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Learning and teaching - methods and mechanisms

The Natural Sciences course is both intensive and challenging, but we will provide you with an excellent learning environment in which to rise to this challenge. You will find that you have a full and structured timetable, and that you will be exposed to new ways of learning and studying. Each course will approach the teaching of material in different ways and you will be exposed to many different learning environments and conventions. You will have support from supervisors and Directors of Studies to help you to develop the most suitable way of working for you. To survive and thrive, you will need to be organised and self-disciplined.

Most courses use three approaches to teaching:

1. LecturesLecture Theatre

Lectures are arranged for the whole class and define the content and scope of the course. They do not necessarily teach you everything you need to know, but provide the framework for you to investigate topics further, through other forms of teaching (practical work, supervisions) and through self-directed reading.

It is important that you attend the lectures and learn to engage with the information being given. You should arrive ready to make notes of the salient points and determine which areas of the lecture are less clear to you, so that you can follow these up later. Most lecturers will provide you with some form of handout; handouts are not meant to replace the lecture, but are provided to give you "breathing space" to engage more closely with the lecture.

Handouts come in many forms:

complete handouts
- does the lecturer therefore want to you listen closely to what he or she is telling you?
"fill in the blanks"
- is the lecturer drawing to your attention the more complicated aspects of the lecture, or highlighting particularly important points?
lecture outline
- is this simply intended as an aide mémoire?

Take appropriate action to get the most from the lecture...

Whatever the form of the lecture and handout, it is important that you take time to review and consolidate what you have learned. Look over your notes shortly (but perhaps not immediately) after the lecture - do they make sense? Supplement your notes from other sources, including the recommended texts and from extra information you learn in supervisions.

2. Practical workpractical

Practical work, be it laboratory work, field work or examples classes, usually serves to illustrate topics from the lectures and to impart you with the skills needed to apply those concepts in a practical or experimental way. You should approach all practical work with a positive attitude and seek to learn from the examples or experiments. Sessions are not designed simply to give you something else to do; there is a purpose behind each class - and you should make sure you understand what that is.

In order to make best use of your time, it is often sensible to read up on the session before you arrive; if handouts are provided in advance, this is usually the reason. During the class, make use of the demonstrators provided; ask them for advice and help.

Practical work may be continually assessed. If you have to write up an experiment in the class, make sure you understand what is expected of you - don't waste time on "whistles and bells". If you write up the experiment after the class, do it soon after the session so that if you have problems, you can go back to the lab and ask for help, or talk to your supervisor. Don't leave it until the night before it is due in; if you do have problems, it's then too late to find the help you need.

3. SupervisionsSupervision

Supervisions are small-group teaching sessions arranged through your College. Most supervisions are taught by a member of your College and in groups of two or three. This is your opportunity to go over again material from the lectures and practical classes and clarify any points you are unclear of.

Supervisions are a unique learning opportunity - and you should learn to use them well. You should aim to tailor supervisions to your needs. Be prepared to ask your supervisor to depart from his or her timetable and answer your questions. Supervisions are your best opportunity to clear up any confused points from either lectures or practical classes and are a good way of assessing your understanding and progress.

Make sure you prepare for your supervisions; do the work set and hand it in well before time. Again, supervision work is not designed just to give you something to do. If you have problems, hand in what you can and, if appropriate, provide notes on where you had difficulties. It all helps the supervisor to know what the supervision should cover. Prepare questions to ask the supervisor - and make sure that they are answered! The more you participate in supervisions, the more you will get out of them.

In return, supervisors are expected to mark the work you have handed in - and prepare for the supervision as well. Don't be afraid to contact your Director of Studies if the supervisions are not working for you.

Still feeling lost?

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your colleagues - you will probably find you are not alone if you are missing something. Work in pairs or groups to solve supervision problems. Talk to students in the years above you, the lecturers, your supervisors, postgraduates in College - in short, anyone who might be able to help. Everybody finds the Natural Sciences Tripos hard - people who say they don't are either lying or kidding themselves.

Finally, it is important to realise that the style of work here is very different to that you have experienced at A-level. End-of-year examinations are very different too. Marks of over 80% are very rare - the average is more like 60%. To aid you in putting your marks in context, the marking schemes for the examinations are published on the NST website.