Due to the way that my courses work, I’ve had to submit two assignments in the last two weeks. One a week. One was considerably longer than the other, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier – being allowed to write fewer words when you have a lot to say can be such a pain.
I see plenty of tips about starting early and not procrastinating and they don’t really resonate with me because generally I don’t procrastinate. As a child growing up, I wasn’t allowed to. Homework had to be done when I got it. Chores had to be done before I could do fun things. That was the rule, but even when there was noone there to enforce the rule, it had become part of my mindset. Don’t have the thing hanging over you if you can get it gone and out of your life. Start the day with the thing you’re dreading so that it won’t be taking up brain energy for the rest of the day.
But there are other things that I’ve learned – some of them more general, some of them specific to studying at the Open University, so I decided to share them here while TMAs (tutor marked assignments) are still fresh in my mind.
1. Give yourself time
I don’t just mean time to do the assignment, although that’s important. Think about the way you work and which things you find easier or more difficult.
For example, I know that I can write pretty quickly, but maths-related problems always take me longer. If you have a look at what you’re going to need to do, you might be able to break it down into parts, and then work out which parts will take you longer. That will help you when you’re planning out how much time you’ll need, and you can go easier on yourself by leaving more time for the things that you naturally find more difficult. You might have other strategies too, like doing the easier parts first, or starting with the more difficult ones to get them out of the way. Or you might be like me and find that it offends your sense of order if you don’t do things in the order on the question sheet!
2. Check the forums
Sometimes they can generate a lot of traffic, but particularly your cluster or tutor group forum may give you useful information. It’s true you can’t ask direct questions relating to the assignment, but tutors may post up handouts from their sessions, useful materials, or information relating to the assignment. It’s also good to keep an eye on the news section of your home page because if errors are found in the assignment questions, updates will be posted there.
Also, your tutor is there to help if you have questions, but they’re in a better position to do so if you don’t approach them half an hour before the final cut-off date! All the tutors I’ve had so far have been approachable, helpful, and responsive.
3. Make a plan of what you want to say
My problem is often the word count, especially for essays or essay-based tasks.
It’s not so much that I waffle, but I like detail, and I like to be thorough. This sometimes works against me and I spend more time reducing the word count than it took me to write the essay or answer in the first place. This is tedious.
I’ve still not found a way around this completely, but I find it helps to make a list of the key points and start fleshing them out afterwards. This helps me to see whether I need to cover less ground, or cover more points with less words. It gives me a framework to work with, which in turn cuts down on my editing time, or prevents me from trying to include more detail than the question requires.
4. Try to look at the deadline and work backwards
I don’t like working under pressure if I can avoid it, and sometimes you can’t. But I try to get my assignment in at least one day before it’s due, because you never know what’s going to happen. This week on the deadline day I went to the dentist and came back feeling awful. I had to write the rest of the day off and spent most of it in bed, unable to feel my face or think straight. The following day wasn’t much better. I was so glad I hadn’t left it to the last minute.
Sometimes it’s possible to finish early and get the assignment in. I did this last Christmas when I really wanted to be finished with a block and forget about it during the Christmas holidays. So I submitted early. However, this isn’t always possible, especially if you have to show evidence of group activities that are in the timetable the week before the assignment.
The way that works best for me is to try and have my documents finished one or two days before the deadline, preferably with the chance to come back to them one last time with a fresh mind. I always find last-minute changes that I want to make during the last read-through, and it’s hard to get some mental space from what you’ve been writing if you don’t have the chance to step away and come back before it has to go off.
5. Understand the different types of marking
I’m doing different types of modules, and this is something I’ve had to learn this year. Last year I only did IT modules. Of course you can’t know how the tutor will mark the assignment before you get it back, but if it’s a programming question and your programme does what it’s supposed to, you have a pretty decent idea that you’re on the right track. The language faculty is a bit different. So far I’ve had to write two essays and it’s more about whether you’re answering the question in the right way, referring to key concepts, and arguing in a way that’s in line with the marking criteria. I actually find it harder, because it’s not a clear “right” or “wrong” like with a maths question, where there are definite right or wrong answers.
So, if you’re doing a module that’s marked slightly differently from what you’ve been used to, use your first TMA to get to understand how the TMAs for that faculty work, and try not to worry if it’s very different from what you’ve done before.
6. Be careful what you say online
At the beginning I thought I’d have lots of contact with other students, but to be honest I haven’t found myself being particularly sociable. I read through the forums and the Facebook groups are very quiet. I think it’s because people prefer to use WhatsApp, but the big WhatsApp groups tend to get on my nerves more than they help. I find them frustrating, because it’s a big stream of comments, with no way of threading or sorting them. Each to their own though, and if people like them, that’s cool.
If you go outside of the university forums though, the channels aren’t monitored, and some groups are self-monitored better than others. I’ve become aware of problems where people were found to be discussing answers to questions, sharing work, or crossing the fine line that puts you on shaky ground if you want to prove something was all your own work. This isn’t a smart thing to do, especially on public social networks where anyone can take a screenshot and use it against you!
perhaps I err too far on the side of caution, but at the same time I’ve seen people doing things that could put their qualification at risk because I don’t think people really consider how what they do and say online can be traced back to them! I’m sure it happens all the time with face-to-face meetings at universities that people attend in person, but with distance learning, pretty much everything is online and you don’t really know who the other people are in your WhatsApp chat or Facebook group.
I’m not saying don’t use the groups, but I am saying be careful when it comes to conversations about TMA questions that stray into discussing the answers.
7. Don’t make any important decisions about your future if you’re stressing about a TMA
Last week I was having the “why am I putting myself through this” and “did I make the right module choice” discussion with myself. Some things are naturally going to be harder than others, but in the same way that it’s best not to make any important decisions when you’re upset, angry, or under the influence of alcohol, it’s also better to wait till after the TMA goes in before you make any decisions about your future. It could be that you do need to change direction, but thinking about it when you already feel stressed can make everything feel worse and the problems feel bigger.
I managed to figure out that what was really causing me problems was the way the TMA was structured differently from the last two modules I’d done. Sometimes I don’t respond well to change, or when things happen in a way that I don’t expect, or that doesn’t seem logical to me. I realised this was affecting how I felt about the assignment and the module overall. After realising this, it was easier to work out what I was going to do about it and then it didn’t feel so bad.
Sometimes you don’t feel good just because nobody likes assessments, but it’s worth trying to figure out if there is something else that’s bothering you so that you can fix it and move on.
8. Word count – be careful not to chop too much
I usually get my word counts right on the number – because I’ve reduced a longer text down to exactly the right number of words. This may be by chopping out bits that weren’t essential, taking out filler words, or finding ways to say the same thing with fewer words.
It’s worth running through the text again though, because even if your word count is now right, chopping sentences or paragraphs can affect the flow of the text and make it feel a bit disjointed if you’re not careful.
Reading the text aloud can help you to see whether this has happened.
9. Get it gone!
It’s good to be thorough. I’ve definitely had students who could have got more marks if they’d just reread their work and fixed the typing errors or things that didn’t quite make sense.
However, sometimes you get to the point where you’ve done all you can. Rereading the answers, swapping out words or rewriting paragraphs stops adding value if you’ve been at it too long. In fact, you could end up tying your brain in knots and making the text worse than it had been half an hour ago.
It’s good to know when it’s time to say “I’ve done my best. This is as good as it’s going to get. I need to send it off now!” Even if that means sitting there hovering over the “submit” button until you finally just have to click it and be done with it!
10. Stop thinking about it
Some people find this easier than others, but once it’s with the tutor and you’re waiting for it to be marked, there is really nothing more you can do. Yes, I know it’s possible to resubmit work, but just as there is a cut-off date, there needs to be a cut-off date in your mind too, because worrying about it past the point where you can do anything to improve it won’t actually help.
Sure, there are things that you can learn for next time, but it’s like going to a job interview – you do the best that you can do on the day, and then it’s out of your hands. Worrying about what you could have said or should have written will just keep your mind going round in circles, and it may not actually be as bad as you think.
There’s more I could have written here, but these are the things that I’m going to remind myself after Christmas when my next assignments are due in because they’re most relevant to me.
Do you have any more assignment tips? Let us know in the comments.
Also, if you enjoyed this post, you might also like how to get study done when you don’t have a fixed timetable.
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