Fitzwilliam, History

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How faculties can help bridge the gap between A Levels and Cambridge.

I would automatically assume that any education article in The Telegraph will be a variation on a theme of ‘the world’s gone to the dogs’.  But, every so often, articles like this one crop up which remind us that, even in the murky world of The Torygraph, there are gems of wisdom.

The suggestion, by two of our learned Dons, that A-level students are ‘taught to the test’ will be met with resounding yawns by anyone who has been in an A-level classroom. Of course they are, they always have been.

Perhaps the more interesting point was the very realistic statement that, even here in Cambridge, Freshers struggle when they start university.

 Faculties  are failing to make the grade

I do history, and as a Fresher was confronted with sinking or swimming. As far as the faculty are concerned, they provide 3 generalized lectures and then you are on your own. Well, on your own with a reading list and an essay to write.

Of course, over time, we break out of A-level habits and learn to write proper essays. Some supervisors are wonderfully patient and helpful; some colleges throw money into classes for their new students. I do wonder whether this is the best way of training budding historians. Some Freshers, perhaps with an inexperienced supervisor or a poor college, really struggle over the first year.

Why are we not looking for our faculties to provide more standardized teaching? It is fairy uncontroversial that lots of students struggle to adapt to Cambridge.Why should we not have some faculty-organised classes, explaining, for example, ‘Cambridge essay’ writing?

Rather than parceling it off to colleges, faculties should face the problem with small-group clases and seminars to help students over the hurdle. Such an idea isn’t sexy- the academics will hate to teach the extra classes, and in an ideal world they wouldn’t even be necessary. But, given the A-level system, they might actually help.

At the moment, our faculties have their heads in the sand, hoping that if they ignore the problem hard enough, it will go away. It won’t. Even here, we should be ready to admit that far too many students need help in breaking away from the A-level mindset.

It is surely time for a mature debate amongst faculties about how they can help to do that.

  • Clare

    I struggled through three years of an English degree here. I was never told how to write 'a Cambridge essay', never shown an example of the kind of work we should be striving for, and never given solid practical advice on how to improve my work. I was sometimes told to 'think more creatively' which really didn't help, and it seemed that the more work I did, the worse my marks got. It was a miserable and frustrating experience that made me hate a subject I had really loved at school. Learning for learning's sake is a wonderful thing but the fact is that we do leave Cambridge with a particular grade that will have a big impact on our job prospects. I agree with this article wholeheartedly.

    • Supervisor

      "You just need to push your argument a bit further…"

  • Part II Scientist

    I am still taught to the test.

  • Sherlock

    Teaching to the test is bad

  • Fresher

    Good article. Teaching here definitely lacks a few simple steps which would help so much. Loads of students, including myself, seem to get told they just don't do things the right way in certain modules or essays, without being given clear advice or even shown a single exemplar answer.

    How many people have gone into supervisions where you waste hours doing research into things the supervisor could explain in 20 words of an email, do questions you're then told aren't necessary, etcetc.

    Being provided with so many small group supervisions is what's meant to make the experience of studying here amazing, and to an extent it does, but often the 'thrown in at the deep end' approach to teaching stops you ever getting the most out of it.

  • OriginalForumName

    Richer colleges provide more and better supervisions and students at other colleges (Hughes Hall) are left behind. I doesn' t matter that I have high IQ or 7 A-levels and I work 12 hours a day, I did badly in exams because I haven't even had the miminum number of supervision let alone meeting the minimum standard of supervision quality. I have never seen an example of a good essay and it is near impossible to work out things on a trial and error basis if you only have 4 essays for a paper throughout the year and 2 of those are not even marked or returned. It's ridiculous. Then, in the exam, I am measured against students who had more than the required supervisions with dedicated supervisors, better college libraries and much better academic support. Still the Cambridge University prospective student website and booklets assert:" It doesn't matter which college you go to, you will have the same world class education everywhere"Bullsh…. In my opinion, supervisions should be provided by the faculties to level the playing field and to make the system fair. I paid the same tuition fee, I want the same quality of teaching.

    • hmm

      While I'm very sorry about your experience, I'm not sure it's typical of the poorer colleges. Like the author of this article, I'm at Fitzwilliam and though obviously my academic experience is not quite the same as someone at John's or Trinity, I've never had a supervisor not mark my essays, I have the same number of supervisions as others, and the library is pretty good. Perhaps your experience is a consequence of being at a college that takes so few undergrads? Not that this excuses it of course.

      • That's because

        Fitzwilliam is glorious.

        • Fitzwilliam


    • Hmm

      A better place to demand teaching improvements might be at your college, rather than whingeing on the internet. Try your Tutor, your DoS, your JCR Academic Affairs Officer (or equivalent, as you sound like a grad) – have you highlighted the lack of number of supervisions and poor quality? If not, why not? If you have and nothing has been done, Morgan Wild (or the new CUSU education officer) would be a good point of contact (you can say what you like about CUSU but they are excellent in welfare and education provision battles).

    • Dafydd Ill

      If you're working 12 hours a day and still doing badly I'd have a look at yourself before blaming the college…

    • Hughesian

      If you've not talked to your DoS or the senior tutor, you should. It's not acceptable that your supervisors aren't marking and returning essays. If you don't get joy there, speak with the MCR president and master/college president.

    • In The Know

      You'll be pleased to know that the university is cracking down on over- and under-teaching, and trying it's best to more rigorously enforce 'supervision norms' across the board.

  • Offer holder


    • Don't Come

      Go to Durham. I wish I had.

      • Offer holder

        I actually have an offer from them as well, hah.

        Is it really that bad?! The only thing I'd say in favour of the 'thrown in at the deep end' approach (and I realise my total inexperience/ naivety here) is that I don't feel I've ever got used to the A level style of teaching in the first place. Is it not nice to not have to think about hitting specific assessment objectives? I'll be doing English, grades permitting, and I'm looking forward to not being told ''your argument is really strong, but AO4 for context is 8 marks and you've hardly mentioned it!'' etc. etc.

        I realise it might be completely different to this in real life!

        • Don't Worry

          Look, even if you go to a really shit college, you'll have a great time. It just doesn't matter that much. Chances are you'll come out with a 2.i and get a good job. That's just cambridge.

  • Article Judge

    II.ii – needs to be more creative

    • Irony Judge


  • Good article

    I think you make a good point. I was faculty rep and recently tried to get the faculty to give us some extra classes or some example essays. This was met with total incredulity, but they have eventually agreed to put selected exam answers with grades up on the website which I think is very useful. Obviously different faculties are more stretched than others, but there is usually a way round time and people constraints. I think drawing attention to freshers in particular rather than students unclear what standards they should be aiming at in general is useful too. First year is where the problems usually start, and I think some people need to be told how much work is expected of them, and to what standard.

    • Teddy Robinson

      They may have been loath to put selected answers on the web because in every subject the exam questions are recylcled every few years (simply examine the last 5 years of examination papers for your subject and you will see what I mean). The only occasions that exam questions will be different year-on-year is when a) a member of staff running a particular course leaves, or b) the Department dramatically changes its research focus.

      In my day (10+ years ago) I constructed my own file of model answers (essays) every year prior to my exams and memorised them. I received no help with this from my tutors. I simply read the past 5 years worth of question papers and used my textbooks and notes. If you find that you lack the time to do this then cut down the formal halls, nights out and U21s training.

      • Good article

        Very impressed that you're able to write your own "model answers". Us mere mortals, however, don't really know what a first essay looks like, and so that's why we wanted them online.

  • Less hand wringing

    Surely colleges should just be held more accountable for the quality of supervision provision? If students across the board at a college do badly in a subject, there may be at least some deficit in college teaching. Feedback to DoSes in end of term interviews and otherwise should be utilised – there's no point blaming your supervisor without trying to do something about it, and escalating further if DoSes do not respond.

    In personal experience, despite my DoS being absent and 'hands-off,' our repeated feedback to him about useless supervisions was acted upon and the supervisor in question replaced the next year.

    • Juan Sheet

      Yeah, that's a fair point.

      CUSU are to the best of my knowledge trying to get Academic Affairs officers in college to implement an informal feedback system for their supervisors – skipping the DoS out originally if he or she is the weak link and bringing it to College's attention. Puts a little more work on Academic Affairs officers but it seems to be a good idea – you're more likely to get a decent response in terms of feedback if you don't have to have it written down.

      In my experience on the general topic – I've had supervisors that are fantastic at explaining the abstract and engaging in great discussion but don't provide much guidance for the exam, some that can't do either (which is frustrating all around) and the odd one that can prep you for exams (or just assist in clear essay structures) AND provide great abstract discussion so you're not just coming out of Tripos with a grade but a decent understanding of the topic as well.

    • Henry

      Your lectures and practicals will teach you ~75% of what you need to know to do well in exams. The other knowledge should come from reading around, practising numerical problems, etc.

      Supervisions are there (to a large extent) to consolidate what you have already been taught, and to broaden your understanding of the subject. Supervisors are essentially free to teach you whatever they wish however they want – the guidance is extremely vague. Many supervisors will try to go "off topic" as often as possible because many students dislike (and complain about) supervisors regurgitating and rehashing the contents of lectures and practical classes. If a supervisor isn't teaching you what you want to know, then you need to tell the supervisor. Most will ask students whether there is anything specific that they want to cover. The supervisor will need to know this at least 24 hours before the supervision so that they can devise the best way of helping the students. Sadly, many students will show up at a supervision and ask for specific topics to be covered, when the supervisor has already prepared something else and will therefore be unable to help the students until the following session (if there is one).

      A couple of years ago I was asked for (and gave) an emergency supervision the afternoon before a student's final exam, with about 2 hours notice. I managed to cobble something together and the student did OK, but this kind of thing is incredible frustrating. Students need to learn to help themselves by communicating with their supervisors.

  • Frank

    I'm not sure, but this article seems a little contradictory… The argument (and I realise that I'm simplifying) seems to run as follows:

    People come to Cambridge having been 'taught to the test' at A-levels. This is poor preparation for the Cambridge system and students often struggle (understandably!) To resolve this problem, there should be more clear teaching of what supervisors and examiners are looking for when they mark essays, with faculty-based seminars and pieces of exemplar work.

    To me, that sounds a little like you want a bit more – that's right – teaching to the test… Surely if we're meant to be breaking away from A-level wrongdoings, an important part of that is being given the freedom to flounder without a faculty safety net?

    • Bill Inadress


    • hmm

      I see what you're saying, and you're right, but I think the point of the extra classes for freshers would be to smooth the transition between teaching to the test and university learning.

    • …..

      Tis indeed contradictory as put in the article.

      The underling point, however, is that the Cambridge system is modelled in a fashion that replicate the A-level system; lectures + essays followed by a test at the end of the year, the test itself requiring a certain type and construction of answer. Fail to adhere to the defined standards, both in structure and content, and you're sunk.

      There is a surprising lack of latitude afforded to originality and creativity, as found in A Level exams, which necessitates teaching to the test in order to achieve grades expected. Students are left stranded; not knowing what is needed of them nor the criteria of the perfect essay in a system which is not designed such a way as to allow freedom to flounder.

  • Man up

    Why can't people just man up and get along with it like the rest of us do!

  • Joshua Levy

    Have you heard of the Affinity Project?

  • but…

    "more standardized teaching" from Faculties undermines precisely the point of the Cambridge system: to develop your ability to take the initiative and study independently. Take that away and the nasty shock would only be shifted somewhere else: e.g. masters/PhD. Also, the marking criteria are far less specific in Cambridge than at A-level; whilst the rubric has certain requirements, it is *not* an exercise in simply ticking boxes. A good essay, whilst it has to adhere to certain academic conventions, can still take many different guises.

    Whilst some people might have suffered issues with the quality and quantity of supervisions, centralisation is neither practical nor desirable. That said, perhaps, as a means of accountability, supervisor/DoS feedback could be sent directly to Faculties instead of Colleges.

  • Phil

    I see they made a good job of putting another incredibly negative headline on it (heaven forbid it spreads good news) just in time for the early-semester open days. Not even a relevant story for those of us who are already here.

    “PROSPECTUS MISLEADS STUDENTS”, hot on the tail of the feminist s**t we had a few months back, and “EVERYONE AT HULL WENT THROUGH CLEARING!” last semester. I’d be surprised if anyone comes back after reading that misery rag, it’s like EastEnders on paper.

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