This research provided insights into the actual behaviour and requirements of students at the University of Cambridge. In total 162 students participated (mostly undergraduates) from a range of disciplines skewed towards STEM (Science, Technology, Economics and Maths) subjects. Design research consisted of diary studies, depth interviews and short walk-up interviews.

This student research provided us with the following key observations:

Supervisions are central to a student’s life at Cambridge

Maybe unsurprisingly, supervisions are central to a student’s life at Cambridge. Students organise their whole life around supervisions. They think of their week as running from supervision to supervision. They will usually work every day of the week but their ‘weekend’ is typically the 2 days immediately after the supervision. At some point during those 2 days they will begin collecting resources for their next essay or supervision activity. They consider this the start of their study cycle.

Across all disciplines students reported a 3:1 reading to writing ratio – they spend 3 days reading towards their essay or supervision activity and 1 day writing or completing the exercises.

Students will typically get given a reading list by their supervisor. Students will select a sub-set of this list for their supervision activity but there is very little information available to help them select the best resources efficiently. There is also stiff competition for the best resources.

Students have a variety of preferences with regard to workspaces

Every student has a preference for places they like to work. These will typically be either their room or library although there was a significant proportion of students who were looking for alternative working spaces.

Students who prefer libraries find they are much more focused and effective in the library where there are far fewer distractions. They find the change of environment helps them differentiate work from the rest of their life. Many students will go to the library when they need to get something done. For some students going to the library becomes like going to the office everyday.

The typical library environment doesn’t work well for everyone though. Those that prefer to study in their rooms value the familiarity, quiet, convenience and flexibility of making a hot drink or snack. These students only visit the library to get books and journal articles or for short periods of time between lectures.

The students who find neither their room or a library preferable are looking for quiet spaces that don’t feel like libraries and often end up in the Junior Common Room (JCR) or find other nooks around their college or faculty. Students often look for group working spaces where they can talk and collaborate with others. These types of study sessions end up being held in local cafés or spaces in college.

Social groups provide collaborative support networks

A student’s social group is almost always drawn from students at the same college doing the same course. These social groups often work together, discuss their supervisions and their lectures, share resources and utilise group tactics to secure the best resources at times of competition. Those who don’t have anyone studying the same course at the same college are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to getting access to library resources, collaborating before supervisions, trading notes or picking up notes when they miss a lecture.

Students in NatSci, Maths and CompSci often study independently sitting next to other people working on the same or similar problems. They really value this collaboration. When they get stuck on something they are able to get real time support. Before supervisions they explain things to others in the form of mini lectures and hot seat games to help cement their own thinking and get more out of the supervision. We began referring to this activity as “working alone but together”. Students in our design research used places like the JCR, bar, library or squeezed groups of people into their rooms. None of these locations were well suited to the activity.

Students use Facebook groups to self-organise

Students establish private Facebook groups in the first few weeks of term. They use these Facebook groups to self-organise

and trade information. These private Facebook groups are set up by an individual student but they do not ever consider themselves as the group leader. They are usually exclusive to a particular course at a particular college. Occasionally their membership extends to students at other colleges with the same Director of Studies. Students see these Facebook groups as a natural thing to do – Facebook is the collaboration platform they are most familiar with. They will us the group to ask questions like:

  • Who has this book, can I borrow it now?
  • Can I borrow someone’s notes on the lecture I missed yesterday?
  • Can I have a look at someone’s essay on a particular topic?

Despite popular misconceptions students regularly report using the computers in libraries. Their own laptop will log them in automatically to Facebook and their email. They find a library computer without these passwords saved helps them to concentrate.

The Student Triangle

A student’s ‘student triangle’ consists of 3 points: department, college, and the student’s preferred supermarket. The area between these points is where a student will spend most of their time. This goes some way to explaining why students who are at a college which is close to their department perceive distances between things as being much farther than they actually are; their physical worlds are actually pretty small. This contrasts with students at colleges like Girton who perceive larger distances as not being that inconvenient.

Students resent having to leave their student triangle and will plan visits to locations outside of their triangle specifically. Journeys out of their student triangle may include visits to libraries, handing in work to supervisors at other colleges or departments, or attending supervisions at other colleges.

Returning Resources

Students often make special trips to libraries to return books and collect new resources. Many will keep books longer than they need them so that they can return their current books and borrow books for next week in the same trip.

Jenny Willatt
Modern Human