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Current undergraduates

Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Supervision Guidelines

The aim of this document is to help ensure that you get the most out of the teaching and learning opportunities that the Cambridge supervision system provides. Some of it has been adapted from a similar set of guidelines produced by the Cambridge University Students Union.

Some students can find the supervision system a little intimidating at first, or simply do not know what to expect from it. This document aims to lay out clearly what your rights as a supervisee are, but it is also intended to inform you of your responsibilities.

Supervisions are a unique and highly effective form of teaching. You will usually see a supervisor on a fortnightly or weekly basis, sometimes one-to-one (one teacher, one student), but more commonly with between two and four students in each supervision.

Please remember that supervisions are there to help you in your studies, and are not intended to be a formal test of your abilities. If you do feel intimidated in supervisions then something is wrong, whether it is the group dynamics, the teacher's expectations of you, or perhaps your own lack of confidence in your abilities. Whatever the problem, there will almost always be a way of putting it right, so long as you talk to someone about it (see below for specific ways of addressing problems). Supervisions can be, and should be, one of the most rewarding forms of teaching for most subjects, and you should not allow the opportunities they provide to be wasted!

What can I expect from supervisions?

You have the right to expect:

  • A full hour of teaching (so long as you have done the work that was expected of you in preparation for supervision)
  • To be taught in a reasonably sized group in which you have the opportunity to participate fully
  • Guidance about how best to prepare for supervisions, e.g. reading lists and a choice of essay topics
  • To be set reasonable amounts of work and to receive constructive feedback on it  - supervision essays are normally in the region of 2000 words in length
  • Your work to have been marked before the supervision (so long as you handed it in by the agreed deadline, of course)
  • Teaching that is relevant to your course and helps you to understand the subject (but you should not expect merely to be spoon-fed for Tripos)
  • Discussion of your questions and problems, with constructive comment
  • Respect for your own opinions, and questions to be dealt with thoroughly and effectively
  • A clear indication of the number of supervisions you are going to have during each term and the broad areas they will cover
  • An understanding as to whether extra supervisions will be possible if necessary (but you should always consult your Director of Studies before arranging extra supervisions)
  • Opportunities to discuss with your supervisor, in privacy and in full confidence, any problems you perceive in the quality, relevance, or dynamics of the supervisions you are receiving

What is expected of me in supervisions?

You will be expected to:

  • Turn up on time to supervisions
  • Do your best to complete the work set
  • Hand your work in on time (ensure that you have agreed a deadline with your supervisor)
  • Contact your supervisor in plenty of time if you are unable to make the supervision or complete the work set (but you cannot expect your supervisor to rearrange a supervision you have missed, except possibly in exceptional circumstances such as illness)
  • Make an active contribution to the supervision and make your opinions known - supervisors will invariably respond better to someone who demonstrates enthusiasm for the subject. The supervision is not intended to be another lecture, but a two-way process of interaction.

What kind of problems might I encounter?

The majority of supervisions run smoothly and provide a stimulating environment for learning. Things do occasionally go wrong, and they are not always the fault of either the supervisor or the student. Apart from obvious breaches of any of the points listed above, you may occasionally encounter one or more of the following:

  • Another student, or group of students, hogs all the attention of the supervisor, talks all the time, and never allows you to get a word in edgeways, or else the supervisor talks all the time.

    Solution: talk to your supervisor privately at the end of a supervision, explain that you have things to say but that you do not feel you are being given an opportunity to say them; tell the other student(s) to be less pushy and to give you a chance to talk; if the problem persists, ask if it may be possible for groups to be rearranged so that you are supervised with someone else

  • You simply lack confidence in your own ability, think that anything you might say is worthless, or will be laughed at

    Solution: you are very probably undervaluing your own abilities, so explain what you are feeling to your supervisor. If you are finding the subject confusing or too difficult, then the supervisor needs to know this so that s/he can help you; if it is just a question of confidence, then equally the supervisor should be able to provide ways of encouraging you. Needless to say, careful preparation of the material to be discussed in the supervision can go a long way towards dispelling lack of confidence. Your supervisor is not there to judge you, but to help you

  • You have no idea how well or how badly you are doing in the subject 

    Solution: ask your supervisor to give you a clear indication of how your work is progressing before the end-of-term report, and preferably in relation to each piece of work that you hand in. If the supervisor is not referring directly to the work you have done for the supervision, then ask him or her to do so, and ask him/her to provide suggestions for improving your work

  • You come away from supervisions feeling negative about your work and your ability in the subject

    Solution: unless you have been remiss in doing work required of you (in which case the supervisor has every right to point out that you will not do well in the subject), then it is possible that your supervisor is not providing you with enough constructive suggestions for improvement, so ask him/her to provide such suggestions

What should I do if I encounter serious problems?

You should:

  • Talk to others to see if they are having a similar problem; compare notes with a supervision partner, etc.
  • Talk to the supervisor as soon as a problem becomes apparent
  • If for any reason you cannot talk to the supervisor, or you get no response, talk to someone in your College (Director of Studies or Tutor) or, if appropriate, the Departmental course organiser, above all , do not delay and allow a problem to get worse

Last but not least...

Supervisions exist to provide flexibility of teaching, adapted to your own needs and requirements: once you are familiar with the system and the course you will find, especially in later years, that they provide the opportunity for you to set the agenda of your own studies. Make the most of this unique opportunity!