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Everything Rides on the Exams

At Cambridge University, Finals Exams Make or Break the Grade

By Kevin R. Lang


Like everyone else, I had my share of close calls freshman year: failing the first two 18.023 quizzes, for instance. By the year’s end, though, I knew how to handle MIT -- go to class, crank through problem sets, study every waking hour, and gradually build up a strong enough average to weather the final exam.

Cambridge is different. Except for a relatively small contribution from labs and projects, finals are the be-all and end-all. No graded problem sets, no tests or quizzes along the way. I found myself confronted with a completely new set of rules -- I could work myself stupid all year long and a few rough questions on the final could kill my marks for the year. (Rather than using the 5.0 scale for grading, Cambridge give “class marks”. My completely unofficial translation: A 1st is roughly a 5.0 to 4.5, a 2nd class mark is split into a 2-1 (high) and 2-2 (low), roughly 4.5 to 3.5, respectively, a 3rd is roughly 3.5 to 2.5. There is nothing below a 3rd.)

The regular season

We’re talking baseball, 162 games. No single games means anything, but the sum of the parts means everything come playoff time. Classes run over two eight-week terms in Cambridge, from early October to just after Thanksgiving, then again from mid-January to mid-March. This is roughly equivalent to an MIT semester, though probably somewhat more in-depth. If MIT during the term is like drinking from a fire hose, Cambridge is more like a garden hose: it’s easy enough to stay on top of the material with the right amount of work, but stop to catch your breath and the spillage begins. When I started studying for finals, I was amazed how much material I had covered, and how much I had completely forgotten.

Each class has only two hours of lecture per week, an “examples paper” usually every other week, and a “supervision” to go with each examples paper. The lectures seemed familiar enough, except that Cambridge lectures involve little or no discussion or questions from the class. Fortnightly (every second week), however, you and one or two other students sit down with a professor or teaching assistant for an hour or so to discuss the most recent examples paper, ask questions, work through examples, and get more information. Imagine a recitation with only a handful of students, and you have a supervision.

I didn’t really care for supervisions. I was stuck in MIT mode all year long, working through examples papers on my own and doing the necessary background reading, just like I would to get a problem set in on time for a grade. Go with what you know, I guess. But this left me very little to discuss at supervisions; lectures were usually two or three topics ahead of the supervision at any given time.

Examples papers (problem sets) are definitely MIT-caliber, aside from the fact that they don’t actually mean anything. Cambridge rewards self-motivated students. If you can push yourself to work through a challenging set of problems knowing that it means nothing for your grade and that there will not be any immediate consequences for punting, you’ll get that much more out of the Cambridge program. (By the way, tell someone in Cambridge that you’re “punting,” and they’ll picture a boat ride down the River Cam. They use “bin” instead, as in, “I had an examples paper for yesterday’s supervision, but I just binned it.”)

And Cambridge regulars certainly do “bin it.” It’s common for students to give examples papers a half-hearted or even quarter-hearted try, then fill in the blanks during supervision. How they manage to cram two weeks worth of material into an hour, I don’t know. I think Cambridge regulars who do well find a happy medium, still working on their own while taking full advantage of all that supervisions have to offer.

Everything rides on the exams

Game Seven of the World Series, down by three, bases loaded, full count -- that’s Cambridge exams in a nutshell. All year long, MIT folk would ask, “How does it compare to MIT?” and my answer never changed: “Ask me again when exams roll around.” The Cambridge “spring break” is actually six weeks long, and some hardcore third-years spend the entire time locked in the library, studying from 8:00 a.m. until midnight. I knew from experience that after only a week of studying for MIT exams, my brain gets deep-fried -- how the hell was I going to study for six weeks straight?

Quite simply, I wasn’t, so I bought a rail pass and spent three weeks backpacking around Europe instead. I still had three weeks to study, though, and I really, really tried to be diligent about “revising,” as they call it. Of course, the first week was spent building up my daily study hours, the second week taking frequent study breaks during said hours, and the third week realizing how little I’d actually studied the first two weeks. In the end, my MIT habits during the year paid off.

With enough diligence and motivation, one can easily absorb a year’s worth of material. Take five classes for the year, throw in labs and projects, and you’ve got seven or eight classes worth of MIT credit. I can’t say if the Cambridge system is better or worse than MIT, but it’s definitely a different sort of challenge, with a different set of rules.

Author’s note: This is the second in a series of Reporter’s Notebooks on the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI).