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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience


Please see below for important information about the online course we are running in 2020-21


*** New - information about the exam, 2020-1 ***

As announced via Moodle on 27.11.20 to all on that mailing list (including all students), the online, open-book PoO exam in the Easter Term 2021 will be changed in format compared to 'normal' years. Section A, normally theory-based multiple-choice questions (MCQs), will now be theory-based short-answer questions (SAQs). Section B, normally practical SAQs, will now be in MCQ format. These changes are within the scope of our existing Form & Conduct notice, and have been implemented to provide a better examination, educationally speaking, given that students are able to look up answers.

Please see the Exam section of the PoO Moodle site for more information, including some example questions.


About the course more generally

Physiology of Organisms is the first-year physiology course for natural science students. Taking a comparative physiological focus, PoO combines lectures from PDN, Plant Sciences and Zoology. Many Colleges have two PoO supervisors, representing the 'animal' and 'plant' side of the course, but a few use the same supervisor to cover all the lectures. The plant physiology is taught as a block in the last six weeks of the Lent term. As well as the lecture material, PoO supervisors are expected to cover the experimental physiology practical classes which the students take as part of this course; there is a practical paper set as part of the June exam. If you wish to attend a practical class to get a better feel for what it is all about, please contact Dr Matt Mason (

The PoO Moodle site describes the lectures in this course and holds all the course material. It is designed primarily for those students enrolled on the course but it also includes a Moodle 'book' for PoO supervisors, which gives advice and guidance about supervising in general, as well as hints and tips specific to Physiology of Organisms supervisions. Please note that this "Information for Supervisors" section should be visible on the main PoO title page, but it is not visible to students. If you cannot see it, it may be that you are not enrolled as a supervisor: please contact Mel Quy ( and ask her to put you on the list and give you access.

We also have an open-access Physiology of Organisms website, designed to give basic information for those outside Cambridge, for example potential applicants or new arrivals.

When advising new students about this course, Directors of Studies should be aware that there is (still) a timetable conflict between the Physiology of Organisms practical classes and the IA Materials lectures. The first hour of the PoO practicals from 12-1 PM represents a debrief session, discussing the results from the last practical and introducing the new one. Students reading Materials have to miss these debrief sessions because of their lectures. Although this situation is not ideal, students can catch up by reading the debrief sheets provided on-line and copying up notes made by other students in the session itself. They should come at 2 PM to the Experimental Laboratory for the practical part of the class.

We have noticed that several Colleges have in the past arranged supervisions during scheduled PoO practical class times (12-1 and 2-5 PM Wednesdays and Fridays, every two weeks in the Michaelmas term). Several students were having to leave the classes before finishing their practicals in order to attend their supervisions. Others were missing practical classes because of tutorial or DoS meetings. The practical classes are an essential part of the Physiology course, and an area that many students struggle with: we would be grateful if Directors of Studies would please make sure that their Colleges do not present the students with these timetabling conflicts!

Please have a look at the supervising physiology in Cambridge page, written to give some general tips for new supervisors teaching general physiology courses, but as mentioned above, there is a subject-specific supervision page on the PoO Moodle website.

Important - the 2020-21 online course

Course Organisation remains with the Department of Plant Sciences. The course organiser is Prof. Julian Hibberd (

As you will be aware, our course over the 2020-21 academic year, like all the others, is going to be run primarily online.

In order to make it clearer to the students what they need to do each week, we have created an online course structure using Moodle "Books". All the lecture, practical and histology material is within the "Course Material" section of that site. The idea is that all work (lectures, practicals and histology) is presented within these Moodle books, in roughly weekly modules. The students can see how long each exercise should take and should work through each book before the completion date for that module. Please click on a "Moodle book" to see how this will look. The video lectures are being added to them as I write, so some sections remain incomplete but will of course be finished in good time for the course.

We found in the Easter term that students were not watching lectures or doing practicals within the designated slots, so we thought that having weekly completion targets within which they could be more flexible was the most sensible way forwards. It also allows us to place the practical and histology material closer to the cognate lectures, to create a more logical course structure. All lectures will be pre-recorded, but there will be 'live' Q&A sessions (probably by Zoom) at the end of each block.

As supervisors, you should be aware that the course material has not changed, but it is presented in a different order to last year. We have moved most of the PDN practicals to the Michaelmas term - it should not take anywhere near as long to do them online. This frees up time in the Lent term for the live classes we are planning, which won't introduce anything new but will allow the students to try out some of the techniques (ECG, sphygmomanometry etc) on themselves.

We are not doing the rat dissection practical this year, but all the other PDN-based practicals are still there, in some cases divided up to fit the lecture series better. Thermoregulation & Exercise has been changed so there is now a component on respiratory water loss, included in the "Osmoregulation" block. You can see all this within Moodle right now. 

We recognise that the changed course structure will necessitate changes to
your supervisions, and we apologise for any extra work this will cause you.

We strongly recommend that you consider the completion date for each module
(generally a Tuesday), and supervise on that module after that completion
date, at which point the students should have gone through all that

Lent and Easter term material from Plant Sciences and Zoology may or may not follow this same format, depending on the views of those departments.

I would be very happy to answer any questions you have on this new structure. Next year is going to be challenging for all of us, including the students: we're very much hoping that what we have done here will make things a bit more straightforward for our new arrivals.


Dr Matt Mason

Department of PDN, September 2020