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MVST IB Comparative Vertebrate Biology (CVB)

Congratulations on being chosen to supervise comparative anatomy to some of our vet students. They are a bright, motivated bunch and I am sure you will enjoy the experience.
The second year of the Cambridge vet course can be difficult for students. By general agreement it is the hardest of the six years of the course – mainly because of the sheer volume of material, and also because some courses are just plain complex. In addition, the vets receive more teaching than the medics with whom they are in competition in Tripos, and there are also requirements for them to complete extramural studies (‘farm work’) during the vacations.

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 think you should do is download the courseguide. It is available via the Moodle system. To get access to CVB materials, you will need to be registered as a user –to do that send me an e-mail at <>. The guide is available as PDF files, which means that a fully formatted copy can be downloaded using Adobe Acrobat Reader, itself downloadable for free from 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 and recommended reading. It also contains the handouts for all the lectures. Finally, it contains fairly detailed worksheets for the practical classes.

You can also download selected lecture materials and past exam papers from the same location where you found the courseguide.

As described in the courseguide, there is also an 'e-natomy' site which the students have to use at times during the course. Much of the material to which this directs them is actually a recapitulation of material covered on the course.

What to cover, what to do

The course is in two parts – the mammalian head (in Michaelmas, mainly) and the non-mammalian vertebrates (in late Lent), although it is remarkable how much these two apparently different courses overlap. The philosophy of the course is that if it starts with evolution and development, and ends with an understanding of what clinical skills a vet will need, then it shouldn't go far wrong. The material is delivered as lectures, dissections and demonstrations, and one 'live anatomy' session at the end.

At the end of each of the two parts of the course, 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.

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. Asking students to sketch things can often be an efficient use of supervision time.

Kristian Franze,, Course Organiser
David Bainbridge,, University Clinical Veterinary Anatomist