Supervisions are small-group teaching sessions, where a group of usually around three students meet each week with an expert in a particular area, to discuss the course. You would expect to have one hour-long supervision for Physiology of Organisms every week within term-time. Supervisions, and the supervisor(s) that you will get for a particular course, are arranged by your College, unlike every other aspect of the course which is arranged departmentally. Supervisors may be lecturers in the course, researchers in the field, professors or PhD students, depending on your College: although all supervisors will have a different perspective on the course and on science in general, all will have something valuable to offer, which will aid your understanding of physiology. The opportunity to discuss ideas with an expert each week represents one of the major advantages of a Cambridge science degree, and is certainly not available in most universities!
What to expect from supervisions
Most Colleges use more than one supervisor to cover the Physiology of Organisms course, typically an animal physiologist in the Michaelmas and Easter terms, and a plant scientist in Lent. A very few Colleges have supervisors who teach the entire course single-handed: although these supervisors would not be expected to be equally expert in all parts of the course, they are able to offer a more integrated approach. If you are thinking of applying to Cambridge and reading Physiology of Organisms, contact individual Colleges for more information about how their supervisions are organised.
Supervisions vary a great deal from College to College. All supervisors will help you with any questions that you might have about the course, and will try to guide you through problematic areas. Most will set you homework in the form of essays, calculation questions, or research related to the current topic, but this will depend on the individual supervisor. The great advantage of the supervision system is that this form of personal, one-to-one teaching can be tailored to your own needs - for example, if you did not study physics at school, your supervisor will be able to guide you through aspects of the course which involve physical principles, which you might otherwise find challenging.
Of course, with rights come responsibilities - it is up to you to participate actively in supervisions. Supervisions represent a dynamic teaching environment: the supervisor is not there to give you another lecture, and is not a walking text-book who can answer every question, no matter how obscure - this is why you have libraries! Instead, supervisions are for building a deeper understanding of the subject, taking your understanding further in key areas, and discussing ideas...hopefully, your ideas!
The use of multiple choice questions (MCQs)
It is easy to become overly exam-oriented as the academic year progresses, rather than learning about physiology for its own sake. Associated with this, some students seem to base much of their learning around the multiple-choice questions from past exam papers. Some insist that their supervisors spend a lot of time going through MCQs in supervisions, and may spend a significant proportion of their revision time working through them too. Unfortunately, the result of this is often that these students reveal in their essays that they do not have a coherent, integrated understanding of physiology - which is not at all what we want to achieve in our course!
Past-paper MCQs can be useful to indicate the level of knowledge that students should expect to have in an exam. To this end, we have put some example questions and answers on the CamTools website. However, in general, past-paper MCQs should be seen as part of the assessment of the course, not part of the course itself! Concentrating on MCQs is certainly NOT the right way to learn physiology, and although some supervisors may choose to use them for various purposes, students should neither insist nor expect that their supervisors spend time going through them.
We have taken the decision not to publish answers to past-paper MCQs, nor to make them available to supervisors, because we are concerned that having the answers available could be taken to imply that they represent a teaching resource, which will inevitably encourage rote-learning of question and answer pairs by some students. If students insist on working through past-paper MCQs, the answers are, in fact, available to them - in the handouts, books and scientific papers associated with the course! A little work is needed here, of course, but this can only be a good thing.
We understand that some students are disappointed by our not releasing MCQ answers, but we are confident that they will understand our reasons, as explained above. To repeat, MCQs are part of the assessment method, not the teaching and learning!
How to write a Physiology of Organisms essay
For a description of what the Examiners want from a Physiology of Organisms essay download the pdfs below:
• Essay skills for supervisions and exams in NST Part I
• Core Criteria Descriptions and Guidance Notes
• Essay Feedback Form Using Core Criteria