What's happening with teaching and assessment during lockdown?

What's happening with teaching and assessment during lockdown?

  • Lecture theatre

Easter Term is normally Cambridge’s most vibrant time of the year. By May the weather is usually pleasant and the streets are bustling with activity. Hordes of tourists buzz around King’s Parade and Market Square in inexplicably large groups, hovering in your path as you try to navigate through the crowds to your favourite coffee shop for your mid-afternoon caffeine fix. Students whizz through Garrett Hostel Lane on their bicycles, precarious piles of books stacked in the perennially over-burdened baskets, rushing to nab their favourite seat in the University Library before it is snapped up by another stressed finalist.

This year, however, the coronavirus outbreak has meant that Cambridge has become a ghost town. No tourists and, more poignantly, no students. For the first time in living memory, the Collegiate University has closed its buildings and libraries, and students and staff alike have been sent home.

Yet while the physical University is shuttered (and will remain that way for the time being), much of its work is continuing remotely. While students are inevitably missing out on certain aspects of Cambridge life — bops and formals sadly cannot be easily replicated online— they continue to have access to many of the same resources as usual.

Read how student academic life is continuing — and how it has changed — during the coronavirus lockdown.

Teaching and learning

There is no face-to-face teaching in Cambridge this Easter Term. All teaching and learning, including lectures, seminars and supervisions, has moved online. Students and academics alike have had to quickly adapt to new methods of teaching and communicating. This includes getting to grips with the various video-conferencing platforms that make this possible, as well as dealing with the inevitable technical hiccups.

While the mode of teaching looks very different this term, the Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope has made clear his commitment to preserving the academic rigour of the University. “Cambridge is famous for its rigorous but rewarding teaching methods. The intensive and academically challenging nature of the face-to-face supervision is central to this” he says. “That this continues to be the case, even in the new world of online learning, is of paramount importance to the University.”

While students will now be debating their tutors from behind a computer screen as opposed to in a book-lined office, Departments and Faculties have worked hard to ensure that they will still be receiving the same quantity and quality of teaching that they would have otherwise been provided with in Cambridge. Teaching timetables have been preserved, as far as possible, and students will have their usual busy schedule of lectures, seminars and supervisions across the week.

In terms of access to learning resources, many of these are still accessible online. Cambridge University Libraries are operating remotely, with the majority of their services available online. Unfortunately, the intangible aspects of a library cannot be replicated at home: the sound of hundreds of pages turning simultaneously, the palpable sense of intellectual activity and the boost in motivation that comes with working alongside others. Students can, however, access the Libraries’ mammoth collection of ebooks, ejournals and databases from the comfort of their home, wherever their location.  More e-resources are being added daily and students can request specific items to be added if they are not currently available online.


Easter Term is the main examination period in Cambridge and Departments and Faculties have had to quickly put into place alternative assessment arrangements that are robust, rigorous and fair for all students. 

Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education Professor Graham Virgo explains:

“The core principles we are adopting are: to maintain academic rigour; to ensure fairness; to enable learning outcomes to be met; to ensure that the assessment process is as simple as possible and to respond to the specific needs of students, particularly disabled students.”

All assessment during Easter Term will now be carried out remotely and will replace the usual examinations in Cambridge. The changes have meant that students may be assessed in a different format than usual, for example through extended essays, vivas via video-conferencing, online open-book exams, or a combination of methods. However, Departments and Faculties have ensured that no additional teaching will be required in order to take the alternative assessments.

To account for the disruption and upheaval caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the University has applied a 'safety net' policy for final-year undergraduates. The policy ensures that students will not receive a lower class mark than the one they were awarded in their second-year exams, as long as they pass their assessment. This means that the exams this Easter Term will only confirm the class awarded in their second year or improve it. For example, if they were awarded a 2.1 in their second-year exams, they will not receive lower than a 2.1.

The University is aware that there will be students who will be unable to take their assessments as usual during the Easter Term, either due to personal illness, caring responsibilities or other reasons related to coronavirus. These individuals will have the opportunity to complete their assessments in a second examination period once the University is fully operational again.