This summer I graduated from the Open University having studied Creative Writing and English Literature on their Open Degree pathway. Like so many who opt to study with the OU, I did so because of the flexibility it offered.
I’ve since been reflecting on how that flexibility worked for me in practice around my commitments and what is was that allowed me to be successful. Seeing recent social media activity from new members of the #OUfamily and others about to embark on study, I was inspired to write this blog post. It offers a few tips and insights to help you approach your studies and tutor-marked-assessments (TMAs). I’ve written it specifically with OU students in mind but it’s applicable to all students.
Create a study area. Depending on the space available this might be a home office, a desk tucked into a bedroom corner or a part of your dining table. Whatever you have, make sure that it’s a space you can take breaks from. A physical boundary between where you study and where you relax can help you to switch off (and equally to switch back on when it’s time to study).
If there’s enough room, have some of your favourite things around you. If space is limited you can add cheer in smaller ways, such as through your stationary choices. I accumulated so much stationary throughout my degree that I had to get a trolley for it! Plant pots and posh pens might seem frivolous but if your study area is inviting, you’ll need less persuading to go there.
One investment I did make was in a proper desk chair (the kneeling type). Unfortunately, I didn’t think to do this until my final year. It was too late – slouching in comfy chairs, hunched over my laptop, meant that I ended up on the physio’s couch.
Reduce, re-use or recycle when it comes to books. Although course textbooks are usually included in any course fees, all other books required are not included. Some will be recommended reading and others mandatory.
This can be really costly, especially on literature modules. One year I had thirteen set texts to read plus five optional ones. The total cost, new from a large online retailer was over £200. I saved a significant amount of money by first trying to source my books through my local library and then using second-hand online booksellers for titles that the library did not stock.
At the end of each module, I would sell my books on as a bundle to another student about to start the module. This recouped some of my costs and meant that another student enjoyed a big saving.
It’s convenient to shop with the big online booksellers but by taking a few minutes to do your research, you can save £££££ and be kind to the environment.
Do some studying every day, no matter how small. You won’t always have the time or energy to do several hours of study in one go but try to chip away at your module materials, no matter how briefly, regularly.
Most OU modules require around sixteen hours of study per week and finding this time can be especially difficult if you’re working, have dependants or are coping with health issues. Spending ‘spare’ evenings and weekends on your studies, can quickly cause resentment as you are left with no opportunity for time to yourself, or quality time with others.
The key is to find simple ways to slip study activities into your day – watching a video whilst cooking, flicking through notes whilst commuting – it all adds up. I took my textbook everywhere and would read it at every opportunity – on my lunch-break, waiting at my children’s clubs, even when standing in long queues.
I also set aside ninety minutes per evening, after my children went to bed and I was quite strict about switching off when that time was up so that I still had part of my evening left to unwind.
Try to get a little ahead if you can. No matter how organised you are, there will be occasions when you can’t study, so having some contingency time built up really takes the pressure off.
Familiarise yourself with the Tutor Marked Assessments (TMAs) well ahead of the due date. Take a look at the essay question when you commence each study block. It may not mean anything to you at that point but keep it in mind rather than have a surprise on TMA week.
I found it helpful to write the essay question on my whiteboard so that as I worked through the block, the question was never far from my mind. This influenced what notes I took, which paragraphs I highlighted etc. It meant that when it was time to write the TMA, I had a focussed set of notes to refer to, rather than searching through reams of content to find what was relevant. Tidy notes, tidy mind.
For some blocks you may not be required to learn all of the materials, instead only studying the sections relevant to your TMA option. I was caught out on this a few times – having pored over everything, I got to the TMA only to find that half of what I had studied wasn’t required.
Do a crappy first draft of your essay. Staring at a blank page can feel very intimidating and the task ahead can seem huge. When it’s time to start on your essay, put something down – bullet points, key words, initial thoughts…anything! Don’t aim for perfection, aim to make a start. When you next come back to the document, you’ve got a catalyst.
I found it helpful to revisit the assessment criteria and the TMA guidance notes. Often, the guidance notes would include pointers and I would put these onto the blank page as bullet points and start off by making a few notes against each, later using this as the skeleton to build my essay on.
If you’re unsure about what exactly the essay question is asking – don’t guess, don’t assume and don’t seek opinions on social media! Go straight to your tutor for clarity. After all, its them who will be marking it.
Seek support at the earliest opportunity. If things aren’t going well, don’t wait for a crisis. If you are struggling in any way with any part of your course, tell your tutor immediately or contact Student Support. This includes personal matters which are study-impacting.
I was days away from an essay deadline, sitting up through the night beside a relative who was receiving palliative care, when I finally emailed my tutor to say I was unlikely to submit on time. My tutor was fantastic, gave me several options and signposted me to help that I did not know was available. If I had reached out sooner, that time in my life could have been made somewhat easier.
Seek support from your family and friendship groups too and let them know how they can help you. Having someone bring you a cup of tea or send a motivating text can be a real boost. Practical support like babysitting or having a meal cooked can feel like a gift from the Gods. If someone offers to help, accept the offer. No one wins in a busyness competition!
Be organised. There is no way around this one. Distance learning requires planning and organisation, no matter your circumstances. If you are not naturally a planner, find tools and techniques that can help you. Calendar alerts, phone reminders, whiteboards, post-it notes, apps that block distractions, an accountability partner- whatever works for you.
At the start of each module I would enter the essay deadlines into my online calendar then, whenever I received social invitations I would have a visible reminder of when an essay was due and I’d avoid planning anything during that week.
I would also tell my best friend whenever I was on a deadline and would give her instructions not to take my calls or respond to my texts for a week, If I called her to procrastinate she would ask “have you finished your assignment’ and hang up on me if I answered no!
University study is an opportunity, not just to learn a subject but to learn more about yourself. I left the Open University with First Class Honours and a greater understanding of what I am truly capable of.
My study journey doesn’t end there. This month I start MA Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. Switching from distance learning to in-person presents me with a new set of challenges but I’m confident that I can rise to them using the tools I’ve gained as an undergraduate.
If you are about to start your own studies or are considering whether to take the leap, I wish you the very best of luck but remember – you make your own luck!
I’ll be tweeting about the next stage in my study journey at @writesaidshell