Life as a mature student get that assignment finished and submitted

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.

Any more?

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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Life of a mature student – TM112 – introduction to computing and IT

This is the next in my series of posts about the modules I’ve completed at the Open University.

TM112 is the second level one introduction to computing and IT module. It follows TM111, which I wrote about earlier this year.

Anyone who is planning to study TM112 in the future should check the Open University’s website because there may have been some changes since I completed it, but this post is about my thoughts on the module.

The first thing to say is that this module starts in October and April. I did it in April, after TM111, but not all modules have a version that starts in April. Some start in February and some only start in October, so when you’re planning for the year ahead, it’s good to bear this in mind.

The content

Block 1 – essential information technologies. This module took a closer look at the hardware components of computers and mobile phones, how data is stored, and what happens to data when it is deleted.

The most interesting part for me was a case study that showed how some of this knowledge can be used. It brought the theory to life and although the dialogue was a bit over-simplified in places, it showed how someone might apply the theory to a real problem.

My least favourite part was probably using latitude and longitude information to look up locations on online maps, but that’s probably because this part was not very accessible to me as a blind student.

There are a number of maths questions, but you can see why they are relevant, which I feel makes it easier to do them. I really struggle when I’m just asked to work out a calculation and I can’t figure out why anyone would want to know that particular answer!

Block 2 – problem-solving with Python. This was an introduction to writing programmes in Python, to draw images, perform calculations, or analyse data. There’s plenty more you can do on the subject, but it is an introduction, and it gives you a good feel for what you can do, how the language works, and practical ways to test your knowledge and understanding.

I sometimes found myself writing the actual code and then writing the pseudo-code afterwards (breaking down the problem and basically making your thought processes understandable for others). I don’t recommend this – it’s very bad and you’ll probably come unstuck when you get to more complex problems – but when you can already see in your mind how the code should look, it’s really hard not to try and skip the planning steps! This is why I was always getting in trouble in maths lessons for not showing my working out!

Overall I enjoyed this block though and I really wish we’d had it in TM111 because in terms of writing code, it was a lot more logical to me than OU Build!

Block 3 – information technologies in the wild. This was about securing data, threats posed by hackers, surveillance, digital freedom, access to information (including government restrictions and search algorithm bias), and the law.

This was a more theory-based block, but I think it’s important to discuss these issues, take a critical look at the information we are exposed to rather than just taking it on face value, know what’s legal, and come to informed conclusions on questions that affect our online experience or what we do with our data.

The assessment

The module is assessed by means of three tutor-marked assignments.

There are also interactive quizzes to do –they don’t contribute to your marks in the same way that electronically-marked assignments do, but you do need to include screenshots to prove that you have worked through the materials. This is where you show things such as your ability to code by writing or amending programmes. There are also multiple choice questions, some of which were harder than they looked if you’re a literal thinker who can think of reasons why a statement might be false if you understand it exactly as it was written. Sometimes I overthought them. You can try most of them more than once, but you lose marks by attempting things a second time.

The tutor-marked assignments are spread throughout the course and follow the training materials. After each week, you’re guided to which part of the assignment you should look at or attempt. I thought this was standard OU procedure, but it isn’t, and now I see how helpful it was! If you can, it’s a good idea to do the quiz and assignment questions as you’re going along because then you just have to check through everything and make any final improvements before sending it off.

Accessibility – studying as a blind student

Although I enjoyed bothTM111 and TM112, I have to say that TM112 is more accessible to someone working with a screenreader. Some sighted assistance is still required, but the nature of the programming element makes it a more level playing field because you’re writing code in Python, a language that you can type on your keyboard as well as any sighted student can, rather than asking someone to drag things around with a mouse on your behalf as I needed to in TM111.

Some of the activities are visual in nature – the drawing ones were a bit dull for me and I still needed someone to check that my outputs were what I expected them to be. Still, if you read the code with a screenreader or Braille display, it is possible to find your own errors and work out what the programme is likely to do, much more so than with OU Build, which was used in TM111.Not all of the Python programming activities involve drawing – there’s also calculating and number crunching, giving you examples of programmes that do something useful or that you could adapt and implement elsewhere.

Students are encouraged to use the OU’s IDE, but this isn’t accessible with Jaws, the screenreader that I use, and I didn’t test it with others. After speaking to other blind programmers, I decided to use Eclipse. It has more functionality than the OU’s simplified IDE, but it works with Jaws, and that was my main consideration.

Figure descriptions were provided for all diagrams. Most of the time, this was fine. On a couple of occasions, some concepts were explained through diagrams, and I think tactile diagrams would have been more useful. In the end I got someone to trace my finger round the diagram in the book. Eventually I understood it, but not all concepts need to be communicated visually, and if it’s just a concept explanation that’s driving you crazy because you’re not a visual thinker, sometimes the easiest way is to do what needs to be done in the activities and then find another explanation of the concept online.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed this module and was glad that I did it. I think it fits well with TM111, and taken together, they introduce you to a good range of areas that you may want to pursue in greater depth at a higher level.

As a result, you are likely to find some things easier than others. Some will be straightforward and others will have you reading the same thing multiple times! I accepted this was normal.

I liked the fact that different people wrote different parts of the module, because it exposed you to different writing and explaining styles. I think there were less oversimplified and sometimes overstretched analogies than there were in TM111, and this made me happy.

I was happy with my result and I would recommend this module to anyone who is either on the IT route, where it’s a mandatory module anyway, or anyone who is doing an open degree and thinks it looks interesting.

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Life of a mature student – TM111 – my first module

I wrote some thoughts about my first module in this post about the first four months of my degree, but my idea is to write a summary post about each module once I’ve finished it. So here are some thoughts about TM111.

As the title says, it’s an introduction to computing and IT. I had some prior knowledge in a few of the areas that we covered. This definitely helped me, but I don’t think it was necessary as all of the information should be in the materials. This didn’t mean that I didn’t go elsewhere on occasion, but that was more about my learning style than a lack of information. Sometimes when you’re stuck, you just need to find someone who can explain it in a different way.

The content

The module is split up into three very distinct blocks. This is great in terms of helping you to focus on one thing at a time. A bit less great if you really don’t enjoy one of the blocks, but if this is the case, you do feel a sense of achievement when you get it finished and know you’ll never have to see it again!

Block 1 – the digital world. This was probably the most varied block because as well as a basic history of how computers have evolved, you get an introduction to some quite different activities from creating and manipulating sound, to designing a simple web page. There’s also an introduction to databases and some content on what you need to think about when designing new products. Each of these sections is fairly short and you get an introduction rather than a deep-dive, but I like the way that the material is varied, giving people the chance to try new things and start thinking about what they may want to focus on in later modules.

Block 2 – creating solutions. Normally I would find something like this really interesting – it was all about solving problems through designing simple programs. I’m a linguist, so learning how new languages work is right up my street. The only thing was that these concepts are introduced within a graphical programming environment that is inaccessible to blind people. So, learning the concepts was a valuable experience for me because I’ll be able to apply them in other programming contexts, but as I couldn’t do any of the practical work independently, it was less enjoyable.

I understand why things are done this way – people can get up and running and start producing programmes quickly without having to bother much about understanding how a text-based language works and the grammar rules that will break your programme, but for me, it really wasn’t fun.

Block 3 – connecting people, places, and things. This was an introduction to networking, wireless communication, and the internet of things. It also looked at some of the social aspects of the way in which we use technology, as well as data security, biometrics, and the advantages and disadvantages of increased connectivity in our everyday lives. As someone whose business is carried out entirely online, I was interested to look at how people interact online.

I think some of the networking concepts could have been explained in a more straightforward way – I just looked up the information elsewhere because it felt that a lot of space was given to drawing analogies with things that we already know, whereas I just wanted to know about the thing we were supposed to be learning about and how it worked. That’s a learning style thing though. I’m sure some people would have been happy that someone took the time to try and make the concepts more relatable.

Things are changing all the time and I imagine it will be difficult to keep this really up-to-date, but I think the module raised some questions that are relevant to us today and the case studies helped us to think about people whose experience of using technology is different from our own.

Some concepts, such as maths, run through all of the blocks. Others are dealt with individually in one of the three blocks.

Assessment

The marks come from three tutor-marked assignments, which include activities to demonstrate what you’ve learned throughout the course, and three electronically marked assignments, which you complete online by answering multiple choice questions or typing specific values in the box.

I had a really helpful tutor who responded quickly to questions, made sure I had everything I needed if I was going to attend a tutorial run by someone else, and chased up some accessible materials when they went astray.

I worked hard – extra hard in some ways – but in the end I was happy with my mark and it was all worth it!

Learning as a blind student

I want to be positive because I did really enjoy doing this module, but for me it wasn’t an easy introduction into studying with the Open University as I believe the initial courses are intended to be. For me, even though the content will get harder, this was probably one of the most difficult and frustrating modules I’ll take due to the inaccessibility of a large chunk of it. Only my helpful sighted assistant and the knowledge that we’d soon be going onto other programming languages and never have to see OU Build or Scratch again kept me going – along with all the positive vibes around Christmas (because this was block 2)!

On the plus side, I could access all of the material, either as downloadable documents or as web pages on the site. Descriptions were provided for the diagrams in the material. There was an active community on the forum, which is run by the Open University, as well as a student-led Facebook group where students can socialise or ask questions.

But, even if you’re doing an open degree as I am, if you want it to be an IT-based one, there’s no getting past TM111. In many ways you wouldn’t want to either, because a lot of basic concepts are introduced that you will be building on in later modules. If you can’t use the visual programming environment because you are blind, you need to be prepared to work with a sighted assistant as there is really no other way round it if you want to complete that part of the course in its current form. The work will need to be your own, but you will have to have someone carrying out tasks for you with a mouse, and also giving you feedback about what the programmes actually do when you run them, so you can check that this is what you wanted or expected.

Most IT modules do have a degree of inaccessibility, but when comparing percentages, this is one of the highest I found, so in this respect, things will only get easier.

All information is correct at the time of writing, though of course things may change when the module is run again. If you are interested in studying it, it’s best to get the most up-to-date information directly from the Open University.

The next post I wrote in this series was about TM112. I have also written some more general ones about getting TMAs written and sent off” and getting study work done when you don’t have a fixed timetable.

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Life of a mature student – how to find time for studying when you don’t have a fixed timetable

When I was at school, it always filled me with dread – that first week back when you got your timetable. I was fine once I knew what was happening, but the thought of whether my Monday morning would be full of my least favourite things such as maths and PE always made me a bit anxious – until I knew what my week would look like for the rest of the year, and then it was ok.

Generally I enjoyed school. But I felt better when I knew how it would all fit together. Which rooms I’d have to go to and when. Which homework tasks would be set on which days. Then there was order to the chaos!

Sometimes people seem to think that I was just born organised, but there’s more to it than that. As human beings, we generally take the path of least resistance, and being disorganised stresses me out way more than planning a bunch of systems and processes does. I know we’re not all the same.

So, with no lectures to attend, how do you get organised and plan your study time for a long-distance degree course?

How does it work at the Open University?

The Open university is different in that you don’t attend weekly lectures. Most learning happens when you’re working through the materials on your own. Some may find this lonely – I find it liberating because you can set your own schedule and are not restricted by what others are doing.

There are tutorials, which in a way can be like lectures, but there is a list of them for you to choose from, so you’re never tied to having to be in a specific place at a specific time, unless you want to attend a particular face-to-face event, or to go to all of your own tutor’s tutorials. The tutorials are not mandatory, but they can be useful when you’re planning your assignments or if you don’t understand something.

I opt for the online ones, and so far there have been tutorials available on weekday evenings, so I can just hop on to the call from my desk after work. That works well for me because I don’t actually need to take time out of work to do it.

There are some deadlines, such as assignment deadlines. In my last module, there were six to do.

Some people leave them to the very last moment, but again, that would stress me out too much – what if I got ill or something? So I did most of mine around a week before the cut-off date.

Otherwise though, you don’t have someone sitting there telling you what you should be doing, and you don’t have a group of people sitting in a physical space together, working through the materials together. There are forums where you can ask for help, and most modules have a Facebook group, but you really need to be responsible for your own learning strategy and time management.

The weekly planner

I don’t know whether everyone uses it, but I find the weekly planner on the student home page really useful. Ok, there is a certain satisfaction to ticking off tasks and sections of the book once they’re complete. This makes the percentage bar go up and you feel as though you’re getting somewhere!

More than that though, the content is broken down into weeks. I found it really helped to follow this plan and pretty much stuck to it all the way through the first module. I find it bizarre that the week starts on a Saturday, but I just choose to ignore this and pretend that it starts on the Monday!

There are no penalties for not following the planner though – nobody checks – and you’d only have problems if you missed one of the assignment deadlines.

Some people will try to cram everything in at the end. Others will steam off ahead and ask about things that nobody has even seen yet! What people do is really up to them, but if you’re doing a collaborative activity, complaining about the fact that nobody else is participating when it is in fact you that is 4 weeks ahead of everyone else is not going to make you any friends!

General tips for staying on track with your studies

Whether you’re at the Open University or doing other distance learning courses, these tips might help you to work through your study materials.

  • Don’t leave everything till the last minute. Your brain can only absorb so much information at once, and cramming is a risky strategy, especially if unexpected personal circumstances come up, there are technical difficulties, or you discover there’s something that you need more help with.
  • If your course provides a timetable, try to use it. It can make three big books of information and tasks feel a lot more manageable. If you don’t have the material broken down for you, invest the time in making your own weekly planner, taking into consideration any holidays or weeks when you know you’ll have less time.
  • Understand that you’ll be able to sail through some sections because it’s something you know already or something that comes naturally to you. Other things will take a bit more time. With me, it’s always the maths, but I know that and can plan in extra time for it.
  • Once you have your weekly plan, try and break it down further. I generally try to do a bit each weekday and then finish off anything I didn’t manage at the weekend. I’m lucky because I’m self-employed and can set aside some time for this during working hours if I need to. But whether you do it in your work day or a bit each evening – you need to work out what works best for you. You may find it better to have two longer sessions at the weekend – but then bear in mind that there is less time for slippage. Blocking out time in your diary can help – I put mine in like meetings that I have to attend. There will always be other things that need our attention, which is why it’s useful to schedule study time in advance.
  • Find somewhere that feels like a place for working, and try to work there. Set it up in a way that’s comfortable, with less distractions, and try to make it somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. Keep all of your books and materials there, so you won’t waste study time hunting around for them. Try to limit distractions there. I just use the desk in my office, but if you don’t have that, try to identify a place where it will be easy for you to work.
  • Focus on what you’re doing, not what everyone else is doing. I understand that some people feel more relaxed if they can get themselves a few weeks ahead and hand in their assignments as soon as possible. That’s cool. But some people like to brag about it, which is not so cool. The people on your course can be good allies – you can help one another, have interesting discussions, and be there on days when either of you has had enough. But ultimately you are never going to see these people again unless you come across them on another module. So sure, be inspired by them, but don’t let them make you feel inadequate if someone is boasting about how quickly they did a task or how easy something was for them. What’s really important for your success is how you’re doing.
  • Don’t leave it too late to ask for help. I can’t move on to the next section if I don’t understand something because it will keep bothering me. I won’t be able to stop thinking about the thing until the thing has been resolved! In some ways this serves me well, but I have seen other people really struggling alone with things and only admitting it very late in the module. There are so many places to get help – tutors, other students, friends, the internet. Some of these people will be under more pressure as exam or assignment deadlines get closer, so it is often better to get your questions in as they come up. Sometimes rereading the same thing multiple times won’t make it any clearer – you need to find another strategy to understand the concept.
  • Know when to take breaks. I’m better at this if my partner is around. When he isn’t, I’ve been known to still be sitting at my desk at stupid o’clock trying to get something finished! But generally that’s a one-off. We aren’t machines. We need basic things like sleep, food, water, exercise. It’s tough because distance learning students often have a whole bunch of other stuff going on such as jobs, family commitments etc, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It won’t help if you burn yourself out because you overestimated how much you could do in one sitting.
  • Expect to have good and bad days. I wasn’t fond of one section in my last module. My motivation levels were down. I couldn’t wait to see the back of it! But that’s normal. Each module covers a range of information and some things will be easier for you than others. Some things will be more interesting than others. Don’t let how you feel about yourself and your ability to do the whole course be determined by how you feel about one particular task.
  • Celebrate the small wins – it makes you feel good before moving on to the next assignment or chunk of learning. Who doesn’t like a celebration? But seriously, breaking the material down into more manageable pieces can certainly help if at first you feel a bit overwhelmed.

Do you have any more tips? Let me know in the comments!

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