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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience


Congratulations on being chosen to supervise anatomy to some of our vet students. They are a bright, motivated bunch and I am sure you will enjoy the experience. The VAP course is generally one of the most popular ones they study in their first two years, partly because it has a good balance of theoretical and practical material, and partly because we are lucky to have a committed, approachable and characterful bunch of people to teach it.

The first year at Cambridge can be a challenging time for students. Although they have less work to do than in the second year, they often take some time to work out a 'work/recreation balance' after starting university and they can go through the year wondering how well they are actually doing. I think the best approach is to be honest, but try never to allow good students to be complacent, nor underachievers to panic. Remember, colleges run an excellent system of student support and if you cannot resolve any problems you should feel free to contact students' Directors of Studies or Tutors.

One more thing. Don't worry if you feel that some of your supervisees are brighter than you. It is a sign that the admissions system is working! Often these students are the ones who get the most out of supervisions.

Materials available

The first thing you should do is download the pdf of the courseguide. It is available via Moodle at To get access to veterinary anatomy materials, you will need to be registered as a user – to do that send me an e-mail at <>. Unfortunately, for financial reasons the department is no longer able to supply hard copy veterinary courseguides to supervisors.

The courseguide contains much of the information you need – including the timetable, recommended reading and exam format. It also contains the lecture handouts for all the 40-or-so lectures – although you will notice that lecturers vary a great deal in how much printed material they supply. Finally, it contains fairly detailed worksheets for the 40-or-so practical classes.

You can also download selected lecture materials and past exam papers from the same Moodle page where you found the courseguide. Pdfs of lecture slides are uploaded for most lectures, but not all, for copyright reasons.

What to cover, what to do

You may wish to plan your supervisions using the timetable as your guide, but also remember that the students gradually get better at what they are doing as the year progresses. We start with an evolutionary overview, an approach to which we return throughout the course. You may then want to discuss anatomical terms and general layout of the body before progressing to the locomotor system, and thereafter to subsequent systems.

Embryology is scattered throughout the course and is, we feel, essential to an understanding of animal structure. Although it is well taught, it is conceptually quite 'strange' to many students and you should not be worried if it takes up a disproportionate amount of supervision time. This is time well spent, as developmental aspects make frequent appearances in exam questions.

During the year the students have live ‘Introduction to Clinical Examination’ sessions out at the Vet School. These may be examined either in the first or second year, but students normally find them quite straightforward. There are short aide-memoire sheets at the end of the courseguide for these.

Four times during the year, the students sit a steeplechase test. These tests are voluntary and anonymous, but almost all students sit them. They are extremely useful as they are very similar in format to the eventual practical exam, and they are a rare chance for students to see how they are doing. It is noticeable that students who fail in the summer are usually those who do not attend these tests and we suggest that you strongly encourage your students to sit them and you might also want to try and ask them how they did!

Most supervisors set some written work almost every week. At the start of the course you may find it useful to give the students some essay-writing practice. Many students reach Cambridge with almost no essay experience from school, and considering this it is remarkable how well some of them write. Of course, essay writing is a complex skill, but if students can write a clear, paragraph-subdivided argument, 'bookended' by an interesting introduction and conclusion and sprinkled with the occasional novel interpretation or fact derived from additional reading, then they are likely to do well. It is extremely frustrating how few students try and say anything 'new' in their essays – extra reading, their own opinions or insights.

As the year progresses, you might want to give the students more short-answer type questions, and you may want to use the past papers for this. Encourage the students to use these papers as an 'easy' way to pick up marks – if a student writes eight relevant points for a four-minute question, then they are likely to get full marks. If they can do this in a short amount of text, all the better

The standard of diagrams drawn in exams has been rather low in previous years. Students should be encouraged to include them in essays and should also be told that they will be asked to draw them in the short answer paper. A guide to drawing good diagrams is included at the end of the 'Assessment' section of the courseguide. Asking students to sketch things can often be an efficient use of supervision time.

As the exams approach, you may find that students gradually take over the running of supervisions – having discovered the gaps in their knowledge for themselves. This is entirely natural and, to be honest, makes life easier for you! In the Easter term, you should consider how pressurised the students' time is, and maybe not set too many long essays – essay plans or short answers may be more appropriate at this time.

David Bainbridge,, University Clinical Veterinary Anatomist