Supervisions are small-group teaching sessions, where a group of usually around three students meet each week with an expert in a particular area, to discuss the course. You would expect to have one hour-long supervision for Physiology of Organisms every week within term-time. Supervisions, and the supervisor(s) that you will get for a particular course, are arranged by your College, unlike every other aspect of the course which is arranged departmentally. Supervisors may be lecturers in the course, researchers in the field, professors or PhD students, depending on your College: although all supervisors will have a different perspective on the course and on science in general, all will have something valuable to offer, which will aid your understanding of physiology. The opportunity to discuss ideas with an expert each week represents one of the major advantages of a Cambridge science degree, and is certainly not available in most universities. If you have not yet applied to Cambridge, a consideration of which supervisors are used by a particular College might form part of how you decide which College to apply to!
What to expect from supervisions
Most Colleges use more than one supervisor to cover the Physiology of Organisms course, typically an animal physiologist in the Michaelmas and Easter terms, and a plant scientist in Lent. A very few Colleges have supervisors who teach the entire course single-handed: although these supervisors would not be expected to be equally expert in all parts of the course, they are able to offer a more integrated approach. If you are thinking of applying to Cambridge and reading Physiology of Organisms, contact individual Colleges for more information about how their supervisions are organised.
Supervisions vary a great deal from College to College. All supervisors will help you with any questions that you might have about the course, and will try to guide you through problematic areas. Most will set you homework in the form of essays, calculation questions, or research related to the current topic, but this will depend on the individual supervisor. The great advantage of the supervision system is that this form of personal, one-to-one teaching can be tailored to your own needs - for example, if you did not study physics at school, your supervisor will be able to guide you through aspects of the course which involve physical principles, which you might otherwise find challenging.
Of course, with rights come responsibilities - it is up to you to participate actively in supervisions. Supervisions represent a dynamic teaching environment: the supervisor is not there to give you another lecture, and is not a walking text-book who can answer every question, no matter how obscure - this is why you have libraries! Instead, supervisions are for building a deeper understanding of the subject, taking your understanding further in key areas, and discussing ideas...hopefully, your ideas!
There is more information available about supervisions, including guidelines about writing essays and hints and tips for supervisors themselves, on our Moodle website.