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Directors of Studies & Supervisors

Pharmacology in the Natural Sciences Tripos and the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos Notes for Directors of Studies and Supervisors:

Pharmacology in Part IB NST and MVST

In the Part I courses teaching is accomplished through lectures, practicals, seminars and supervisions.

The NST course is organized to consider the interaction of drugs with the body first at the molecular level, followed by the effects at the cellular level and finally the consequences for the whole organism.

  • The course is structured not only to introduce the factual material, but especially to show how the information is obtained and to stimulate the students to be able to solve problems themselves. The practical course forms an integral part of the teaching.
  • In the Michaelmas Term, a series of eight practicals complement the lectures by providing practical experience of both traditional pharmacological techniques, still in use in drug discovery.
  • In the Lent Term six of the conventional practicals are replaced by two mini-projects each spanning three sessions. In the mini-projects the students are given explicit instructions to get started, but it is up to them to develop and refine the procedures to obtain the best data possible. Students are required to submit notebooks their mini-project. The notebook is assessed, and the mark contributes to the overall students' marks in the summer Tripos examination.
  • The practicals and mini-projects are intended to allow the students to develop sufficient expertise in simple, useful procedures that they can obtain sufficient data to draw new conclusions for themselves. A number of the one-hour seminars are used for revision of background material necessary to understand the pharmacology. These were introduced originally for students (usually chemists) who had not done any Physiology. However, they have proved popular with all the students.

The Part I MVST Mechanisms of Drug Action course has similar objectives, but with a slant more to the medical applications.

In the MVST course the practicals are used primarily as illustrated extensions of the lectures, usually with the students producing the illustrations of the effects for themselves. It is important for the students to realize that some material is presented only in the practicals.


  • Students are encouraged to complete anonymous feedback forms commenting on all the lectures at the end of each term.
  • At the end of the Lent Term they are also asked to comment on the qualityof Supervisions they have received (and as a result they are asked to name their Colleges).
  • There is a comment/queries book in the Teaching Laboratory which students can use. This is examined regularly and queries answered as soon as possible.
  • The Department invites students to sit on committees that meets at the end of each term to discuss the quality of the course that has taken place during that term. We ask for nominations for suitable students from Directors of Studies, and work through the Colleges in rotation. We have found this to be a very valuable exercise.
  • Supervisors are encouraged to provide feedback from students to Lecturers, Course Organisers and Demonstrators in order to enhance the quality of the Department's teaching. This is best done via our confidential feedback website. All Supervisors should have been sent details of this, but if Directors of Studies wish to know how to use the service, or require further details, then please do not hesitate to contact  (3)34034)


  • Rang and Dale's Pharmacology (Seventh Edition). H.P. Rang, M.M. Dale, J.M. Ritter, R.J. Flower and G. Henderson. Churchill Livingstone; 2012.
  • Principles of Pharmacology (Third Edition). D.E. Golan, A.H. Tashjian, E.J. Armstrong and A.W. Armstrong. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 2012.

Handouts and Examination Papers

  • Handouts are distributed to students in lectures and sent by UMS to Supervisors and Directors of Studies who have requested them. Past Examination Papers are available from the Teaching Laboratory.
  • Both Handouts and Examination Papers (both Tripos and 2nd MB and 2nd VetMB) are also available on CamTools.

Teaching Software

  • We have a large number of interactive programs for Computer-Aided Learning. They are likely to be useful for revision purposes, but they will be available throughout the year.
  • The programs are available for use on a set of computers in the Teaching Laboratory. These are accessible during normal working hours.
  • They have also been installed on the University's PWF Service and so are accessible from the various terminals around the University that are connected to the PWF. This means that they are availble in Colleges that operate PWF 'Managed Clusters' (which are computer rooms run jointly by the institution and the Computing Service, and providing facilities more or less identical to those in the public PWF rooms).
  • In October 2000 there were 17 MCS institution clusters, encompassing a total with the Computing Service PWF rooms of some 30 NetWare servers and 650 PCs and Macintoshes

Queries with respect to either Part I course can be directed to any teaching officer in the Department. The formal contact person for College liaison is (3)34034). Feedback forms and statistics are collated and tabulated by the Secretary of the Departmental Teaching Committee.

The Part II courses are intended to treat a number of selected topics in depth. Information regarding the Part II courses for NST and MVST Part II (General) is available elsewhere on this server. The contact person for Part II courses is

The Department welcomes the attendance of any supervisors or Directors of Studies at lectures. Lecture handouts are normally available at the time of the first lecture in each titled series. Copies will be made available to any college teachers who request them. The simplest way is probably to send a note to the assistants in charge of the practical classes via a student who can then collect the handouts as they become available.

The Department has always been prepared to help Colleges find suitable supervisors. Anyone who wants advice should contact (3)34034).

Information for Supervisors

Supervisions in Part IB Pharmacology

  • Arranging supervisions for the Part IB course is a matter primarily for the Colleges. However, the Department does have a view on effective use of supervision time.
  • Supervisions are much better suited than lectures to the teaching of problem solving. The practical paper for NST and MVST consists of three or two (respectively) compulsory 'problems'. Many students feel that this paper is one of the hardest they sit in Cambridge. It can seem very daunting to be confronted with new data and actually be asked to think about what they mean. There is only one way to be prepared for this type of question--and that is practice on similar questions. It follows that a substantial portion of supervision time should be spent preparing students for this paper.
  • One point we try to make very clear to the students is that they are all in the same boat on the practical paper. The questions are all compulsory. So if a question is difficult it is difficult for everyone--and will be marked accordingly.

On their feedback forms, students are asked to evaluate the supervisions they received during the Lent term. The results for each College are available to the Director of Studies.

Any queries regarding Supervisions in Pharmacology should be directed to  (3)34034) (who is responsible for Liaison between the Department and Colleges).

Below are the notes issued by the Faculty of Biology to guide Supervisors in Biological Sciences

(These notes are taken from the Faculty of Biology Homepage)

Pharmacology Supervisor's Moodle access

Information for current supervisors is via Moodle which provides access to:

  • Discussion forum for questions relating to the course
  • Email notification of items added to the discussion forums to which you are subscribed
  • Email notification from the Course Organisers of announcements relating to the course
  • Electronic copies of lecture and practical handouts where available
  • Electronic copies of past examination papers
  • Solutions to past practical examination papers


If you wish to be added to the Pharmacology Supervisors Moodle site please contact Dr Lesley MacVinish

Login to Moodle


This is the first year that the Part IB Pharmacology Supervisor Community have been established - please send any comments about your experience of using the system to Dr Lesley MacVinish

College Supervisions in Biological Sciences

Guidance for Supervisors

Overall System

This guidance is offered by the Faculty Board of Biology to assist College Supervisors. The Board recognises that there will be differences across Colleges and that some Colleges offer their own guidelines for supervisors but hopes this advice will prove helpful.

The system for Part I is described first. Modifications for Part II are described at the end.

Supervision arranged by Cambridge Colleges should complement University teaching of undergraduates. The supervisor is responsible to the Director of Studies in the College. In Parts IA and IB of the Natural Sciences Tripos, and of the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos, supervision is typically arranged in small groups, at a regular agreed time each week.

It is expected that supervisors will have received adequate training and instruction before beginning to supervise.

The course content, and hence the Tripos syllabus, is defined by the lectures and practicals. The supervisor has a vital position in assisting the students to master these. The aims of the courses will be primarily to help students learn to think more clearly, to argue well from experimental evidence, and to understand the basic principles of the subject.

Supervisors normally set written work for each supervision. This may consist of essays or of data-handling problems, and is often based on past exam questions. Since students will be required to do such work in examinations, they will be helped to perform well both by practice in presenting an argument, and by receiving constructive criticism of their efforts. Learning to cope with exams is not an activity separate from learning the nature and reasoning of the subject.

Although the supervision system is expensive, it forms an essentially economical method of teaching. This is because neither supervisor nor students need waste time on material that the students show, by their written work, that they understand. The supervisor has a unique opportunity to teach at exactly the level the students show they need. The supervisor is also able to answer questions from students, and this supplements answers they obtain from lecturers and demonstrators in practical classes, whom they should also question. But students who recognise gaps in their knowledge and understanding are part way to filling these gaps, by asking questions; the more serious gaps are those students do not realise they have; these can be revealed in writ ten work, and give the supervisors the opportunity to correct them.


The Director of Studies in the College can advise each student over the range of subjects taught by several Departments in a way individual Departments cannot. To do this, the Director of Studies needs efficient communication with supervisors, who, be sides completing the termly report, should not hesitate to contact the Director of Studies if there is anything, which may be confidential, to discuss about a student's progress. This may also help you, as supervisor, since the Director of Studies may ha ve relevant information, e.g. from other supervisors. Contact the Director of Studies at once if a student misses more than one supervision, unless you hear from the student or his/her colleagues of a reason for the absence. Do not hesitate to propose r e-grouping of students if this seems desirable (although students will normally gain from working with others who have different academic interests and approaches).

Advice on Writing Essays

The essay will be no help to you in assessing the student's understanding if it is merely copied from textbook or lecture notes. Further, preparing such a copy will teach the student little. Hence advice to students on how to do essays may usefully contain the suggestions:

  1. Do what reading you like before tackling the essay, making notes if necessary to understand sources.
  2. Put away such sources and any such notes before writing the plan for the essay, only referring back during the writing of the plan if you realise you understand less than you had thought.
  3. Write the essay from the plan as if in an exam.

This advice has several purposes:

  • The student should learn the facts and arguments in preparing the essay. (Hence essay writing, like the supervision itself, will not be extra work to understanding lectures and practicals; it will be part of doing so.)
  • The essay will be shorn of detail that is not worth learning (e.g. precise values of determinations). Hence the students should learn to concentrate on the arguments, their strengths and weaknesses, rather than the details of observations.
  • The essay will give you the student's understanding of the topic, and not just the source, so you can assess this understanding and see where the gaps are that you need to fill.

Emphasise the importance of presenting logical argument in essays. Students tend to think they should learn 'facts', rather than learning how to think straight. Candidates typically feel inadequately prepared for exams; they therefore find it psychologically hard not to include every conceivably relevant fact that they know. This makes it hard to persuade them that examiners look for the quality of argument, so that adding one more fact may detract from an answer by excluding the argument that will make the other facts relevant. Conveying this is educationally important; the factual state of the subject now may have little importance by the middle of the student's working life, compared with developing the ability to handle evidence. Do not worry that emphasis on argument will prevent students from learning basic facts; handling the evidence for theories effectively teaches these theories.

Reading the Essay

Specify to the students the time by which you wish to receive the essay or other written work. Make this early enough to give you time to read the work before the supervision, and, if necessary, look up material on points that arise (e.g. obtaining co pies of lecturers' hand-outs). Make marginal notes of the points you wish to raise. Ensure that these are detailed enough to remind students of what you will explain in the supervision; you cannot expect them to remember much of such oral comments without this reminder.

Conduct the Supervision

Although discussion of essays based on exam questions normally forms a major part of the supervision system, do not hesitate to have other types of supervision, e.g. discussions of themes, or essays based on wider topics. Advice on and discussion of practicals is also helpful, reminding students that going through practical exercises without thought is useless, but doing practical work while thinking of the purpose and limitations of each step aids understanding.

Be careful in the wording of criticism, showing that you appreciate the good parts of the essay and of students' answers to questions you ask. Some students easily think they are being 'got at', and this is especially hurtful to them in front of other students. Never be sarcastic; always be encouraging. Criticism is an essential part of supervisor, but it should always be accompanied by encouragement and suggestions on how the work could be done better. Bring out contributions to discussion from th e more diffident students, and try to ensure that they do not feel 'put down' by their extrovert colleagues.

An undergraduate will usually come away from a good supervision with a clearer sense of three things:

  1. The worth of the essay submitted. Comment on content, range, depth, structure, and, if necessary, style (clarity, syntax, spelling). You will usually need to give far-reaching advice on how to improve essay structure and presentation, including making it readable with headings and diagrams. A written assessment (approximate class and a line or two of explanation) on the essay may be helpful.
  2. The coherence of the topic as a whole. You will want to test pupils understanding of what they have written. You will probably ask them about matters not covered in the essay, and make connections between what they have written and what they could have written with more thought or reading. In other words, you want to clarify and broaden their understanding. Encourage them to ask you questions, and to question your advice.
  3. The limitations to knowledge. They should realise that no scientific argument achieves certainty; all arguments have some weaknesses.

In general these three goals are best pursued by discussion; a supervision is not a lecture. It may be helpful to address questions to students individually in turn. Do not hesitate to give some formal teaching on a topic if you think it will help th em understand part of the course, but keep strict limits on this approach, since understanding the lectures and practicals is the essential part of the work.

Students will not remember all points raised in discussion without help. Some supervisors therefore encourage supervisees to make notes; others make the notes themselves, for the students to take away and pass round, so that the supervisees are not distracted from thinking during discussion by the need to take notes.

Students often feel overwhelmed by the mass of detail. Help them to distinguish the basic structure from the examples. They may be able to understand the theory presented, and give the arguments for it, with fewer examples than the lecturer gives.

Encourage students to question what they read and what they hear (including what you tell them!).

Questions for Supervisors and Lecturers

Do not hesitate to tell students if you cannot answer a question. If you say that you will find out the answer, make a note, so that you do so, and be sure to raise the subject at the next supervision, as students will seldom remember to ask the quest ion again. You may wish to ask the lecturer if questions arise out of statements or handouts from lectures. Such feedback from supervisors can be of great help to lecturers, who may not have seen some ambiguity in their wording or some of the confusions students may have.

Advice for Vacation Work

Vacation work has particular difficulties for some students, especially if they think that it is possible to read profitably for hours at a time. In term time, work is broken up into different forms, and this gives variety; in vacations, reading may seem endless and dull. Hence you may wish to give the following kind of advice to students.

  1. Do not expect to be able to concentrate on just reading for more than few minutes, say a page of notes or a paragraph of a textbook.
  2. After such reading, think what the author means; do you understand the argument? (This may involve looking at another account of it.)
  3. Consider how strong the argument is; what strengths and weaknesses does it contain?
  4. Think of analogies with other parts of your work; how similar are they?

Points 2~4 often take far longer than the original reading; they may involve making notes or diagrams. Only when they are complete are you ready to read the next passage. This should not only ensure that you assimilate the piece you have read, but should give variety to your work and so make it more interesting.

It may be helpful to set your students some essays or data-handling questions over vacations.

Supervision Reports

Ensure that you return these by the time asked, since it will help the students for the Director of Studies to have read them when he or she meets each student at the end of term. Try to make helpful suggestions for improvement in these reports. Remember too that the reports may be used some time later when the Director of Studies writes a reference for the student; the more that the Director of Studies knows about the student's progress the more effective such a reference can be. Reports may also b e used as evidence of progress if a student later misses an examination through illness.

Feedback to Course Organisers

Supervisors are encouraged to provided feedback to course organisers on how they feel courses are running and the comments being made by those taking the course.

Part II

In Part II there is a more departmental focus for all a student's work. Hence Departments can give individual advice in a way impossible in Part I, where Colleges perform this function. Further, many Departments organise supervision or seminar groups ; these arrangements are made with the agreement of College Directors of Studies, who, however, still have considerable responsibilities for students, including writing some references. It is therefore important for them to receive progress reports from supervisors.

(Taken from Faculty of Biology 12 June 1998)