Investigating the experiences of taught students at the University of Cambridge


Between October 2017 and May 2018, the Futurelib programme conducted an in-depth qualitative research project, investigating the experiences of undergraduate and taught postgraduate students at the University of Cambridge.

Besides a focus on these student groups and an emphasis on working with students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects, the brief for the Student Learning Journey project was very broad, which provided an exciting opportunity to conduct a proactive, exploratory study with Cambridge students, with no specific agenda or problem to solve.

Our research aimed to uncover insights which can be used to inform the continued activity of Cambridge libraries, specifically the ways in which those libraries and their services support and contribute to the experience of students learning at the University.

Keeping an open mind, we worked with students to explore their needs and behaviours, with the intention of learning more in order to continue to provide library services more tailored to the needs of their users.

This piece provides an overview of the project.
Read the full project report here.


- Short, ad hoc, contextual interviews

- In-depth interviews

- A digital diary study, conducted over three weeks with 36 student participants, followed by in-depth interviews with 11 of those participants

- Printed and online questionnaires

- Feedback walls

- Comment cards

- Card sorting [image]

- Student evaluation of library teaching session descriptions

- Workshops with student groups who may have otherwise been under-represented in our work, specifically Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and students who had identified as having a disability


Read the full project report here.

Pre-arrival and transition

We had the opportunity during Michaelmas Term 2017 to talk to students who had just arrived at Cambridge about this experience:

- “The transition was difficult – for the first five weeks or so it’s a difficult style of study. At A Level you just had to memorise the answers, here you have to study more.” (1st year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

- “I feel quite prepared for the essay writing. I think what has been the most difficult is the speed of the language learning. I don’t know if there could be more support for that type of thing. You know, it just goes so quickly and then you feel like you haven’t fully caught up with it.” (1st year undergraduate Theology student)

For many of our taught postgraduate students, the differences between aspects of taught study at Cambridge and their previous experiences could be surprising and occasionally unsettling:

- “Coming from a field where a lot of it is self-directed (the programme I’m based in in [home country] is almost entirely problem-based, self-directed learning), it has been a bit hard for me to sit down in a lecture, two lectures a day, and focus.” (MPhil Primary Care student)

- “I was surprised by the grading system – in the States I was aiming for 100%! I had heard it was different here, but I was still shocked when I first experienced it!” (MPhil Finance student)

Being informed from an early stage about what their teaching and learning will look like and what might be expected of them can be extremely beneficial to students, potentially having a positive effect on their confidence and well being in the initial stages of their studies at Cambridge.

Student perceptions of Cambridge libraries

Student perceptions and expectations of Cambridge libraries, the services they offer and the nature of the collegiate University library system, can differ greatly for individuals, prior to and on arriving at the University.

Although aspects of how Cambridge libraries operate were confusing to some of our participants, what was clear was that they were almost instantly aware of the abundance and depth of library resources available to them, in terms of spaces, collections and expertise.

Students who had come to understand the complexities of the Cambridge library system and the extent of the resources, services and expertise available to them, often viewed these in a very positive light.

Changes over time at Cambridge

Our student participants valued the opportunities they had to specialise and pursue their own interests as they progressed through their course. The opportunity to engage with the areas of their discipline which they were most interested in was seen as exciting and as a reward, after the time they had spent studying many different topics in a relatively low level of depth and at a rapid pace.

- “The whole experience in the third year was much better. The third year was more specific and to do with the day-to-day. It was relevant so I attended more. Dissertation supervisions were much better [than my previous supervisions], more intellectually challenging.” (recently graduated undergraduate History student)

- “It’s a lot more specialised this year, some of it is very niche. I’m really enjoying it – I get a lot more out of it – critical thought, more high-level discussions. There’s a real chance to focus in.” (3rd year undergraduate Human, Social and Political Science student)


Read the full project report here.

Transferable skills

Our participants talked about developing skills and practices whilst at Cambridge, which they could apply beyond their degree, in the ‘real world’. This was often the case for students in the latter stages of undergraduate study or undertaking taught postgraduate study, particularly the more applied course programmes.

- “The course means that we’re always doing something different […] We’re working with people in different areas of industry. […] What we’re doing in the course is very like what we’d be doing working in companies.” (MPhil Engineering student)

- “I see this programme in general as being entirely pragmatic. That’s really why I’m here – to take as many skills as I possibly can out of it.” (MPhil Public Health student)

The student-researcher conflict

Students who were interested in staying within higher education mentioned a tension in terms of understanding that they needed to absorb and learn the information necessary to pass their exams, often studying a wide range of subjects at a relatively low-level of depth, but also wanting to research areas which were of interest to them in more detail, and learn practices and skills which would be necessary to pursue further study and potentially careers within academia.

Welfare and Wellbeing

Read the full project report here.

Library spaces

Students we worked with talked about the fact that they saw Cambridge libraries as ideally being safe, welcoming and inclusive spaces. While this was judged to be the case the majority of the time, some of our participants did mention that libraries could improve efforts to make people feel comfortable, safe and welcome and to foster student welfare, particularly during potentially stressful times of the academic year such as Easter Term.

We sought the advice of CUSU (Cambridge University Students' Union) in this area:

- “It is important that libraries are accommodating for students with all learning styles and patterns, however, libraries must also recognise that they have welfare responsibilities to students who work late into the evenings. Creating a caring library environment can be as simple as putting up posters reminding students to eat regularly, take active breaks, go outside for a walk. This is not only practical advice which will aid students' concentration levels but also makes students feel that the institution does care about their welfare, giving them permission to feel like they can and should prioritise their wellbeing.” (Martha Krish, Cambridge University Students Union Education Officer)  

Pinch points in the student journey

There are distinct pinch points in each student’s learning journey. These include: transitioning to degree-level or taught postgraduate level study; moving into the final year of undergraduate study; preparing to produce and submit dissertations and final project work; and revising for and sitting exams.

Although the role of libraries in some of these events for students is not always seen as direct, it is important that our services and the ways in which we engage with students during these times reflect an awareness of their importance and the potential implications for students. There are opportunities for Cambridge libraries to foster wellbeing amongst students at times that can be particularly difficult and stressful for them.

'Stress culture'

An emergent theme from our work had to do with what students often referred to as the ‘stress culture’ present at Cambridge.

- “There is just an unhealthy atmosphere generally, a lot of stress. A lot of people putting too much stress on themselves.” (4th year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

- “There’s a constant, underlying pressure, all the time.” (3rd year undergraduate English student)

Approach to studying at Cambridge

When we asked students what advice they would give another student about to start their course, many emphasised the importance of approaching the inevitably high workload at Cambridge in a positive, conscious way, from an early stage.

- “Stay on top from the very beginning on. If you do that it’s all going to be fine, if you don’t it will be a lot of trouble catching up.” (3rd year undergraduate Mathematics student)

- “Work at a steady pace, no short bursts. [...] just do your best and learn how to deal with stress. […] More often, my peers pulled out of medical school, not because of their inability to learn the massive amount of knowledge we need to learn, but because they were unable or unwilling to deal with stress any more. So the earlier you learn about your stress habits and how you can cope with it, the better your time will be in Cambridge.” (6th year undergraduate Medicine student)

Students were keen to emphasise the importance of taking a step back and appreciating Cambridge: its unique history, the cutting-edge research taking place and the resources and expertise it provides.

- “It feels like wherever I go there are opportunities and things I want to do. [...] my college is extremely supportive as well. They care about you as a human being, rather than just as a person who can write essays or produce papers. That, I really appreciate. […] In terms of support systems and being able to excel, Cambridge is probably a mini utopia for learning.” (MPhil Public Health student)

- “Have fun and relax! By the end of it, you will see how much you’ve achieved, even if the process was tough!” (3rd year undergraduate Human, Social and Political Science student)

Inter-personal relationships

Relationships form the basis of the Cambridge student experience. Contact, communication and relationships with peers, senior students, supervisors, teaching academics, library staff and others are seen and referred to by students as being the core components of their studies and learning.

Read the full project report here.

Student Cohorts

"We travel as a pack"

This quote is from a student who, during our research, was studying towards an MPhil in Conservation Leadership, a mid-career, applied course, which accepts around 20 applicants each year. These students work incredibly closely together; during the first days of their course they present to each other on the work they have been doing, usually for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) or other conservation initiatives. The next activity, still during the first few days of study, involves the students participating in a field trip exercise, where they work closely and camp together.

This may be an extreme example, but it is included here to emphasise the extent to which the size of a cohort can influence student approaches and experiences. We found that students valued being part of smaller, more intimate course programmes and departments and that this increased their confidence, as they were more familiar with the people they interacted with and with other aspects of how those programmes and departments functioned.


The Cambridge college system is designed to ensure that Cambridge students make contact with other students, both in and outside of their discipline and stage of study. Colleges put early, formal structure around student relationships through the use of ‘college families’. This approach means that many students arriving at the University, particularly undergraduates, have already been introduced to other students, with college ‘mothers and fathers’ who are already studying at Cambridge reaching out to ‘sons and daughters’ who have yet to arrive.

Inter-disciplinary contact

Our participants often reflected on the opportunities Cambridge provided for them to talk to, work with and learn from other students and academic staff in other disciplines. These are facilitated to a large extent by the Cambridge colleges, where students from a wide range of subjects live, eat and socialise together.

- “I think I’m the only person studying Public Health at my College. There are lots of mathematicians, but also there are people working in, you know, Classics, and it’s so terrific being able to chat over dinner or breakfast, and getting to know people as three-dimensional beings, but also knowing their research interests.” (MPhil Public Health student)

- “[At Cambridge] everyone is really bright, and everyone has something to contribute to your life.” (MPhil Modern and Medieval Languages student)

Libraries can play a key part in ensuring that students continue to be able to encounter their peers in different departments, faculties and schools, by working collaboratively and facilitating this through events, work-sharing opportunities, and other aspects of service.

Studying alone-together

Although in many subjects at Cambridge students are set few formal group work assignments to complete, these students still place a very high level of importance on the opportunities they have to work together with peers from their discipline, often at the same stage of study and in the same college.

Students who study in this way almost always reflect on the experience positively, focusing on the fact that they value the opportunities to ask other students questions about their work and to share ideas about specific tasks when they have mental blocks or are struggling with a particular activity.

On-the-go learning

Cambridge students are increasingly mobile, studying on the go using a variety of devices, tools and media.

- “I am walking back from a friend’s, listening to a podcast which will add to my knowledge of [my] Plant Sciences course. It’s an interesting podcast and extra information is always welcome.” (2nd year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

Factors influencing study space choices

We worked closely with students in the Natural Sciences, who often made reference to the amount of material they needed to carry around with them in order to study effectively. This had direct implications in terms of where they chose to complete different study activities.

- “Nat Scis would never use the UL [University Library], we’ve got too much stuff, so the whole thing of having to put your bag in the lockers and carry piles of work through just wouldn’t work for us.” (2nd year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

- “[…] whereas the [named library] you get a lot of desk space, we can sort of spread out, but we do feel odd, and have to hide our calculators a bit, because we feel like we’re slightly traitorous for using the arts library!” (1st year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

For some of our student participants, factors such as social anxiety and aspects of physical health had a strong influence on whether they chose to study in a particular location.

- “I like checking things, and kind of standing up and walking around in the middle of it, so my own space is really valuable for that. […] I don't think I'm any more distracted in my room, particularly, it just means that I can have the distractions I want, if you see what I mean, because I'd want to be able to get up and spend two minutes doing something, walking about, moving, like flicking through a book or whatever, and so my room lets me do that.” (undergraduate student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AHDH), subject and stage of study removed)

- “[...] libraries/departments should consider computer screen monitors with decent dimensions and IPS screens instead of the typical TN/VA Monitors. This will help cater to visually-impaired students.” (2nd year undergraduate Geography student)

Collaboration in digital environments

Increasingly, collaboration between students takes place in and relies on digital environments and platforms. Our student participants often mentioned that they were part of groups, usually made up of students in a specific course programme and, in the case of undergraduate students, in the same year of study at the same Cambridge college.

- “We have various group chats in College and there have been a couple of Maths things – I missed the first one but I might go to the second one.” (1st year undergraduate Mathematics student)

- “We have a WhatsApp group which I think contains almost every student in our year.” (MPhil Primary Care student)

We spoke to students who had used social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn to make contact with students on their course, or at their college, prior to arriving at the University. This meant that they had already established relationships which were of benefit to them both socially and academically at an early stage of their studies at the University.

De-centralised student digital services

A shared frustration for many of the students who took part in our research was the lack of centralisation and unification in terms of the information and support that was available to them digitally.

Students understood the breadth and variety of options available to them at Cambridge, in terms of study support information, training options and guidance. They were, however, in many cases, unaware of, or unable to easily find resources in these areas that could have been of use to them during their studies.

Providing a cohesive and intuitive digital experience is essential to support student learning. Cambridge libraries should continue to endeavour to provide as seamless a digital experience as possible for their students, in order to support and enable student confidence and productivity.


Read the full project report here.

Seeking guidance and advice

We found that, due to the nature of Cambridge teaching, many students return to one individual for guidance in almost all aspects of their studies. Students often saw the person who had set or was responsible for the assignment they had been set as an authority and point of contact for all areas of that work.

- “I have a good relationship with my supervisor and they’re the closest person to what I’m doing. Other services aren’t tailored to me in the same way.” (Education MPhil student)

- “They [supervisor] would know the content so would also be able to advise on a suitable structure for that content.” (LLM (Masters of Law) student, asked who they would go to for advice or guidance on report writing)

Use of media

The students we worked with were using a variety of media during their studies and were actively seeking out information in these forms, as it provided a change to their primary learning activity and an opportunity to learn in a varied and engaging way.

- “[I have just] listened to a recorded talk on how to get a First (= do well this year, First is just a version of that doing well…). Tried to make a short summary of the points raised and accordingly create a plan for the near future.” (2nd year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

- “For [my] Palaeontology course a part of reading is TV series on evolution. The task is both to learn a bit from it, but mostly to track carefully and critique, raise and oppose or support ideas discussed and provide robust scientific reasoning rather than a bit vague popular tone. It’s fun and it’s different and watching is generally easy and rather passive.” (2nd year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

Extracurricular events and opportunities

Extracurricular opportunities such as exhibitions, talks and debates were seen by students as being a valuable part of their Cambridge learning experience.

- “Museum tours can be a good educational tool to help consolidate materials taught in lectures. The Landscapes Below tour was somewhat relevant to geography and I thought it would be ideal to explore what I had learnt better on a free day.” (2ndyear undergraduate Geography student)

- “I went to the Cambridge Union to hear the debate ‘The house fears Kim’s North Korea more than Putin’s Russia.’ I was hoping to learn more about the geopolitical dynamics of both regions and hear experts speak on the issue. […] Learning doesn’t have to happen in the classroom! Cambridge is great for talks and discussion beyond your field.” (MPhil Primary Care student)

Libraries can play a key part in developing this experience for Cambridge students by hosting talks, displaying exhibitions related to areas of the curriculum and otherwise facilitating and providing opportunities for students to look beyond their degree programmes.


Read the full project report here.

A key issue for many of the students we worked with, had to do with what they saw as ‘basic’ knowledge and practices which, used effectively, could have a considerable and positive effect on their learning. These students mentioned on occasion that there seemed to be an assumption on the part of the University that students would come to Cambridge already being familiar with these practices and ways of working. 

Studying towards exams

Students come to Cambridge following a variety of routes and with varied experiences. For our student participants who had not had recent experiences of working towards exams, feeling less than confident in their ability to successfully absorb, synthesise and reproduce information on a broad range of topics over the course of an academic year led to feelings of anxiousness and unease.

- “Maybe we are lacking some training in managing stress, avoiding procrastination and in test taking. Exam techniques are so important but we never touch on this.” (2ndyear Graduate Medicine student)

- “[I’m doing] stats revision. [It’s] hard going. Revision for mock exam in March having done no stats lectures/teaching since early December! Some formal revision sessions would have been appreciated.” (MPhil Primary Care student)

Many aspects of the ways in which students learn, study and prepare for exams are related to how they interact with information. It is important that Cambridge libraries continue to support students with these aspects of their studies, particularly as guidance in this area is often seen by students as lacking on the part of the University.

Using software for academic purposes

Students during our research were using general purpose software such as Microsoft Office products to support various aspects of their studies, but had rarely received any formal advice or instruction on how to make the most effective use of these tools. These students were aware that a higher level of proficiency could enable them to use these ‘basic’ software packages in a more productive way.

- “[I’m] preparing a presentation for an assignment on Wednesday. […] [I] have all the information, just putting it into slides. Some skills in using PowerPoint, and Office in general, may have been useful.” (MPhil Engineering student]

- “I am logging source materials on a train. […] I would like to know more about Excel – I’ve never had Excel training and I think I could use it more efficiently.” (MPhil History student)

There is an opportunity for Cambridge libraries to support students in their learning by focusing attention on teaching and advising them on the effective use of these and similar software packages, as students are actively seeking this guidance.

Managing information

Few of the students we worked with were using bespoke software to manage their information; most relied on more general-purpose office products and on analogue approaches. Student approaches to information management were often haphazard; those who had chosen to take a more systematic approach realised the value of this, but many students had not received any formal advice or guidance in this area.

- “Basically, everything will be kept until at least third year. I probably won’t have it in Cambridge, like my organic notes will probably come back with me next year, because I’m doing Organic Chem [sic] next year, and the bits of the Physiology that I’m interested in […], but then again they’re on Moodle, so you might not bring them.” (1st year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

- “I am not very disciplined about saving my citations right away and I end up having to search for the Harvard style citation in Google Scholar again when I finish writing essays and coursework – this is annoying and I do not yet have a good workflow set out for this.” (2nd year undergraduate Geography student)

Cambridge libraries can make an important contribution to the lives of students at the University by teaching and advising on all aspects of information management, which could lead to enhanced student confidence and productivity.

Planning and time management

Our student participants often reflected on this aspect of their studies, describing their approaches to managing time and the measures they had put in place:

- “I had to manage my time much better in my third year as you’re doing three papers at once. [I achieved this by] planning every week ahead and dedicating days to reading.” (recently graduated undergraduate History student)

- “I usually have just a couple of days where I don’t really do much, apart from think [about my current assignment], and that’s usually after my supervision, so after my previous essay. […] Then I start on my next essay, with the reading for about four days, and then I do the essay on the last day.” (1st year undergraduate Theology student)

The short nature of Cambridge undergraduate terms mean that those students are on vacation for around half of the calendar year. Some of the students we worked with were very conscious of this and planned accordingly, setting aside work which they knew they could return to during vacation, concentrating efforts on their supervision assignments and similar tasks during term time.

- “This year I’m deliberately doing less work in term and leaving more for the holidays.” (4th year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

- “During term, I concentrate on the supervision essays – I’m leaving further reading and studying the syllabus until the vacation.” (1st year undergraduate Natural Sciences student)

For students who do not consciously plan how they will spend their time and mental energies in this way, term times at Cambridge can be incredibly stressful, as these students see the amount of reading and other work they have been set as impossible to complete.

For taught postgraduate students enrolled in teaching-intensive course programmes, managing time on a day-to-day basis is vital in order to succeed at Cambridge.

- “Even though I’m only a couple of weeks in, what I’m finding really difficult about the course structure now is that we have class every single day, apart from Wednesday some weeks.” (MPhil Primary Care student)

- “You need to have the time, which is in short supply in this course, especially because I am working one day a week in general practice, so even that self-study time which other people get for me is a day, a full day, seeing patients, which generates its own admin and is typically a long day.” (MPhil Public Health student)

For the students we worked with that were enrolled in courses or at a stage in their studies which involved little contact time, setting aside time and planning was an essential aspect of how they approached their work.

Students saw the ways in which they allocated and managed their time as a key part of their studies. This relates directly to the ways students manage and interact with information, which means that Cambridge libraries should continue to develop awareness of and respond to student activity, experiences and approaches in this area.


The students we worked with often referred to the sheer quantity of emails and other communication they received. They prioritised which information they would read and pay attention to based on a few key factors, including the source of the communication, the key messages displayed in the subjects of emails and the extent to which the information felt relevant to their studies.

Often, emails and other forms of communication which were not seen as immediately important and relevant were not read. It is important for Cambridge libraries to be aware of this situation and to ensure that communication is, as far as possible, tailored to the needs and current activities of students. It is important that key aspects of communication such as the subjects of emails and messages given through social media are carefully considered and designed to engage students’ attention at the earliest possible stage.

Several of our student participants mentioned that they often paid attention to and made note of information which was provided to them at the start of lectures. This was seen by students as the most successful way of promoting of upcoming events and opportunities, such as teaching and training sessions, lectures, talks,conferences and seminars.

- “At the start of lectures we often have people coming in to tell us about things that are happening – lectures, conferences, that sort of thing. If you really want students to listen that’s the best time.” (2nd year Graduate Medicine student)

Terminology, language and tone

A focus of our research was to investigate the extent to which students understood and engaged with various aspects of terminology and language, particularly that used to outline and promote the opportunities available to them.

The key finding in this area was that students preferred and positively responded to short, clear, defined messages; complicated and lengthy descriptive text was seen as arduous and often ignored.

The use of culturally specific terminology and colloquial language alienated some of our student participants, particularly those who did not have English as a first language and who had only been in the UK for a short period of time.

Linked to this was the importance of the University not assuming prior knowledge on the part of its students; situations where students felt that they were expected to have heard certain terms or be familiar with specific concepts and terminology led to them feeling anxious and uncomfortable, often in the presence of their peers.

Cambridge libraries should respond to this knowledge of how students interact with information. Terminology can be either a barrier, or gateway, to information and knowledge.

There is an opportunity to work with and educate our students in the use of terminology which they are likely to encounter over the course of their studies at the University, as well as to ensure that Cambridge libraries communicate with their student populations in the most productive way possible.


A key focus of our work, particularly during the latter stages of the project, was to support the activity of CILN (Cambridge Information Literacy Network).

The CILN definition of and approach to information literacy is divided into four strands: Resource Discovery; Managing Information; Critical Assessment; and Creating and Communicating. A Futurelib report was produced specifically for this aspect of our work, which details some of the insights arrived at during the Student Learning Journey project into these four strands, also introducing other key insights from the project which we feel are most valuable in relation to the work CILN is undertaking.

The CILN report can be found at Appendix 1 of the full Student Learning Journey project report.


Concepts for service design and delivery, based in the findings of our research

Read the full project report here.

Thank you to the Student Learning Journey project team, to Cambridge University Students' Union, to the (too many to mention here) Cambridge library staff who engaged with and supported our work over the course of the project, and to the research participants who made this story possible.

David Marshall, Futurelib Programme

Access the full Student Learning Journey project report here

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Photos: Sir Cam, Cambridge University, Futurelib