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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Photo of George Cowperthwaite

George Cowperthwaite is a second-year PhD student studying Quantum Computing at Girton College, having completed his undergraduate studies in Mathematics at Cambridge in 2020. He is now the MCR President at Girton, and is developing initiatives to support postgraduate students who are taking on undergraduate supervision responsibilities. A key aim of this initiative is to help postgraduates who come from other institutions to understand how the undergraduate supervision system works, in both pedagogical and practical terms. We spoke with George about these efforts, and about his goal to forge stronger connections between College Fellows and new supervisors working in their disciplines, to share useful tips and supervisory practices.


What inspired you to develop these initiatives?

As a supervisor myself, I found that I drew heavily on my prior undergraduate experience to inform how I approached the role, and wondered whether people without prior experience of Cambridge might struggle.

Faculties rely on PhD students to provide a substantial proportion of their undergraduate supervisions, but these students often have little prior teaching experience. On top of this, while many postgraduates are interested in University teaching work, it can be a struggle to access relevant opportunities – something again made harder if you do not have experience of the system.

I think that a lot more can be done to encourage and support postgraduate supervisors at a more personal level, making use of the support that Colleges can provide. Hands-on training, detailed guidance, mentoring schemes and individual feedback are all strategies that could be developed to improve a supervisor's skillset, allowing them to feel more empowered in their role so that they can provide high-quality teaching during supervisions.


What are you doing to support postgraduates taking on undergraduate supervision responsibilities?

I have primarily looked at ways to support postgraduate supervisors in a College setting, in a way that complements the training offered by CCTL and individual Faculties.

Quite often, postgraduates lack understanding about how the undergraduate supervision system works in Cambridge, especially (but not only!) those who have just arrived from other institutions, so providing a clear and accurate overview of the system is an important first step. To this end I recently helped Girton College to develop an introductory pamphlet, setting out the expectations and responsibilities of a supervisor along with more practical details about payments, visa requirements and key contacts for those wishing to get started. This was distributed to all postgraduates at the start of the academic year, and we are aiming to adapt and expand the content over time to create a more comprehensive guide.

We also hope to introduce a new workshop to the postgraduate strand of Girton’s Thrive programme, which offers workshops and training to help students develop extra- and super-curricular skills throughout the year. This workshop will assist the development of good teaching practice in a supervision context, so that attendees feel more confident taking on teaching responsibilities.


Looking forward, what else would you like to do to support new undergraduate supervisors?

As this initiative has only just begun, there hasn’t yet been much chance to gather feedback. It would be useful to poll supervisors across the whole University, especially those just starting out, to see what additional support they would find useful, so that future developments can be tailored to demand.

I hope to look at linking interested postgraduates with teaching directors so that they can enquire about teaching opportunities. As supervisions can be coordinated very differently across different Faculties, simply providing relevant contact information could significantly improve access to those seeking teaching experience.

I would also like to look at ways in which experienced supervisors could assist those just starting out, perhaps by exchanging useful tips in a forum setting or through some form of mentoring. This sort of assistance could help to flatten the learning curve and preserve knowledge that might otherwise be lost when supervisors eventually move on: something especially important to promote within the context of the naturally high turnover of postgraduates providing supervision. While the coordination of such a scheme may require more institutional support, I believe it would have a huge impact on the quality of supervisor training and, as a result, undergraduate supervisions.


Cambridge Teaching & Learning Newsletter vol. 3 (issue 2) December 2021

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