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Coronavirus POLIS Undergraduate FAQ

Teaching and Assessment in POLIS in 2020: some frequently asked questions

This page is to set out the changes to how teaching and assessment will work in POLIS over Easter term 2020. It is meant primarily for second and third year students – that is, those taking papers in Politics and International Relations in HSPS Part IIA and IIB, History & Politics Part IB and Part II, and those borrowing one or more of these papers from other Triposes. If you are taking the first year papers (POL1 and POL2), it is better to look at the HSPS website for more information.

The basic arrangement is that all exams will be taken on-line, via a Moodle site. You write timed essays, and there will be word limits for each exam script. Those due to take second year exams are strongly encouraged to take them, if you are able to do so. The purpose of these exams is to give you an assessment of your work so far, and you will receive back marks per question and substantive feedback on long essays. The marks however will not be recorded on your transcript, and won’t lead to a formal class. Those HSPS and History and Politics students due to take third year exams need to take three papers to completion (or two papers plus a dissertation) in order to graduate. These will lead to formal marks and classing, subject to the University’s ‘safety net’ principles. If you cannot take these papers in Easter term, you will have the opportunity to take them in a second sitting, when the university is back in full operation. For both second and third years, POLIS teaching – online lectures, seminars and revision supervisions – will continue throughout the first half of Easter term.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about these arrangements. They should be read in conjunction with the University’s frequently asked questions about assessment and teaching, which set out the general University-wide policies on these matters, and with the information provided by other departments and Faculties in relation to their papers. We have not replicated the information already in those documents, but only included the information that is relevant specifically to students taking papers taught by POLIS. If you are in any doubt whether this guidance applies to your papers, please check with your supervisor or Director of Studies.

The questions are broken down into four sections: the format of the exams, the exam timing and scheduling, the results from the exams, and the teaching in Easter term.

1.      Format of the exams 

2.      Exam schedule

3.      Results

4.      Teaching


1.      The format of the exams

Am I allowed to look at my notes during the exams?

Yes. These are being treated as ‘open book’ exams, so you are allowed to look at your notes and use the internet during the exam. The exams however are under a time limit – 3 hours for most of the exams, though see below – so you have to use your time well. You won’t have the opportunity to read up on the topic if you are to complete the exam essays to an adequate standard within the time limit.

Why is there a word limit, and what is that limit?

Because the exams are open book, we are conscious that this would make it possible for students to prepare sections of text in advance and incorporate them into an exam essay. We do not want to encourage this. As a result, we have introduced quite tight word limits – 4,500 words for most exam scripts – so that you write closely focused essays within the allotted time limit. Under these conditions, copying previously prepared material is likely to result in a weak performance, because it will mean that the answers are not sufficiently focused on the questions.

For most exam papers, the word limit applies to the script as a whole: 4,500 words in total, which students are welcome to divide up as they wish. If students are required to answer three questions, as is the case with most exam papers, that would work out at an average of 1,500 words per essay. For some exam papers (eg POL3, POL17), you are expected to write a different number of essays – and for those the word limit will be the same overall, but divided differently. For example, you would be expected to write an average of 2,250 words for each of the two essays for POL3. For the POL6 exam, the overall limit will be 3,000 words, with specific word limits indicated on the exam paper for answers to some of the interpretive sub-questions.

The word limit is a maximum, and includes all text of the essays in the script. If you include footnotes (though see the point about that below), they would be included in the word count. You can discount the words in the essay title, the candidate number (if included) and other material in the script that is not part of the substance of the essay.

Should my answer be written like an exam essay or like a supervision essay? Should I include full referencing and a bibliography? What are the marking criteria?

It should be written as if it were an exam essay, not a supervision essay. We do not encourage you to use your time and words to write full referencing or to compile a bibliography. It is only if you draw a substantial amount of text directly from another source that you should put this in quotation marks and include a direct reference to the source. But in any case, this is something to be discouraged, as mentioned below.

The marking criteria for exams remain the same as if these were exams taken under invigilated conditions, and the advice on writing exam essays in our examinations handbook remains valid. For the marking criteria, and that general advice, please see this guide.

Two points are worth emphasising from that guide, which are especially pertinent to open book essays. First, we do not encourage you to include long quotations in your exam essays, which will just use up your word limit. It is especially important in an exam essay to explain points in your own terms, not to copy and paste text from other people to explain those points. Second, an important part of the criteria for high marks is well-focused essays – that is, those which are directly addressing the exam question. Do be careful not to use up your words by giving long background or descriptive accounts.

I can’t access relevant printed books. Will this put me at a disadvantage?

We are ensuring that all primary texts are available for free on-line, and that no exam questions require you to have read texts that can only be accessed in a print-only book. There is already a wide range of journal articles and electronic books available via the University portal. No student will be penalised in their exam marks for not referring to texts that can only be accessed in print format or for which payment is required for electronic access beyond those already purchased by the university.

On what system do I type my essays? Can I handwrite the essays if I so choose?

Three days before each of your exams, the Department will send you the link to the specific Moodle site for that exam. Please test this link to be sure you have access. You will not be able to see the contents of the exam paper at that stage, but the link should take you to the relevant page. Your exam will go live (that is, you will be able to see the contents of the exam paper) via that link at its timetabled start of the 5 hour window within which you will take the exam. Refresh the page if you have it open before the start of the 5 hour window. You upload your exam essays on the same site.

Please complete the essays within a single document (not a separate document per essay). We recommend you save the file with the title of just your personal exam number (your ‘blind grading id’). Do not include your own name or your CRSid (the first part of your Cambridge email) anywhere in the saved document.

You have a choice about whether to type the essays or to handwrite them. If you type the essays, please do so in a Word document. It should be in 12-point font and with 1.5-line spacing.

If you choose to handwrite your essays, the University Information Service has provided instructions on how to do this, as well as a list of recommended iOS and Android apps, in the following Moodle course: . You can test the process of uploading and submitting scanned documents in the practice area, and we strongly recommend you look at this and practice before arranging to take your exams through handwriting.

For more on this process, we strongly recommend you read the University’s guidance here, which also shows you the format of the site on which you will view the exam paper and submit your essays:

How is it possible to ensure fairness when exams aren't invigilated? What happens if I have a question about the exam paper during the exam?

Final year students should sign a declaration of integrity certifying that the exams are their own work and were completed within the required time limits. The declaration of integrity is available here: Final year students should complete this after each of their exams, and upload it to that site.

We also intend to use the plagiarism-detecting software, Turnitin.

In these exams, there will be no opportunity for students to ask questions once the examination window has opened. If you see an error within a question paper, please continue with the exam by assuming you understand what the question means; but then also please be in touch with your tutor afterwards to explain why you think there was an error. This should then be communicated back to the department, and we will consider how the paper can be marked fairly in light of this. 

2.      The exam schedule

When will the exams be?

The new exam timetable is via this page here (see "Online Assessment Timetable Easter Term 2020"). 

What about the second sitting?

This is relevant only to third year students who were unable to take their exams in Easter term – due to, for example, illness, full-time caring responsibilities, lack of access to the internet or a suitable work space. The dates for the second sitting will be announced by the university when it becomes clear that it can be fully operational again.

Will students in the Far East or Americas have their exams in the middle of the night?

Almost all exams will be held in the 5-hour slot from 12:00-17:00 BST. This means that students in the Americas will be able to take the exams in three hours in the morning (standardly, 6am-9am by Pacific time) and students in the Far East and Oceania will be able to take exams in the evening (for Eastern Australia, 9pm to midnight). We consider this to be a workable arrangement for the large majority of our international students, but please do let us know if you anticipate specific problems.

Is the exam for three hours or for five hours?

Most exams will be for three hours, with the exception of POL6 and E.8 which are for two hours. You will though have a five-hour window in which to take each exam, and you can choose when you will take the exam within the ‘window’. 

You should not include the time at the end spent scanning (if handwriting) or uploading the essays within this 3 hour period – we appreciate this may take a few extra minutes on top of the time spent writing. Please note though that your essays have to be uploaded within the 5-hour window.

If you experience any short interruptions – a technical problem or interruption of your working environment (noise, distraction, etc.) of ten minutes or fewer – please just add the lost time to your 3 hours. If you experience longer interruptions, we suggest that you make a note of it and collect any evidence available, while trying to continue working for up to three hours within the window. If you are concerned about interruptions that have happened, and certainly in the case of interruptions of more than ten minutes, please email your tutor to document and explain the interruption as soon as possible after the exam. If you have a significant internet outage and are unable to either download the exam questions within the first two hours of the exam window or upload your exam paper, you may also want to register this by leaving a message on 01223 767255.

I have specific examination access arrangements. How will these be respected?

It is important to be in touch with your College if you have any concerns about this. We expect that in the large majority of cases, specific access arrangements can accommodated within the five-hour window. For example, if you are allowed 25% extra time, this would mean you should take up to 3 hours 45 minutes in sitting the exam, if the exam would otherwise be for 3 hours. If you are not sure this is possible, your College tutor should be in touch with the Exams, Assessment and Mitigating Circumstances officials at the Student Registry to discuss alternative examination arrangements.


3.      The results

I’m in my final year. How will I be classed with only three papers?

The new set of classing criteria for HSPS Part IIB is available here. These criteria will apply for both the Easter 2020 exams and those taken as part of a second sitting. The criteria for History and Politics Part II have been circulated to students separately.

I’m in my second year. Will I receive marks for each paper and a class mark?

You will receive a mark for each paper, and a mark for each question within each paper. These will be sent to you and your director of studies by email. You will also receive written feedback on your long essays (if you are taking POL5) or project report (if you are taking POL6). You will however not receive an official class mark.

If you would like to receive an unofficial transcript of your results, we are happy to provide it. You may want this if you want to use your results as part of applications for graduate courses or for employment. Please contact us any time after you have received your marks in order to be sent this.

I’m in my second year. What will my results be if I take some exam papers but not others?

If you are able to do so, we do encourage you to take all your papers. But if you don’t take some or all of your exams, you simply won’t receive any marks for those papers. There will be no hindrance in progressing to your final year. If you were to ask us for an unofficial transcript in those circumstances, we would simply list the papers you took (with marks) and the papers you didn’t (with an indication that you did not take them).

When will I receive my results?

We expect that final year students who take their exams during Easter term will receive their results by 27th June, along with the overall class (which may be adjusted in light of the ‘safety net’). For students who take their exams during the second sitting, we cannot at the moment project when that second sitting will be, and therefore when the results will be released.

We aim to have the marks for second year students by mid-July, and these will be sent directly by email to students and their directors of studies.


4.      Teaching

How will supervisions, seminars and lectures work in Easter term 2020?

We are moving to remote teaching. In general, we are trying to be as flexible as possible with the timings, so as not to disadvantage students who are in different time zones. If you are not within three hours of British Summer Time, please let us know so that we can organise revision supervisions at appropriate hours. 

Supervisions will generally be carried out via Microsoft Teams. As the university has purchased this system, all students automatically have accounts on it. It works best if you download the browser via and log in via your Raven account. Your supervisors have been asked to either plan out supervision groups with you on MS Teams, or if not to give you a clear explanation of an alternative vehicle through which they will be in touch with you.

Seminars will mostly be conducted via a Zoom platform, though some may also be on MS Teams. You should receive an invitation to participate in the seminars with a link for joining. All seminars will be recorded, so if you cannot join at the time it is being conducted, you will be able to watch the seminar at your own convenience after it has concluded. You should either see a link from within the Moodle course site or receive an email with a link to a recording of the seminar.

Lectures will largely be pre-recorded and uploaded directly to the relevant Moodle course page. This is being done on the system Panopto, which you can view directly within Moodle. There are only a few lectures scheduled in Easter term, so it is quite possible that the papers you are taking won't have any lectures. 

How will supervisions, lectures and seminars work in Michaelmas term 2020?

Please see here for a list of the HSPS course changes. Please note that we will continue to monitor and respond to the changing public health situation, so these course changes may be modified in the future.