of ‘losing marks’. You will receive marks for your Collections (formal tests of progress taken in college) at the start of every term, which will give you some sense of your current level of attainment.

Computers and Hand-writing

While there are valuable skills attached to word-processing written work, there are also strong arguments for hand-writing – our (many) exams are hand-written and require a lot of writing-stamina; moreover, writing essays by hand imposes a very helpful discipline in forcing us to select material, think about structure and plan an argument before we write. You will find that tutors both in College and around the University may express a preference for word-processed or hand-written essays, and you need to be prepared to use either method. In Psychology many tutors prefer word-processed essays.

Sensible use of vacations

As you will notice, the psychology courses at Oxford are very intensive. It is unlikely that you will complete all the reading or fully grasp all the topics during the term. Going over the course lectures, completing the reading and revising your understanding of each topic should not be something left to the last minute: it is an essential part of getting a good degree, not an optional extra only for those wanting the best marks. Learning the material and checking your understanding of every topic is expected to be done during the vacations, when you have the time to study intensively at your own pace. We understand that students often need to work for money out of term time, but we urge you all to set aside a good chunk of each vacation for academic work. Vacation study is an integral part of the degree course, which is far too full to be covered only by work in three eight week terms.

Academic work

First year: In the first year ‘Prelims’ course you have no choices to make. You study Psychology, Neurophysiology and Statistics. If you are taking Philosophy then you study that instead of Neurophysiology. Each courses runs for two terms and at the end of the second term (Hilary) you sit your ‘Prelims’ exams. You must pass these to progress to the second year (which actually starts in the third term of your first year!). There is no holiday to revise for the Prelims, you sit them immediately after lectures stop. This means you need to be sure to keep up and use your first Christmas vacation wisely (see above).

The Psychology Prelim is divided into Developmental Psychology, Perception, Psychobiology and Cognitive Psychology and is usually taught by your college tutors.

Neurophysiology looks at a range of topics from cell resting potential and action potentials to the details of muscle contraction and the role of the basal ganglia. It is taught by an expert in physiology from another college.

We are lucky to have a dedicated college position for the teaching of statistics. Prelims statistics teaches you the basics of how to analyse experimental data in preparation for later practical work, which starts once Prelims are over.

Second year: After prelims those studying Psychology follow a set course while those reading PPP choose which courses to take. PPP students can devote 50% to each subject (Psychology plus either physiology or philosophy) or can choose to major in one discipline, taking 5/8 of that subject and 3/8 of the other. Full details are given in the Department’s handbook. College tutors are always available for support and advice.

Third year: In the third year Psychology students choose three advanced options plus a research project. One advanced option may be replaced by a library dissertation if you wish. Those taking PPP do a smaller selection from these 4 ‘units’. The course handbook gives full details.

Working hours

Everyone works differently, and, when left to their own devices, at different times of the day or night. Therefore, we do not find it helpful to prescribe a set number of hours which you should spend studying every day. If you are to get the most out of your degree, however, you will need to devote a lot of time to your work: think of it as your ‘main job’, rather than an inconvenient interlude between trips to the pub and / or gym, and you won’t go too far wrong!


It is a requirement of the University and essential to qualifying for your degree that you are in residence in College for most nights of the term. If you wish to stay away overnight from Oxford during term time for any reason you should ask the permission of your tutors beforehand. One or two visits per term at weekends to go home or to see friends is perfectly normal, although you should always consult your tutors first. Any more than this would be exceptional. In the event of a personal or family emergency or similar circumstance, you should always speak immediately to your tutors for advice, help and support.

Three Golden Rules

As psychology tutors our main aim is to make sure you enjoy and get the most out of your course while you are here. Of course we hope and expect things will go smoothly. To ensure that this happens there are three golden rules:
1) Hand in – make sure you hand in every piece of set work be it tutorial essays, practicals or collections.
2) Turn up – plan to attend every lecture, practical, tutorial and collection. These are not optional. Psychology events in college ARE optional, but you are recommended to go to as many as you can.
3) On time – when you ‘turn up’ and ‘hand in’ make sure you do it on time. Oxford can be a very relaxed place in many ways, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this means deadlines and appointments don’t matter.

Of course occasionally illness, or other reasons, may mean you miss things or are late. The golden rule then is tell someone beforehand or as soon as you can (usually your college or subject tutor) and, if appropriate, apologise.

All students occasionally have trouble with writing a particular essay, whether because they don’t understand what is expected, are having problems knowing how to structure it, or cannot get hold of something on the reading list. It can be tempting to simply give up on the essay, but it’s important to resist this temptation, and instead to contact the tutor who set you the essay as soon as possible. Often a very simple word of advice from the tutor, or a suggestion for alternative reading, will solve the problem.

Most problems stem from students not meeting one of these three expectations. It is important to be aware that college disciplinary procedures (‘Probation’) are triggered quite quickly if things start to slip. If you feel you are having academic or other problems, however trivial or however serious, do please speak to one of us at an early stage so that we can help. Of course we hope that you have no difficulties at all. However when they do occur we find that most can be solved and if you follow this simple common sense advice, you won’t go far wrong.

Welcome to our Psychology community at St Hilda’s!