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UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students

woman speaking to a groupAt Cambridge, you will be required to communicate your ideas verbally, as well as in writing. The format will vary from course to course but at a minimum most students will be required to talk about their work in a supervision setting. This means feeding back on a problem, exercise, reading or piece of writing to a member of academic staff, possibly in front of other students too. Some courses will also require you to deliver a presentation, which you'll be expected to plan and practise and possibly provide slides and/or a handout.

In this section we'll focus on presenting your ideas in a supervision. In particular, we will look at the two forms of verbal communication.

  • First, with your supervisor.
  • Second, if you have joint supervisions (which most people have), with your peers.

The way you respond to them may be quite different but in all cases you will be having a discussion in a safe environment to try out new ideas or explain your method. It may seem daunting at first, but having the confidence to communicate your ideas out-loud will soon be a very natural part of your learning experience.

Verbal communication works best when the presenter has good speaking skills and the receiver has good listening skills. You'll need to develop both of these for lectures and supervisions.

For more information about these modes of learning, see the How will I learn in Cambridge? section.

 

With thanks to:

Dhruv (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Eloise (English)

Jesse (Medicine)

 

Preparing

While part of the supervision is spontaneous, responding to questions from your supervisor, you will know the topic in advance so it makes sense to spend a little time thinking about it. 

If you have written an essay, you may be asked to summarise it for the supervisor and your supervision partner(s). It is a skill in itself to be able to distill a 2000 word essay into a few sentences. 

  • You could mark up a copy of your essay beforehand, highlighting the main arguments that you make, or write a short paragraph.
  • If you have been working on problems, remind yourself how you reached your answer.
  • While your supervision will probably take place quite soon after you have submitted, you may be working on several pieces at the same time and so it is easy to forget the gist of your argument or methods unless you revisit it before talking about it. 
lightbulb iconPractise summarising research

Select a publication with some short articles such as the University of Cambridge's research magazine Research Horizons. Read an article, make notes if you would like to, and then speak aloud (either on your own or to a friend or relative), for a minute or so, conveying the main argument or findings of the research.

If you are with someone, ask them if you got the main points across. If you are on your own, you could record what you say on your phone and listen back to see if your summary was a true reflection of the content.

Speaking in supervisions

As well as feeding back on how you responded to the set work, your supervisor will seek to stretch your thoughts in other directions, looking at how your response to one problem fits within a wider body of work, or how you would apply your thinking to alternative problems. They may bring in new and unfamiliar thinkers or cover new territory to help you develop your ideas.

 

As the supervision is usually unassessed, you can be bold and experiment with new ideas. All this work is preparing you for an exam situation, where you will have to respond to an unseen question that will require you to apply your knowledge to an unfamiliar scenario.

In preparation for a supervision, it is therefore helpful to think about mistakes you made in your workings or reconsider alternative perspectives; if you discounted them from your final response then be prepared to say why.

In most subjects you will have your supervision with at least one other student. This may be someone from your college who you know well, or someone from another college that you haven't had much chance to talk to yet. You will often be asked to respond to one another's work. This should be a constructive process where you offer support on methods or approaches to the question. For example, in essay-based subjects you could find common arguments that support your own argument but also explore new ideas introduced to the debate by your peers that you hadn't previously considered.

Supervisions are usually unassessed and so they are a safe environment for you to share your findings in a generous spirit and learn from others. It can seem uncomfortable at first but it is important to have confidence in these situations so that you really benefit from them.

 

One way to prepare for a supervision, is to meet or get in touch with your supervision partner(s) before hand. Discuss how you found the task so that it gives you some time to think about their approach and how you might respond to it in the supervision itself.
As well as responding to questions from your supervisor and your peers, this is also your chance to ask questions. This is not revealing your lack of knowledge but instead taking the opportunity to raise outstanding queries you have. It is much better to get ideas clarified now rather than wait until you are revising for exams. Listen carefully to what academic staff and other students are saying and respond appropriately, probing for more information if you don't understand the language or ideas that they are using or if they contradict the conclusions that you have come to.

 

It takes confidence to ask a question and will be a skill that you need to develop over time but it is a good habit to get into when reading. When you take notes, you should always identify what else you need to find out after reading an article or hearing a lecture.
  • Are there ideas or words that are unfamiliar?
  • Does it raise a new issue that needs further research? What is the context of the original research?
  • By making this habitual, you should feel happy asking questions in person too.
    lightbulb iconAsking questions

    Go back to the research article which you read for the task above. Make a list of questions raised by the text, anything which you don't understand or you feel doesn't quite sit with the rest of the argument. Write as many as you like; don't worry, you won't have to answer them!

    Now consider what else do you need to know to help you understand this text. You may want to know how it fits into wider debates, the background of the author, alternative perspectives, or what a technical term means. All these are valid questions and in a supervision, your peers or supervisor may be able to help you answer them or point you to resources to help you find out the answer yourself. 

    Asking questions of everything you read and do is a good habit to get into at university.

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