Darwin was perhaps the greatest ever natural scientist. But he didn’t do his undergraduate degree in science, indeed at the time Cambridge did not offer a first degree in science. Although Darwin did take some maths and physics, his main focus was theology (called ‘divinity’). Of course in those days a large component of theology was studying ‘God’s creations’; science was part of religious study and one part of Darwin’s key reading material was Natural Theology by another Christ’s alumnus, William Paley; Darwin had to learn the whole book off by heart!
Lectures were held for a couple of hours each morning, but attendance was voluntary and the young Darwin wasn’t often inclined to bother going. He had been put off lectures in Edinburgh, so missed out on some good stuff! He didn’t even go to Adam Sedgwick’s geology lectures - this is the man who eventually became his geological mentor so it must have been embarrassing explaining that one. One lecture series he did attend, and enjoy, was John Stevens Henslow’s, who lectured on Botany. Darwin and Henslow became good friends. Afternoons were mostly free for horse riding, hunting and beetle collecting. Darwin would have had a tutor, responsible for checking up on his progress and making sure he was ready to take the university exams. In this respect, a year before his finals Darwin had to pass a ‘little go’, an exam to prove he was on track: he passed, just about.
Students today still have a tutor who is responsible for making sure they’re happy at college and helping them with any problems they have. Students also have a Director of Studies who keeps an eye on their academic progress and arranges supervisions. Supervisions are small group classes, usually one teacher and two or three students, which each pupil has once a week for each module they do. Supervisions are one of the unique things about Cambridge (and Oxford), they let you discuss the lecture topics in more detail with an expert and make sure you understand what’s going on. You are also set practice essays and questions to help prepare you for the exams. The work is quite intense, but very rewarding!
Specialist science courses didn’t exist until 1851 and have obviously changed a lot since. Lectures are still mostly in the mornings, for sciences at least. Lectures are still voluntary, but with a Tutor, Director of Studies and supervisors keeping an eye on you, if you don’t go to many someone soon notices! Natural Sciences today is very hands on, and a lot of the teaching is done in practical classes which go along with lectures. For example in the first year you choose three experimental sciencds and maths; most of the experimental subjects have a practical class one afternoon a week. So the opportunity for horse riding and hunting has decreased a bit…