The students who flocked to Cambridge soon arranged their scheme of study after the pattern which had become common in Italy and France, and which they would have known in Oxford. They studied first what would now be termed a 'foundation course' in arts - grammar, logic and rhetoric - followed later by arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, leading to the degrees of bachelor and master. There were no professors; the teaching was conducted by masters who had themselves passed through the course and who had been approved or licensed by the whole body of their colleagues (the universitas or university). The teaching took the form of reading and explaining texts; the examinations were oral disputations in which the candidates advanced a series of questions or theses which they disputed or argued with opponents a little senior to themselves, and finally with the masters who had taught them. Some of the masters, but by no means all, went on to advanced studies in divinity, canon and civil law, and, more rarely, medicine, which were taught and examined in the same way by those who had already passed through the course and become doctors. The doctors grouped themselves into specific faculties.

It soon became necessary, to avoid abuse of the royal privileges conferred on scholars, to identify and authenticate the persons to whom degrees had been granted. Enrolment with a licensed master was the first step towards this; it was called matriculation because of the condition that the scholar's name must be on the master's matricula or roll, but later the University itself assumed this duty. It was also desirable to mark the stage in a scholar's progress by a ceremony of admission (graduation) to the different grades, or degrees, of membership. These were conferred by the whole body of masters, with the Chancellor exercising the power on their behalf, as his deputy, the Vice-Chancellor, came to do later. The grades of scholar became differentiated by a series of variations on the gown, hood and cap. Reminders of these terms and practices survive today.

The Regent Masters, who were the teaching body, soon found that in addition to a ceremonial head they needed other representatives to speak and act for them. The first of these were the two Proctors (literally representatives) whom they elected annually to negotiate on their behalf with the town and other lay authorities, to keep the accounts, to safeguard their treasures and books, to moderate in examinations, and to supervise all other ceremonies. These duties were soon to be shared by other elected officers: Bedells, at first attached to the faculties, presided over ceremonies; and a Chaplain took charge of treasures and books. By the sixteenth century a Registrary recorded matriculations, admissions to degrees, and decisions of the regent masters, while an Orator wrote ceremonial letters and addresses. Most of these offices remain today, although in some cases for ceremonial purposes only.

A community of such complexity needed rules. To this end, as problems arose, Statutes were adopted by the whole body of the University. These were not at first arranged or codified, but were noted haphazardly in books kept by the Proctors. The earliest known version of these decisions is a copy made in the mid-thirteenth century, which is now in the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome.