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General advice about supervising physiological subjects

A brief guide for supervisors in physiological subjects

This page represents a brief and rather general guide to supervising physiology subjects. Please note that I have written more detailed and specific guides to supervising NST 1A Physiology of Organisms and MVST 1A Homeostasis, which are available on the Moodle sites for those courses. The strength of the supervision system in Cambridge is that we can give individual attention to the problems and interests of particular students. Different supervisors and students like to discuss different topics and people teach and learn in different ways.  There should be no universal syllabus for physiology supervisions, and the tips I give below are no more than suggestions.

For more basic information about supervisions, including administrative details about how supervisions are organised, see our page for new supervisors.


What you should be teaching

Supervisors tend to teach the whole course, and they cannot be expected to be specialists in every area that comes up. There will be some work to do in preparation for your first year of supervising, but it gets much easier after that! The lecture and practical handouts are available on the course Moodle websites, and you should make sure that you have downloaded and read through the material covered that week. You can keep lecture notes and books in front of you in the supervision, to be consulted where necessary, but if any of your students ask you a question that you cannot immediately answer, you can always look it up and e-mail them later. The supervisor’s role is to be not a walking textbook but an academic mentor, guiding the students in how to learn, what to concentrate on and where to find out more. Supervisors also have a role in improving students’ communication skills, in person and on paper, and of course in preparing students for the exams.

Students are often very concerned about their own performance, especially in the first year when everyone around them seems to be so clever. One common complaint about supervisions is that they veer too far from the lecture material to be useful, in terms of the exam. While it is part of a supervisor’s job to expose the students to new ideas, please do bear in mind that the students are given a huge amount of material in lectures and practicals which they are expected to learn, and for many of them the material is extremely challenging. It is important to build their confidence, and part of that is to make sure that they understand the material that they have been given – before you go further.

Sometimes, courses are divided between more than one supervisor according to speciality. This is particularly common in NST 1A Physiology of Organisms, where many colleges use specialist ‘animal’ and ‘plant’ physiology supervisors at different points in the year.

 

The structure of a normal supervision

Supervisions vary according to supervisors and students, but a typical hour-long supervision might go something like this.

  1. Ask the students how the work has gone this week, informally, to get the discussion going.
  2. Give them any work back which you have marked. Any general problems should be raised and discussed so that you can be sure the students now understand, but if you think a problem is specific to just one student, who may be embarrassed if you raise it as an issue, you might consider talking to them about it in private later. You may choose to explain how you would structure a given essay, or highlight parts which were done particularly well by the students. As well as this oral feedback, the marked work that you hand back should also include written comments that the students can refer to later. Students tend to like their work to be graded, so it is a good idea to get used to giving them firsts, 2.1s and so on, on their essays, even if these grades are little more than relative rankings.
  3. Ask them more specific questions about the work they have covered in lectures and practicals this week to make sure that they understand it. Many students will always claim to have no difficulties with the material, but holes can often be exposed with a little probing. Make sure that, by the end of the supervision, they are confident about the course material.
  4. Try to take the students a little further in a relevant area of interest. You might have some insight from your own research, you may have read an article or seen some new discovery mentioned on the news, or you might get a student to discuss something that they have looked into themselves, which goes beyond the course material. This is particularly important for the top-end students; it is wise to stick more closely to the course if a student is struggling.
  5. If you can get a discussion going between the students themselves, that is great! Guiding a discussion rather than presenting material didactically is ideal, but this is not always possible depending on the students in your group.
  6. Set the students work to prepare for next week (see below).

The most common supervising problem is not that the students bombard you with questions you cannot answer. In fact, it is quite the opposite – it is that students very often have no questions at all, no comments to make and have no suggestions about what they want to discuss. For that reason, it is always very important to have something prepared for discussion that week, to avoid long silences!

 

Setting work for the students

The type and amount of work set by supervisors for students to do as “homework” varies according to the supervisor. Some supervisors set an essay every week, which they mark and then discuss in the next supervision. Others set fewer essays, and instead set other work such as reading relevant scientific papers, preparing notes on particular topics to discuss in the next supervision, or calculation questions.

Most of the physiology subjects include a multiple-choice component in the exams (see the course guides on Moodle for more). Students often ask supervisors to set them multiple choice questions (MCQs), but the overuse of MCQs is something that many of the academics are concerned about since they do not encourage the kind of “joined up thinking” that we expect of the students. MCQs are a convenient tool for end-of-year assessment of detailed facts, but not for learning physiology. Supervisors should make sure that their students have seen examples and hence know what kind of thing to expect, but spending a lot of supervision time going through MCQs is inappropriate.

Most of the physiology courses will have past-paper questions from recent years on their Moodle course websites, which can be used by supervisors as tasks to be set for the students. Older past-paper questions are available in all College libraries, but the courses will gradually evolve in terms of both course structure and exam assessment method and so one must be careful that older questions are still valid. The answers to past-paper MCQs are generally not released: some supervisors work them out for themselves, while others write their own MCQs which might be more reflective of their supervisions or the most recent iteration of the course. The same goes for short-answer questions (SAQs) and essay questions.

 

Essays

All of our subjects have an essay component as an important part of the end-of-year exam. It is vital that supervisors train students in how to write a Tripos essay, especially given that so many of our current undergraduates have not made to write essays at school.
Some hints and tips on essay writing are available on the various course and Tripos websites, and supervisors should also look at the Examiners’ reports which are also available on Moodle.

A good essay should have a clear structure including an introduction and conclusion, should use relevant and properly-labelled diagrams to illustrate points, and should be written intelligably. It is a good idea to include relevant experimental or clinical examples, but huge amounts of detail is usually not appropriate. The two most common complaints from examiners about students’ essays are (1) that they miss the point of the question and instead write about something else, and (2) that their essays draw too heavily on the lecture notes, with very little evidence of reading around the subject or original insight. Supervisors should make sure that students are aware of these problems.

 

Practical material

Supervisors are expected to cover the practical components of the various physiology courses, as well as the lectures. This can be difficult, if the supervisors are unfamiliar with the experiments that the students performed. One possible solution is for the supervisors to attend the practicals, either as observers or as demonstrators in the class: contact the appropriate Course Organisers about this.

Calculation questions, often but not always based on the material presented in the practicals, always form part of the exam, so supervisors should make sure that students are comfortable with these.

 

Preparing for exams

Students in Cambridge can get very anxious indeed about the exams and often need a lot of support in the Easter term as exams approach. It is important to emphasize to the students that they are not expected to know everything – the kinds of marks that they are used to from school, which are often between 90-100%, are unachievable in Cambridge biology exams. Examiners are not looking for rote recitation of the lecture material and are more interested in understanding of the core principles.

Supervisors should make sure that students are familiar with the format of the exam from an early stage in the year, and that by the end of the course of supervisions they have been exposed to all of the types of question asked (i.e. essays, short-answer and multiple-choice). They should be told something about exam technique too, but it is important to emphasize that there is much more to studying science than passing exams!

If you are worried about the progress of a given student you should bring this up with their college Director of Studies or Tutor.

 

Difficult students

Supervisors will sometimes find difficult students among their supervisees, for example students who fail to hand in set work or who appear underprepared for supervisions. You should mention this as soon as possible to their college Director of Studies. A more common problem is a student who works hard enough, but refuses to participate actively in supervisions perhaps because of shyness. The University’s courses on supervising students may help here, but again it should be discussed with the Director of Studies who is likely to have more experience with such issues.

 

Where to find out more

You should be in regular contact with your students’ Director of Studies, who is best-placed to advise you about how to deal with individual students and what the College expects of supervisions. Academic problems relating to the course may be answerable through reference to the course website on Moodle, but if not you should contact the Course Organiser or the relevant lecturer. If you notice an error in the material presented to the students, you should let the Course Organiser know.

For more specific advice about supervising, it is often very valuable to talk with experienced supervisors for the subject in question. You can also approach me, in my capacity as Supervision Liaison Officer for the Department of PDN, and I will be happy to meet with you and offer suggestions.

 

Dr. Matthew J. Mason, mjm68@cam.ac.uk, Supervision Liaison Officer, Department of PDN