What Are Supervisions Like At Cambridge?

Supervisions play a large role during your Cambridge studies. Brendan, a current Cambridge Student takes you through what they are like and how to prepare for them.

Author: Brendan Low

Table of Contents

You have probably seen the term ‘supervisions’ frequently as you start your application for Cambridge. They play a large role during your Cambridge studies, but what are they like? 

Brendan, a current Law Student at Hughes Hall, Cambridge writes about his experience with supervisions and answers all of your questions about what they are like, how to prepare for them and how to use supervisions effectively. 

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Margaret Wileman Building, Hughes Hall, Cambridge (Hughesstudent at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Supervisions - Am I being watched?

The term supervision often evokes the idea of a mysterious higher entity prying on the clueless and helpless individual going about his or her day. To an extent, this is an apt analogy for the Cambridge supervisions, where an undergraduate comes face to face with an expert in the subject area, and is expected to present what they know about the subject to someone who already knows about it so much more.

In Cambridge lingo, they are the supervisor and you, the clueless individual, are the supervisee.

Except it is not that bleak – at least, I hope to show that to you in this article. In this article, I will explain what supervisions are, and show that while it is indeed a different method of learning from the typical classroom setting, it also has a very down-to-earth and practical element, with nothing to be intimidated about provided you have done at least some preparation!

Things to know about supervisions

As a law supervisee myself, it is important that I set out in detail my premises about what constitutes a supervision. 

Most of you have heard the basic premise that Cambridge supervisions are an extreme form of small group teaching, with up to 4 students per supervisor. This is often hailed as a platform for personal growth and understanding of the subject. While this is indeed right, there is more nuance to the supervisions.

Which Subjects have Supervisions?

Not all subjects have supervisions in a maximum-4-numbered group. Certain subjects involve seminars with about 10-20 people and some lectures are small enough that they are centrally managed by a faculty lecturer. 

The Law Faculty runs what they call ‘Half-papers’ which are a series of smaller group lectures that replace the typical supervision model. Likewise, for an undergraduate dissertation, the supervisor will conduct weekly group checkups to track your writing progress. This is important to bring up now to manage expectations, and may even make Cambridge look less intimidating upon the realisation that many different models of education are employed, rather than stubbornly to its historic supervision model!

Yet, some might be glad to hear that most subjects do have supervisions, particularly when the main syllabus is delivered through big lectures which are greatly complemented by the supervision model to test and bolster understanding.

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How Often Are They?

The frequency and duration of the supervision vary by subject, and due to its small group nature, the dates are often mutually agreed with by the supervisor and the supervisee. Yet, as a gauge, law supervisions are done once every two weeks per subject and last for an hour. This means if you have five subjects, expect at most five supervisions in a fortnight for a total of five hours. 

Supervisions are done once every two weeks to give students sufficient reading time, which is crucial in most humanities subjects where independent reading naturally form the bulk of a student’s study time. In STEM subjects, say Engineering, students are usually given a worksheet filled with questions that must be completed prior to supervisions.

It is debatable that the frequency of supervisions give students enough time to prepare, especially in light of the 8-week Cambridge term which is shorter than most university terms. The frequency of supervisions, coupled with the nature of Cambridge, requires students to be constantly ‘on the ball’, but as cliché as it may be, consistency is key to managing the frequency of supervisions. 

Students can take advantage of certain subjects which do not have a supervision model as part of its component, which allows more reading time and requires less immediate preparation.

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Where Are They Held And Managed?

Supervisions are arranged by your college, specifically your Director of Studies (DoS), who is an academic appointed with a specific duty to track your academic progress. Most supervisors are the contacts of your DoS or a senior academic in the college. 

Supervisors may or may not be from the college you are a member of. For example, I often have supervisors from Robinson college despite being a member of Hughes Hall, reflective of the academic ties between the respective colleges.

With regard to finding a location for supervisions, the supervisor will usually contact you in advance of the academic year to arrange supervision locations. This may be at their college, your college, your subject faculty and sometimes even a cafe! Supervisions are always prioritised to be in person, more so when the relaxing of the pandemic measures incentivise in-person meetings on a much greater scale.

Pedagogies Of A Supervision

Now that we have gone through both the form and administrative side of supervisions, we can go on to what actually goes on during a supervision. I present three approaches that are used by the supervisors of the supervisions I have participated in, but please note that this is my personal categorisation which is by no means rigid, and in reality a supervision may have elements of all three pedagogies.

A pedagogy = the method and practice of teaching.

The Summary Pedagogy

This is the most common pedagogy I have encountered. Here is how it goes:

  • The supervisor asks the students to summarise the content of the topic.
  • The students are allocated a segment of the reading list to explain to the supervisor and the other supervisees.
  • This allows the supervisor to notice, comment on and correct any misunderstandings.
  • This usually takes the greatest proportion of the hour, with the remaining time allocated to students own questions or questions on the reading list.

The Contentious Issue Pedagogy

This pedagogy tends to be used by more senior academics, but is by no means exclusive to them. This pedagogy prerequisites and harnesses a students ability to identify contentious issues in the topic, for example, an academic debate on a certain doctrine.

This is more likely found in the humanities subjects than STEM, but STEM students should keep an eye out for it too as this is often where the value of picking your supervisor’s brain comes from.

It would show you how the supervisor, who more probable than not has taken his stance on the debate, rationalises that stance with logical premises and evidence.

The Stream of Consciousness Pedagogy

This is as accurate as its name. The supervisor monologues on issues in the subject, sometimes in the lens of his own doctrinal dissatisfaction, only to pause and raise a question to the supervisees to the effect of ‘Here is what I think, but what do you think about it?’

This pedagogy is by far the most annoying because of its obscurity, however, the obscurity trains one’s ability to glean value from among the weeds of thought. In other words, it helps you pick up insightful points your supervisor is making even when he or she may not be conscious of even making them.

This then allows you to follow up on a certain point he made. Maybe you disagree with him, maybe you just want to know more. Either way, you then have a conversation started, and your fellow supervisees will be grateful for the more expansive view on the issue at hand.

How To Prepare Effectively

Understanding the various supervision pedagogies have prepared you for the final section in this article, one that deals with the process of preparation. Inevitably, the short answer to this question remains the same in all higher education institutions: be very familiar with the content of the syllabus. This will help you follow the supervision discussion and anticipate questions from the academics as well as ask your own.

But on a practical level, reading lists in Cambridge are often longer than a student can manage in the brief window allowed for preparation as mentioned above. Some practical tips are as follows:

1. Read Selectively

You probably would’ve guessed that an hour is not enough to cover every single topic in the syllabus. Often, supervisors come into a supervision with an aim as to what needs to be covered, but you can have your own aim of what you want to cover during the supervision – say a more complex topic – and the supervisor will more often than not adjust his aim to meet yours. This allows you to read on certain segments of the syllabus that are more complex and make the most out of the supervision timings.

As a ‘sub-tip’ of sorts, have a list of questions on areas that you are interested in, topics under which you would probably choose to answer in your examinations. (Yes, you have a fair degree of latitude in choosing to answer questions in most examinations!)

2. Collaboration

As mentioned above, you are not alone in a supervision. Do remember that your other supervisees have the same reading responsibilities, meaning that you can ‘divide and conquer’. While this does not dispense with the need to be familiar with every aspect of the syllabus, dividing up the readings helps to save time.

Two law high-achievers from Christ College Cambridge in 2019 became high achievers by using this very method. While the first student (Tim) was focusing on understanding the operation of the doctrine, he left the work of summarising law cases to his supervision partner (Emily), allowing both to cover most if not all content of that supervision.

3. Use the Holidays

This is a complement to the above two tips rather than a standalone tip. Cambridge is well-known for its short-term and correspondingly long holidays (about 6 weeks in total). This allows a student to not just rest after the busy term, but to catch up on what was not completed during the term. Thus, when employing the “Read Selectively” tip and/or the “Collaboration” Tip, remember to return to the areas of the syllabus you have not covered completely.

Conclusion: The Importance Of Supervisions

By way of conclusion, I want to refocus Supervisions in the broad picture of a Cambridge degree. Supervisions are not everything! You should never feel like you do not deserve to be in Cambridge because of the chance of messing up a supervision. 

As one first-year law student put it, the consequences of messing up a supervision is “personal shame”, rather than any detriment on your overall degree. You are scored solely on your examination. Furthermore, while “personal shame” is indeed an understandable and natural response, it can be managed in the realm of the “personal”, by recognising that you do not need to live up to any expectation of a perfect supervision. 

The supervisions are there to deepen and broaden your knowledge, but they are not the only facilities to do so. You can simply drop your supervisor an email after the supervision if something was unclear in that supervision! To use a rather cliche military metaphor, supervisions are the battle but by no means the war to win!

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