Monthly Archives: October 2014

Policies for Supervisions at Cambridge

Firstly, what on earth is a supervision?

Supervisions are in depth discussion groups that supplement each lecture course for undergraduates. These are very small groups – between 1 and 3 students – that are lead by a researcher at the University who works in an associated field. For example, I’m a postdoc in the Department of Psychiatry, my PhD is in Neuroscience but I teach Experimental Psychology. I don’t have advanced expertise in every topic covered in the undergraduate course, but I learn a lot through the supervision discussions, the lecture notes and the great world wide web. And of course, when structural and functional MRI, experimental design, brain development, reasoning, intelligence and mental health disorders pop up I get to share lots of the things that I’ve learnt along the way.

In fact, the most important skill that you develop in an undergraduate degree is critical thinking, and that’s what a good supervision will inspire. You can’t hide away, and you can ask anything you want. My favourite exercise is linking stories that have been in the news with lecture notes and the students’ own experiences. The essays that students write each week are particularly good at clarifying and communicating this knowledge and understanding.

Why do I supervise?

In increasing order of importance:

  • M.O.N.E.Y. Yes, I’m paid to supervise. But trust me, I’m not paid very much. There are almost no supervisors who are in it for the cold hard cash.
  • CV Enhancement & Career Development This is an important one, postdocs aren’t students anymore and many of them will be on their way to becoming lecturers, which means they’ll have to set up their own courses and teach large groups of students in the future. Supervising is an invaluable opportunity to understand which topics interest students at various stages of their undergraduate degree, which they find particularly challenging, and how they can better be supported in their studies. Moreover, if I were hiring a new lecturer I’d definitely want to see that they had already been explaining their field of study to small groups of students before they were let loose on a whole lecture theatre.
  • Desire to Educate You quite simply don’t supervise or teach if you don’t want to help others to learn. Lectures can be rather dense and difficult to follow and supervisions are the perfect opportunity to stay on top of your workload and fill in any gaps in your understanding. I like seeing students improve and succeed, and if I’ve helped in some way that’s even better.
  • Passion for the Subject I want to teach Psychology because I love Psychology (and Neuroscience) and I really value the skills that students of this topic acquire. I love the intersection between critical thinking, statistics, practical experimentation, self awareness and philosophy. I think it’s so easy to get excited about the human brain and the human mind and supervisions are a fantastic opportunity to engage the next generation (you) in all of these topics.

What should you expect from a supervision with me?

I really hope that you should expect an engaging discussion in which you have the opportunity to ask questions about anything you didn’t understand in the lectures, and hone your understanding by answering your peers’ questions. If there’s anything you don’t understand just put a star next to the topic in your notes and we’ll figure it out together in our supervision.

We’ll also spend some time going over your assignments (usually essays) and sharing feedback on how they can be improved. These assignments are taken from or inspired by past papers and they’ll both prepare for the end of year exam and test your understanding as we go along.

Finally, we’ll discuss any other topics in Psychology you might be interested in. This is really as broad as it can get, and is the magic pixie dust that can really transform a supervision into a fantastic learning experience. Bring me news stories, journal articles, anecdotes, philosophical ideas and we’ll talk through them. I’ll usually have some things that I’m interested in to talk about, but everyone’s lives are more exciting if you bring some questions and ideas to the table.

What are my rules?

I really only expect us to all treat each other with respect.

Your supervisions don’t count towards your degree grade so you could technically just not come along or not hand in any assignments all year and so long as you do well in the exam, you’ll be just fine. However, you’ll give me a giant headache and you’ll be running a pretty big risk that the exam will take you by surprise at the end of the year. Please simply 1) tell me if you won’t be at the supervision, 2) hand in your work on time and 3) join in the conversation and all shall be well.

Having said that, I’m really strict on that middle one so I’ll say it again: hand in your work on time or I will not read it. You must hand in assignments to the Department of Psychology “W” pigeon hole by 12 noon the day before your supervision. If you’re late and there are still essays there – well done! You’ve dodged the deadline and I’ll never know. If they’re gone I won’t read your essay. Full stop.

Please print out your assignments if you have completed them on the computer and number and put your name on every page. If you completed an essay under time constraints or closed-book please also include that information at the end so that I can adjust my grading appropriately.

I will always grade any extra credit work within 1 week of you handing it in. If you miss the week’s deadline I won’t read that essay, but I will read any other of your choice. Alternatively, if you want to complete any extra work – past paper questions, short answer questions, practical paper question – simply for more practice and feedback I’ll grade any and all of it. Please send me an email if you’ve dropped any work off into the Department of Psychology “W” pigeon hole so that I know to go and check.

You get two get out of jail free cards for the year. These really should be used for when you aren’t well, and you’re playing with fire if you use them too early in the year. The chances that you won’t have a cold in the Lent Term is low. They’re there to use at your discretion if you miss handing in an assignment on time.

If you’d like to reschedule a supervision please ask ahead of time. If you need to join another supervision time for a one off that’s usually fine, I’ll have to ask the other students but to date I’ve never had anyone complain. If you can’t make any of my scheduled times then you can ask for a different time but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to accommodate you. Ask politely, and justify your need and I’ll do my best. Demand it after missing a supervision with no notice and I’ll be much less likely to find another time.

If you don’t hand in an assignment on time, don’t hand in a replacement and you’ve used up your two get out of jail free cards, then I’ll ask you to spend the hour of the supervision writing an essay of your choice. It isn’t fair for the other members of the group who have completed the work that you benefit from the supervision without doing the same. Please, please do not put me in this position. It forces me to treat you as a child and I really don’t want to. Just hand in your work on time and we’ll all be happy.

As I mentioned at the beginning – your supervisions don’t count towards your degree – so the only thing I can do is report non-attendance or not receiving assignments to your Director of Studies. This is the equivalent of “telling your mummy on you” and is another step I really don’t want to take. I will always warn you before contacting your DoS and I do hope we can avoid any big dramas. If you have any serious concerns that you think I should know about, please tell me in advance. I’m very happy to work with you. As I said at the beginning, I really do like to see students succeed.

I want to end on a positive note

Supervisions are fun. Psychology is eminently interesting because it’s basically the study of yourself and others. It’s a mix of setting the world to rights over a pint with your friends and marvelling at how much we know of the most complex “machine” known to man.

Science isn’t static, there are a few pretty well established facts (the frontal lobe is at the front of the brain, the retina responds to light) but the details are still being refined. By the end of the year you’ll be able to pinpoint the nuances of many experiments and their limitations. And maybe you’ll even go on to contribute your own findings?

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