skip to content

Department of Land Economy

Environment, Law & Economics

Guidance on supervisions for undergraduates

Basic arrangements

For each paper, you will normally have three or four supervisions per term. The supervision lasts for an hour and normally you will be taught in groups of between two to four, with occassionally five. Normally, for each supervision, you will be set an essay question together with an extensive reading list. The Department has prepared a statement of Guidance on Essay Writing which is reproduced on the Intranet. Paper 3 differs, in that the emphasis is on making sure you understand the necessary statistics and principles of accounting. The supervisions in this Paper tend not to be based on essays.

Handing in essays

You should hand your essay to your supervisor at least twenty-four hours before the supervision and this will form the basis of the supervision, although the discussion will range more widely than just the essay. You will receive your essay back with notes and comments by your supervisor in the margin and an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of your arguments.

Objectives of the supervision

The general aim of the supervision is two-fold: to develop the necessary analytical skills appropriate for each paper and to prepare you for the Tripos examination. These skills differ between papers to a certain extent. You will find that there is a substantial amount of reading for each essay and the essay will need to display your understanding of the material in a clear, concise and relevant way. It is a common criticism by Examiners that many candidates tend to write "all they know" about a topic, without answering the question. Such answers will not attract high marks, even though it may be clear that the candidate is familiar with the required material.

Do not be discouraged if, especially for the first two or three essays, there seems to be rather a lot of critical comments from your supervisor. Remember, supervisions do not count towards the examinations and are solely for your benefit. The best way is to learn from your mistakes in a supervision rather than in an examination. Note, however, that in the very rare case when an undergraduate cannot take, or complete, a Tripos examination because of ill health or other grave cause, the College makes an application for the undergraduate to be given an "allowance" for the examination or to be declared "to have deserved honours". Under these circumstances, the relevant University committee (which has nothing to do with the Department) will wish to see the supervision reports.

Some supervisors do not give marks for supervision essays, partly because of the difficulty of relating early work to eventual Tripos performance. Nevertheless, you will obtain some idea of your progress from the comments made on your work and from your end of term discussion with your Director of Studies, to whom your supervisors will report.

The discussion in the supervisions will test your understanding of the material you have read and will give you a chance to defend or modify your arguments in the essay. The discussion is likely to range over more issues than just the essay. The supervision will also give your supervisor the chance to explain in greater detail where you have gone wrong and to clear up any misunderstandings you may have. It is an opportunity for you to ask for clarification of anything you did not fully understand in a lecture. A supervision is not a mini lecture. You are expected to make a major contribution to the supervision and, needless to say, it will become rapidly apparent if you are under prepared.

Role of supervisions in context

Supervisions are not designed to cover the whole syllabus (which is normally the material outlined in the lectures and readings). You will need to read extensively around the subject on your own, using references on the lecture reading list as well as those given to you by your supervisor. All undergraduates reading for a particular paper usually have the same supervisor and cover the same supervision topics. If you simply rely on the guidance in lectures and supervisions for the examination, you will find that you will cover roughly the same material as everyone else. Examiners look for evidence of independent reading and originality in answering questions and are not impressed by large numbers of similar answers drawing only on supervisions and lecture notes. The major difference between studying for A levels and for the Tripos is that your work at University is not as structured. Supervisions form an indispensable core, but you need to go beyond them. Having said that, you will probably find that with four (or five) supervisions a fortnight you are kept very busy during term with little or no time for independent reading. As a consequence, you are expected to work on your own over the vacations and it is possible to stay up in Cambridge for part of the vacation, should you so wish.

Organising supervisions

In most other disciplines, supervisors are found by the Directors of Studies as a result of complicated trading arrangements with Fellows of other Colleges. However, because Land Economy is such a small Department, the supervisions are arranged by the lecturers of the various papers. Your Director of Studies retains final responsibility for the supervision (since your supervisor will be paid by your College) and if there are any problems that cannot be resolved, you should talk to your Director of Studies.

Arrangements for supervisions in each paper will be made during the first week of term, often at the first lecture. In many cases, the lecturer will provide supervisions for his or her part of the course, although occasionally some supervisions will be given by postgraduates. Most supervisors are academic or research staff in the Department, but it is also common for supervisions to be given by members of other Departments. Supervisions are generally held in the supervisor´s room either in the Department or in College.

Supervisors will try to avoid the bunching of supervisions towards the end of term and should try to schedule the supervisions so that you do not have, for example, four supervisions one week and none the next. Most supervisors will give you the complete term´s supervision topics and reading at the beginning of term. One problem is that with everyone doing the same essay there can be sometimes a rush for the same books. Knowing the topics well in advance means that you can plan your work to minimise the difficulty of obtaining the necessary reading.


Supervisions are compulsory and supervisors are asked by the Colleges to report any undergraduate who misses a supervision without good cause. (Some Colleges ask the undergraduate to pay for the missed supervision). Supervisions take precedence over every activity, other than lectures. However, most supervisors are reasonably flexible if approached concerning any difficulty in scheduling.

If you are unable to make a supervision for whatever reason, let your supervisor know beforehand if at all possible. Reception will have your supervisor´s telephone extension number and you can phone from Reception. Otherwise, you can contact staff by email or leave a note in the supervisor´s pigeon hole in the Department. It may be possible for the supervisor to arrange for you to join another group for that session or to see you on your own. However, this may not be possible in all cases. A supervisor is entitled not to supervise for a topic, should you fail to hand in your essay beforehand, if requested to do so. Supervisors may also refuse to supervise you if it is clear that you have not done any preparation for the supervision. Supervisors are normally tolerant of a late essay if there are exceptional circumstances. But if you hand your essay in late, do not expect to get it marked by the next day. Some supervisors have to mark over 25 essays per week and late essays will be given a low priority.