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I’m Autistic

Eight weeks ago, at the ripe old age of 32, I was finally diagnosed with Autism.

I’m not surprised and neither is anyone close to me – some have wondered why I even bothered seeking a diagnosis at all when I have seemingly managed to do so much in my life prior to diagnosis?

This blog explains why I decided to seek diagnosis, what the assessment process was like and what I hope my diagnosis holds for the future.

What’s the point of Adult Diagnosis?

It’s hard not to feel rattled a bit by this question, but in truth, I think a lot of it stems from a complete misunderstanding of autism in adulthood. Often when people talk about autism it is in reference to children and young people – autistic adults are very often a forgotten population.

Personally, it was also hard for others around me to understand. I’ve held down jobs where I’ve performed to large audiences, worked large scale events and even managed teams. I have a BSc and a PGCE with Qualified Teacher Status and my CV is full to bursting. So I don’t seem autistic? I cope well…I don’t need help?

Autistics, particularly female autistics, often mask typical autistic behaviours in order to fit in. We are the chameleons of the social world, changing ourselves to fit the environment we are in to survive. On the outside it can seem like I’m holding it together but inside I’m in turmoil.

I once worked a job for example, where my employer insisted on blasting music from behind me loud enough to hear on the street outside. I couldn’t hear customers and I worked very slowly often making errors managers had to correct. They wouldn’t listen to me when I explained how difficult this was making life for me and I left after just three months. Background noise is incredibly distracting for me – I used to regularly get woken up at night because when an iPhone is fully charged the charging noise changes pitch – most neurotypicals are not even aware of this. I am also driven to distraction by cat deterrents and the local solar farm…so I never stood a chance with Justin Bieber turned up to eleven.

I worked another job where my manager asked me to explain an incident to them but they only permitted me to speak for one minute because they didn’t want the ‘usual unnecessary details’ and they wanted me to get to the point because they were short on time. The difficulty is I see everything in its finer details – that’s just how my brain works. Very handy if my partner wants to know where I last saw *insert random small object*, exceptionally helpful if you want me to proof read or look over something for missing ideas but massively unhelpful when your employer sets a timer!

These are just two examples but I could literally fill WordPress with a lifetime of these incidents. The latter I even explained in my autism assessment and my assessor was nothing short of horrified. To be honest, I don’t think I had even registered how horribly I had been treated in that moment until then.

But it’s not just about work. Yes, the Equality Act can help with adjustments to my work/study and lift some of life’s burdens but a lot of diagnosis is simply about being able to finally understand yourself.

I have always worked very social jobs – largely with children and young people, indeed I still tutor online now, so it seems very strange to consider myself a very lonely person. I have my partner and two close friends but I’ve always been an outsider.

People often cut me off – one cut me off because I never took the time to like their social media posts and I never showed an interest in their life or asked them questions about their life. At the time I felt like an awful person, now I know I’m just autistic.

I often accidentally cut others off – I often forget to message. Algorithms on social media apps mean I can have a high level of interaction with someone and then they disappear into the abyss and they then, being neurotypical, take offence when I simply forget they exist. I used to feel awful about this, but now I know that I’m just autistic.

Diagnosis is a formal validation of something you likely already suspect to be the case. It’s a weight off and allows me to more succinctly explain my challenges to others. Yes – I’ll still struggle my way through a lonely life, but I know now that’s not and never has been my fault.

How I was diagnosed?

Unfortunately, on little more than minimum wage, I don’t have the money for private diagnosis or care – so I had to wait it out.

I got lucky in that in my region we are able to download and send the referral forms to the Adult Autism Service ourselves. In most areas the first step is to try and convince your GP to refer you. If this is your region, I recommend writing down what you have to say before seeing the GP and giving reasons as to how a diagnosis will support you in your work/study/life. Many GPs have been dismissive of patients in the past, often those who are able to hold down a job or have a family but it’s perfectly possible to be autistic and have a successful career and/or family life.

The referral paperwork offered numerous pre-screening questionnaires after which you may be placed on their waiting list. For me, this wait was two years and eight months from them accepting my paperwork to my assessment appointment.

I opted to have my assessment online, as I can’t drive and getting to a community setting for an assessment was challenging for me. The assessment appointment took around three to four hours in total, although fairly early in the appointment I was made aware of the track I was on.

The assessment was mostly an interview in format going back over my childhood, school, adult life, work, relationships, friendships and trauma. Some of this was quite upsetting and breaks were allowed. If you have a family member or long term partner available they will often interview them too but this is not always necessary.

There was also some activities – I was asked to describe various objects, explain social scenarios and recognise emotions in photographs.

Given some of my answers, my assessor also filled out the referral questions for ADHD with me and has sent that to my GP. While the service I attended doesn’t offer ADHD diagnosis, they can still heartily recommend it and help take down the GP barrier for you the other side. Autism and ADHD commonly occur together so it’s always something to watch out for.

I was told at the end of the assessment the outcome and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was added to my electronic health record. I am still waiting on the full report from my assessor which will go to my GP and will be required for university support but I was at least able to walk away with my diagnosis.

What next?

Autism diagnosis as an adult is a little strange. Once confirmed you are basically released back into life with exactly the same support as before. There’s nowhere they can refer you to, no medication they can give and no immediate support they can offer.

There are no local support groups, I am in a good place right now and I’m not accessing any mental health support and I am plodding along as I was before. So what has changed for me?

Training

I spent quite a few weeks post-diagnosis in a rage. I spent almost three years of undergraduate study training as a Children’s Nurse and one full year completing my Primary Teaching PGCE and in that time I received only about two hours of training (across four years!) I raised this on Twitter and received the expected backlash – these courses are already too full, the training is poor anyway, training won’t change anything and what about other SEND needs?

Yes – the courses are already too full but the fact I spent more collective time chasing nurses for their initials to prove I had attended my placement shift or queuing for a photocopier than learning about a neurodiversity that affects at least 1% of the population stinks. You can’t convince me otherwise.

Yes – a lot of autism training is painfully outdated and in my experience usually wastes one third of the session on the ‘History of Autism’ and Kanner/Asperger (the less said about the latter the better!) Yes – the training is often filled with stereotypes and fails to truly address the diversity of autism. Just because I said it wasn’t enough, doesn’t mean that I think more time on the same trash would help. We need better quality and practice relevant training guided by autistic voices…but even then, more time should be allocated.

The belief that the training won’t change anything is a disappointing one. Indeed, it was a Future Learn course on autism, prior to volunteering with a digital arts group for autistic young people, that encouraged me to refer myself for diagnosis. All training, not just on autism, should come with a warning that *insert training topic* is experienced differently by different people. Too often I’ve been in training that follows the journey of one or two specific case studies that are then taken to be gospel by the attendees.

And what about other SEND? Well I commented on autism in this case because I am autistic and it’s not entirely my place to go talking on behalf of other diversities whose experience I don’t share. But, autism coexists with a lot of other medical conditions, mental health challenges and neurodiversities which makes it a great springboard for further reading. Also, raising awareness and devoting energy to one area of disability doesn’t necessarily detract from others – adjustments and awareness for one can bring benefits to others.

I would love to see things improve and given time to process my new diagnosis, hope to seek out ways I might be able to help support this. Meanwhile, I’ll keep sharing my experiences and hope to spread a little learning that way.

Self forgiveness

The biggest change for me has been the load my diagnosis has taken off.

I’m not a bad person. I’m not a bad friend. I’m not a rubbish employee. I’m not a failure, nor am I a quitter.

I’m a fighter and I’ve achieved a lot more than I think, all without any support.

In fact, I’ve gone one step further and started to identify the things I’ve achieved because of my autism.

  • I’ve been an effective mentor, tutor, and educator to autistic and ADHD children in the past. I thrived on my SEND placement and volunteering at an art group for autistic young people. The safe, inclusive, dampened sensory environments weren’t just for them – they were great for me too, and allowed me to work to my full potential.
  • I’ve run half marathons and walked huge distances (Brighton to Eastbourne in a day!) I always put this down to my stubbornness but my ability to follow a training schedule and push through is definitely led by my autistic brain.
  • I’ve generated useful ideas at work. I’ve always been the ideas girl. I spot gaps, I ask random questions, and I see what others don’t. My brain annoys me 90% of the time. Want to know a constant? The first forty elements of the Periodic Table? My bank card number from 2008? Or fourteen of my previous postcodes? Still got it – still can’t remember where I put the pen I was holding five minutes ago though. But sometimes, when your brain is wired differently to everyone else around you – it turns out to be mighty useful.

I’m learning to love my autistic brain!

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My Running Journey

Me and running are in an eternal love-hate relationship. This is our story and what I have learned from fighting through it over the last decade.

I hated running at school and would stubbornly walk cross country and track events to avoid having to exert myself at all. Why? Well I wasn’t popular nor naturally sporty – I knew that with exertion, I would still be trailing behind – so why bother?

My first attempt at running came in early 2013 when, on return from work in the USA, I decided that I would apply to join the Royal Navy. I turned on the treadmill and made my first practice attempt at the 2.4km (1.5 miles) treadmill run at the pace defined by the pre-joining fitness test. I ran 0.4 miles before having to frantically hit the stop button while clutching my chest for fear I had actually dislodged a lung.

I felt deflated. I had no money for a gym membership, a trainer, a fancy phone/app – I just had to do this the old fashioned way. A route of which I knew the distance , with only my grubby old Casio watch for company. I ran, jogged, walked, wobbled and dragged my way round this same route every other day until sure enough – I could make the full 1.5 miles in the time expected.

I passed my treadmill test first attempt and in a slightly better than expected time. I went on to later join a gym – attend a mix of classes (everything from Body Pump to Bollywood Dance), swim, run and generally embed exercise into my day to day eventually entering a range of 5km and 10km races with pleasing times.

Unfortunately, in my late 20s life changed, I returned to university and struggled to fit exercise around my 12.5 hour placement shifts, five part time jobs and full time degree. I struggled with my diet living in a house where I was only afforded half a shelf of fridge space and a single cupboard shelf a good 20 minute walk from a shop. I gained weight, I struggled with multiple nutritional deficiencies and I found very little joy in exercise – it became an expense I could not afford in terms of my schedule, my finances and my energy.

Fast forward a few years and Coronavirus rapidly brought the world to a halt. I had left London for the Midlands mere months before and I already felt trapped – no longer able to wander the free museums, lounge in the many royal parks or meet friends at the drop of a hat in quirky locations like the LEGO store. I needed something to get me out of the flat.

I downloaded the NHS Couch to 5km app and selected the hilarious Sarah Millican as my coach. In just 8 weeks I had found my mojo again. I then moved to a Couch to 10km app – skipping to the appropriate point for a 5km graduate and quickly bagging a 10km around my local park. Then, with a Great North Run ballot place secured, I downloaded a Runners World Beginners Half Marathon plan and got stuck in.

In September 2021, I successfully completed all 13.1 miles of the Great North Run and in September 2022 I get to do it all over again.

So what have I learned from this decade of on/off running and what has helped me when the last thing I want to do is pull on my trainers?

  1. I’m not a good runner, I’m no Paula Radcliffe, I’ll never run a good for age time and there’s a high likelihood of me being overtaken by a large inflatable unicorn/dinosaur/testicle at this years Great North Run. Quite the motivational speech eh? Well it’s true, but acknowledging this has given me a better relationship with exercise. I don’t run for a podium place or for Strava recognition. I set myself a length of time or distance to run and that is my achievement and I’m happy with that.
  2. Laziness does not exist. Those days when I just cannot summon myself to run…often I just don’t. I aim for 3 runs a week so that I have some movement for bad days but equally, I’m happy to swap a short run for a YouTube workout or simply a longer walk. If I’ve made it out on the run and 3 miles in, enough is enough – I stop. Maybe I’ll just make my next run the 4 miler? Believe it or not, taking this approach this time round I have run MORE training runs than I did for last years Great North Run. Affording myself the right to declare that today is not the day has only made me stronger.
  3. Getting off to a good start! Gone are the days when I’m blessed with Sarah Millican cheering ‘Well done pet, have a banana’ but starting out with Sarah was probably the best thing I did on my return to running and I would highly recommend this app to anyone starting out.
  4. Choose your soundtrack wisely. There’s some professionals out there who will recommend that you run to music linked to your pace. I say run to what makes you want to sing out loud/stop to dance. I am currently loving Katie Budenberg’s 80s Run Jams playlist on Spotify . I don’t care what pace Lionel Richie will have me running when he’s Dancing on the Ceiling – I just know it fills me with joy and that’s the motivation for me.
  5. ‘Running is free’. Quite possibly the biggest lie the fitness industry tells. You might be able to run in £2 pumps but my previously broken ankles are having none of it. You might make it 5 miles in your normal day to day bra but I complain as a passenger on an uneven road so running without a high impact bra is unthinkable. Comfort is key. This doesn’t mean I ran out and spent extortionate sums on kit – actually I have always been very frugal – investing in trainers, leggings, bras etc mostly through sales.
  6. Stay off the scales! I don’t weigh myself. I had a BMI of 26 when I passed my Navy medical/fitness test and was at my most active/healthy and while the NHS would have defined me as overweight, the military defined a BMI of 20-28 as healthy? Since then I have never cared for the arbitrary number thrown up by my bathroom scales. Last year however, I weighed myself before and after half marathon training – I gained 5kg. I still fit in my clothes, my bloods were free of the nutritional deficiencies that had caused me issues in the past, I had stopped taking vitamin supplements as my diet was more varied and included a greater proportion of fruit/vegetables, my blood pressure and resting heart rate remained low and I had gone from 10km to 21km. Imagine how disheartened I might have been had I been watching the scale instead of my achievements?
  7. Do not compare yourself to others. Some people my age and gender run faster than me and on far less training too. Some days I look at my slow pace and wonder, with all this training, what I am doing wrong? Then I start to unpick this. Some share the same min/km as me but are running far shorter distances. My 5km Parkrun pace would be better than my 5 mile half marathon training run pace – never mind anybody else’s. I also then remember – they’re not running in my body. Maybe they’re not squeezing the run in at lunchtime because they’re working until its dark outside? Maybe they don’t have arthritis in their hips/SI joint? Maybe they didn’t catch Covid in the middle of their half marathon training plan? No-one is running your routes in your body other than you – it’s a ‘personal’ best for a reason.
  8. Everybody starts somewhere. Sadly, on numerous occasions, I have been subjected to comments about my body when out running. It shouldn’t happen but it does and more often than not it comes from people who are deeply insecure about themselves – that’s why they feel the need to shame somebody else. Yes, I’m a shapely mid-size female and I’ve never been particularly slim but I am happy, healthy and enjoying my life and I think you’ll find there’s no vile comment you can make that I can’t drown out with Whitney Houston.
  9. Movement should bring you joy – and that might not be running. Someone recently said to me that they need to start running but they hate it. ‘Then don’t do it!’ I replied. There are many other ways to add a little movement to your day without running – if you don’t like it, it exacerbates your pain or bores you – please stop. Dance a kitchen disco, take up online yoga, join a Zumba class, learn to dance, walk the dog…but don’t force yourself to run.
  10. Have a target. Having a 5km/10km/21km event on the horizon certainly helps motivate you to keep plodding on but targets can be even smaller too. I’m a creature of habit and I often run the same routes – why? Because I can tell you where the 2.5km cattle grid is, the 3km tree, the 4km corner, the 5km passing place, the 8km gate…in my mind I’m running to my next checkpoint, where I can evaluate how I feel and tick it off before extending my plod to my next checkpoint. Having a set length of time or distance of run to achieve that day also helps.

If this has inspired you to get up and find your perfect activity – I am delighted but I also want you to know that it is important to check with your doctor before you make any significant change to your physical activity and it’s so important to start out slow and listen to your body. I am not a health or fitness professional, I’m just a girl who somehow still manages to lace up her trainers 3x a week – your doctor and your body knows you best. Please stay safe.

And that’s all folks, I am just under 3 weeks away from the Great North Run 2022 and gearing up for this weeks 8 mile long plod. Terrified. Exhausted. Wondering who would sign me up for this nonsense? (spoiler: it was me) but ready to get myself to that finish line.

MST124: Essential Mathematics 1

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

This post is a personal reflection and offers general advice on preparing for/ studying the module MST124 (Essential Mathematics 1) – a Level 4 (Level 1 OU) module from STEM programmes at the Open University. This post is split into questions/topics so that you can read the whole blog or just the sections relevant to your needs.

Please note, I studied this module in the 2021/22 cohort. The Open University is responsive to feedback and regularly consults with students to inform improvements on their Mathematics & Statistics programmes and as a consequence of this, there may be some changes to the module content/assessment methods – for the most up to date details, please use the module information page.

Please be aware that under Open University regulations I am unable to share my work or help with yours, so whilst I am happy to answer questions, I am unable to respond to those seeking help with assignments – please instead contact your tutor.

What is MST124?

MST124 is an in depth introduction to university-level mathematics and teaches 11 key topics that serve as a foundation to mathematics across a range of degree subjects including physics, engineering and economics. You will start off with two revision units covering Algebra and Graphs & Equations before building on this with study of Functions, Trigonometry, Coordinate Geometry & Vectors, Differentiation, Differentiation Methods & Integration, Integration Methods, Matrices, Sequences & Series and Complex Numbers. There are also materials for study of Taylor Polynomials however these are not examined.

It is designed as an entry point into Mathematics but for those with less mathematical experience can be studied following on from MU123 (Discovering Mathematics). MST124 does assume a fair grounding prior to study and the Open University site offers a useful information page which helps you to determine your best starting point as well as an ‘Are You Ready For…’ quiz to determine whether you have the necessary prerequisite knowledge to do well on the module.

For background, I am studying a BSc (Hons) Geology degree which allowed me a choice of either a 60 credit introductory Science module (S111) or two from: MU123 (Discovering Mathematics), MST124 (Essential Mathematics 1) or M140 (Introducing Statistics). I chose to take MST124 as my starting point and study M140 alongside it. I studied Sciences at A Level and previously studied some Chemistry at degree level, including previously covering a great deal of this Maths content and although it was over 10 years ago, my knowledge of Maths up to GCSE has remained relatively strong due to my teaching. Regardless, I found MST124 quite a tough course and it required a lot of extra effort.

This module is a 30 credit module but it felt quite heavy going for me and I certainly put in more hours than I expected. However, I had several months off unwell, got behind and ended up on multiple extensions. Having now seen my grade for the year I know I could have done better if life hadn’t got in the way AND I had registered for the module sooner despite not being all that confident with my Maths. This module comes with a wealth of Revise & Refresh materials available in the few months before your entry starts and I feel like if I had worked on these materials in advance I would have had a much smoother start to my studies and would have struggled less.

Who should study MST124?

This module is an excellent foundation for any student who intends to further their study or application of Maths in their degree programme and is a good starting point for those who already have some prior confidence with mathematical techniques (see previous section for advice).

For many this module will form an essential part of their degree pathway but it appears as an optional module for plenty of us too. I found this module challenging and my grade was lower than I usually manage on Open University modules BUT this is a first year module and therefore does not contribute to my overall degree score and in the process I have learnt far more skills and gained far more confidence than if I had opted for the easier option.

How will this module help me in my future career?

This module is an essential grounding in university-level mathematics, so for many maths or physics based programmes it is essential. Indeed, many pathways continue to build on the content with MST125 (Essential Mathematics 2).

For me, this module was optional but it opens doors to Physics/Planetary based optional modules in my second year and it has enhanced my mathematical skills beyond what I believed possible. By somewhat choosing to plunge in at the deep end I’ve given myself a huge boost in confidence in my ability to solve mathematical problems and even just preparing for my next two Science modules I’ve been amazed how quickly I am now able to rattle through lower level problems.

How will I be assessed?

This module has 4 TMAs (Tutor Marked Assignments), 4 iCMAs (Interactive Computer Marked Assignments) and an Exam.

The TMAs assess the previous few units each time and questions are clearly marked with the units they are assessing, therefore you might like to work on TMAs as you go along. As an entry into Maths, this module allows the submission of handwritten assignments but if you are planning to move on to further Maths/Stats study – you may prefer to use this time to get ahead in learning how to format your submission on your computer.

Assignments all include a question that involves the use of a computer algebra programme (Maxima). You will be supplied with a separate Computer Guide that uses practical activities to teach you how to make use of this programme and it’s worth working through these as you make your way through the units as it’s both a usual visual in helping explain things and doesn’t leave you in a last minute panic trying to answer that Maxima question.

Like many modules, the TMAs ramp up in difficulty with TMA1 covering those early revision units and TMA3 focusing heavily on calculus. It’s worth bearing this in mind and perhaps trying to work a little ahead of the game if you can to make early progress on the more challenging/time consuming units.

iCMAs were new to me this year but I enjoyed working through these. You get a set of questions, like the TMAs across the previous stretch of units and you are asked to input a typed answer in response to the problems presented. There are two key points to bear in mind…

  1. You can’t get an extension on an iCMA – so it’s often worth working on these ahead of time if you can. You can open the test as many times and for as long as you like – I would open it, jot down all my questions accurately and then return with my answers to input them.
  2. It’s very easy to lose marks on your formatting. The first page of the iCMA includes a table showing you how to input different mathematical symbols (I printed one of these off for reference which you may also find useful). Additionally, all the practice quizzes helpfully use the same format – so the more you practise the easier this will be to manage.

The exam had me quaking in my boots – I had never done an OU exam before but let me start by telling you…it was nowhere near as horrible as I had made it seem in my head. In fact, I did about 25% better than I had predicted. The exam is a lengthy 3 hours with an additional 30 minutes given for reading through the instructions, checking and submitting (which with remote exams can take some time). The current remote exam is rather like a large iCMA but under a time limit, with mostly multiple choice questions but double marks afforded to some iCMA style answer questions in Section B.

There are lots of things that really helped me with preparing for my exam, so here are my top tips:

  • Use your handbook throughout the course: The more familiar you are with your handbook and the more you annotate it to your needs, the more useful it will be on exam day.
  • Do lots of practice quizzes, revision quizzes and the specimen paper: Answering questions and working out specific areas to work in is a good use of your limited time. Recovering materials not so much.
  • Attend revision tutorials and watch the revision recordings: These were both really useful in helping me prepare – attend more than one if you can!
  • Target your revision: What can you best use your revision period to improve? I’ll be honest, I’m dreadful at integration. Instead of stressing myself out over a skill I knew I wasn’t going to master in 3 weeks I worked very hard on areas like Vectors and Sequences where I knew with a bit more focus I could improve my technique. This really paid off for me – so if you’re feeling stretched, try not to worry. Use your time wisely!

How can I get ahead?

Firstly, university modules are made up of credits. Credits (generally) = the amount to time/work that needs to be put into a module. Getting ahead is nice but it’s not necessary, your weeks are planned out to break down your workload.

If however you’re like me and any sort of rest period triggers a migraine (literally – no rest for the wicked!) – here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Check out the Revise and Refresh Materials: The Revise and Refresh site is the single best place to plan out and work on your module preparation. I can’t recommend it enough!
  • Download Maxima as soon as your module website opens: This is top advice for any additional software on Open University courses. Don’t wait until a week before the TMA you need to use it for to discover it’s not working well for you. The quicker you have it up and running, the easier it will be to get support to iron out issues prior to your first submission.
  • Useful websites: The Undergraduate Maths & Stats home page: and my favourite corner of it ‘For interest & amusement’
  • Useful YouTube Channels: Eddie Woo, NancyPi
  • Useful additional resources: The Calculus Lifesaver (Book), Essential Calculus Skills Practice Workbook (these are personal recommendations and by no means essential)
  • Keep an eye on the news on your module homepage for Maths/Stats events/talks that might be of interest.
  • Make some new connections. Distance learning doesn’t have to be lonely! Why not check out some of the clubs/societies or volunteering opportunities on offer via the OU Students Association? The MST124 Facebook group is an excellent place to make connections with past/present MST124 students and I found the space very supportive.
  • Organise yourself: Set up folders for different units/TMAs on your computer and noting clearly your TMA deadlines on all calendars/diaries in use. You may like to consider how you are going to go about activities/exercises too. I almost never had enough scrap paper to handle all my workings out but invested in refill pads of recycled squared paper.
  • Treat yourself to a new calculator: The module team recommend a basic Casio calculator (fx-83 or fx-85 range). See the module home page ‘Study Materials’ to ensure that your calculator meets the specifications for the exam!
  • Twitter Accounts for MST124: @OUMathsStats @OU_STEM @OU_MathsEd @OUStudents

I’m already studying MST124 but I am disappointed with my grades, what can I do?

Firstly, sorry to hear that you’ve probably come across this blog at a really challenging time. Studying, especially distance learning can be really trying – been there, done that and it’s worth it I promise! Go and make yourself a cup of tea, grab a tasty snack and try these:

  • Speak to your tutor. ALWAYS speak to your tutor if you are struggling with the content of your studies. Student Support are beyond lovely, but if the issue is academic, it’s for your tutor. You won’t seem silly, you’re not bothering them, they really aren’t “just saying that” when they say everyone else has had that problem or asked that question – don’t delay it! Contact them. You will feel so much better for doing so. Don’t tell yourself/let other people tell you that you’ll be fine without the extension or that they won’t be able to help with a particular question. Please – just contact them. Sincerely, Miss Got-a-first-class-degree-by-bothering-tutors.
  • Practice makes perfect! I cannot stress this enough with Maths/Stats modules. If you aren’t quite getting it…keep going at it! Work through activities/exercises in the materials and re-run the practice quizzes (it will generate some new questions each time). Watch the screencasts and rewatch the screencasts of any method you are unsure about. Be sure to try and attend some tutorials or at least watch back some recordings. If you are still unsure – it’s time to contact your tutor.
  • Take your time with the online materials. “Annabel on WhatsApp says she’s on Unit 8 already and that she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about and Calculus is EASY!” . First things first, if social media is pressuring you or making you more worried about your studies don’t let it. Scroll past or disconnect if you need to. This is your journey – just because Annabel is headed for apparent exam success in October doesn’t mean that Annabel is scoring 100% on her TMAs or indeed enjoying her life. Go at your own pace! You will usually be limited to one extension and can’t ordinarily take extensions on TMA4 or the EMA so do try to keep up, but don’t hurt yourself in the process. Don’t feel pressured to race ahead, and don’t worry if you fall a little behind.
  • Worry about yourself – don’t compare yourself to others! June got 100% on TMA3 – that’s all three now and my scores are nowhere near”. June might have more mathematical experience than you, she might have more time or less distractions at home when studying or June might just be lucky that calculus comes naturally to her. NEVER (easier said than done I know…) compare yourself to others – your module, your journey! One of the great things about the Facebook group is that generally speaking, people don’t share their grades on there. The Open University often actually encourages people not to share their grades – I did at the end of this module because social media became so plastered with endless distinctions on Results Day, I chose to share my grade for balance. Grades are so often a representation of our circumstances – no-one can really tell from your grade how hard you worked or what you fought through to get your pass. Just because someone has fistfuls of top grades it doesn’t mean you’re not working as hard/hard enough – be kind to yourself and step away from social media/others where needed.
  • Little and often. I am a self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination and often struggle to motivate myself to study. I use a productivity app called Forest (but you can just use a timer) to try and get at least 25 minutes of study into my day. Maths/Stats can feel like an uphill struggle if you try and focus on it for too long. I previously studied Nursing and Education and often pulled all-nighters to draw an essay to a close…this method does not work so well with Maths/Stats. Instead, squeezing short bursts of practice into my day made topics easier to manage and absorb and I got less frustrated with it. Give your poor brain a break!

This final section reviews my experience of the MST124 module – its strengths, the challenges I faced and the takeaways that will follow me through my future studies!

Strengths

  • Confidence in my mathematical skills: Despite overall not achieving quite the grade I hoped I am amazed by some of the achievements I made along the way and how my confidence in handling mathematical problems has advanced. To my old A Level Physics teacher, if you happen to come across this and you’re reading this…I didn’t lose a single mark on Vectors on TMA2. Who even am I?
  • I challenged myself: Truthfully, I didn’t do great on the ‘Are you ready for…’ quiz and I continued to plunge myself in at the deep end. There were so many wobbles along the way and a few tears to but I came out of the exam with a grade far higher than I ever imagined. I’m proud I battled on, even though I got really behind and I am so very thankful to have had the kindest and most patient Maths tutor available to help guide me through.
  • Expanded my module choices: Having took this challenge I now feel more confident about my access to ALL second year optional modules. While I don’t think I’ll stray into Physics, I’m certainly feeling much more confident about taking a Planetary module in 2023.

Challenges

  • Return to Maths/Stats – I haven’t studied Maths since my brief venture into Chemistry in 2012 so I was understandably quite nervous to be undertaking Maths/Stats modules and moving away from my comfort zone over in the WELS Faculty. Despite this, what I will say, is the Maths/Stats tutors are phenomenal! So relaxed, welcoming and helpful. They seem well aware that we do not all have an innate love for Maths/Stats on which we surf through the module in an eternal state of joy…they listened to my frustrations and struggles and helped me face them. I am so grateful to both my M140 and MST124 tutors and quite simply couldn’t have survived without them.
  • Ill health – Personally, I’ve had a truly awful year with my health and well-being and it’s been a fight involving extensions and extensions for extensions. Again, my tutors were on hand to support and I didn’t have to struggle on or suffer alone.
  • Intense start: This module is sometimes referred to as the intensive start and that for me, was a very accurate description. Despite my worst overall module grade at degree level, I can honestly say this is the module that has worked me the hardest but as you’ll see above – I am so grateful to have taken on that challenge. After all, I’m here to learn.
  • Integration was nearly the end of me – I’ll be honest, I found integration an absolute nightmare. I’ve given plenty of tips throughout this blog that will hopefully make it easier for you and give you a better head start but it is challenging. I am so very fortunate to have lots of Science/Engineering friends, all of whom confess it wasn’t their favourite thing either but look where they are now. We don’t have to be perfect at everything and this is first year – we have room to build on these skills and improve as we go along. Remember that well!

Takeaways

  • Confident and clear mathematical communication: As with M140, this module has converted me from poorly shown workings, scribbled in a way even I struggle to read back to clear, concise and neatly explained mathematical communication. Not only will this help me with my studies going forwards it has helped my tutees enormously as I have passed these skills along to them.
  • The confidence to stray Planetary side: I had my eye on S283 for 2023 but it’s a step closer to Physics than I would usually brave. After this module, and knowing that the Maths in this module goes above and beyond the requirements for S283 – it’s now firmly noted in my future module choices.
  • The belief that I can do ‘hard maths‘: I had the misfortune to read halfway through this module that a London Headteacher believed many girls weren’t studying Physics because they struggle with ‘hard maths’. For the first time in my life I felt a bit smug about it – I’ve proved myself and many others wrong. I can do hard Maths – on occasions (good brain days) even integration.

And I’m all out of wisdom for you for today! If you are considering transfer to the OU or considering studying MST124 I am more than happy to answer questions – but please note the intro to this post!

Best of luck with your OU studies!

M140: Introducing Statistics

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

This post is a personal reflection and offers general advice on preparing for/ studying the module M140 (Introducing Statistics) – a Level 4 (Level 1 OU) module from STEM programmes at the Open University. This post is split into questions/topics so that you can read the whole blog or just the sections relevant to your needs.

Please note, I studied this module in the 2021/22 cohort. The Open University is responsive to feedback and regularly consults with students to inform improvements on their Mathematics & Statistics programmes and as a consequence of this, there may be some changes to the module content/assessment methods – for the most up to date details, please use the module information page.

Please be aware that under Open University regulations I am unable to share my work or help with yours, so whilst I am happy to answer questions, I am unable to respond to those seeking help with assignments – please instead contact your tutor.

What is M140?

M140 is the Open University’s entry into the world of statistics (as the module name aptly describes) and is designed with the beginner in mind with no pre-requisites to module entry. It makes use of data from real-world scenarios in education, economics and health to give students the chance to solve problems and apply/practice statistical skills.

You will get a solid foundation in relevant vocabulary and notation and application of a range of statistical techniques. You will analyse data by hand (with the support of a calculator) and additionally receive support to analyse data using Minitab. You will learn how to communicate your resulting analysis effectively using both Minitab output and your own written work.

This module is a 30 credit module and the Open University suggests 9 hours of study a week, however, this may vary by student. I previously studied Children’s Nursing and had a reasonable grasp of reading statistics, which meant that some of the terminology and statistical tests were not new to me. I had also previously used chi-squared when completing my A Level Biology. Additionally, as a Qualified Teacher and Tutor, my number skills are sufficiently speedy/accurate for me not to be particularly troubled by number problems. With all this in mind, on average this module took significantly less than the advertised time for me. If you lack confidence in manipulating numbers or are a little out of practice this is certainly a friendly module to build those skills back up but I would suggest, particularly in later units, that you allow more time to work through examples/practice questions to build these skills.

Who should study M140?

This module is an excellent foundation for any student who may use statistics in their programme of study or working lives.

Many students study this module independently or as part of an Open or Combined STEM pathway as it supports their use of statistics at work but many more are taking degrees in varying (mostly STEM) subjects – Economics, Environmental Science, Combined STEM, Maths & Statistics, Data Science etc to name a few… The later part of the module very strongly orientates itself around hypothesis testing which is very useful for STEM students.

How will this module help me in my future career?

Statistics is becoming a huge part of our lives and the skills in this module offer a solid foundation useful in business, science, medicine, economics etc.

Personally, I am a current BSc (Hons) Geology student and took this module to advance my statistical skills to help with data analysis in later modules and potential future work in science.

How will I be assessed?

This module has four TMAs (Tutor Marked Assignment), three iCMAs (Interactive Computer Marked Assignment), 1 EMA (End of Module Assessment) and an untimed iCME (Interactive Computer Marked Exam).

The four TMAs are spaced out to assess the work across the previous few units. The questions are helpfully labelled throughout by the units they are assessing, so some students will choose to work on the TMA as they go along. TMAs can be handwritten on this module and there is therefore no requirement to learn how to format mathematics on your computer, however if you are progressing to further Maths/Stats modules, it may be worth spending some time getting your practice in with this.

Personally I hand wrote my assignments on Notability on iPad and used the Convert to Text/Convert to Maths functions (available to purchase or subscribe to in-app) which converted my handwritten Maths directly. This is by no means a requirement but if you are already an iPad user this may be something you wish to explore.

All TMAs also have some Minitab work embedded. Minitab is free to download with the module (but only fully compatible on Windows) and the module comes with an excellent Computer Guide that works through example activities, guiding you how to use the software. I found Minitab very user friendly and easy to learn to use. I recommend saving your practice activity outputs and any TMA outputs under clearly labelled project files throughout, as these are useful to return to for examples when you are working on the EMA later. You will be required to submit Minitab outputs within your assignments which you may need to print/scan or add on to your handwritten scan PDF – this is worth bearing in mind and talking to your tutor about if you are not sure how to navigate this.

Top Tip: TMA03 is longer than all others – start early and allow extra time!

iCMAs were brand new to me but I loved them. They are a set of short answer (type in a numerical answer or select multiple choice answer questions). You can open them many weeks before the deadline and your answers aren’t sent until you hit the Finish & Submit button on the final question. Again, it will be very clear what unit they are assessing with each question so you may like to complete these as you go along. The key point with these is to read the instructions and ensure you are inputting what is asked – decimal places/significant figures are important here!

The final assessment of this module was split into two parts: 70% Written EMA (i.e. a giant TMA) and 30% iCME. These combined carried a ‘threshold score’ which meant regardless of previous scores, a certain % needed to be achieved on the combined score of the EMA/iCME to pass the module. (N.B This is quite usual across Open University modules).

The EMA is effectively a giant TMA and assesses all previous units, again, including use of Minitab outputs. The EMA definitely felt like a step up on previous TMAs and I spent significantly more time on it (although interestingly, I did better on the EMA than TMA4). Regardless, it’s worth taking a look at the EMA early and making an early start on it. Also keep an eye on the forums/news posts on the module website in case there are any updates (to be honest it’s worth doing this for all assignments!)

The iCME worked exactly the same as the iCMAs except that it assessed, like the EMA, all previous units.

Top Tip: Don’t forget to collect your assignment and read through your feedback. This will help iron out your analysis and written methods to ensure that you aren’t losing needless marks for poor mathematical communication.

How can I get ahead?

Firstly, university modules are made up of credits. Credits (generally) = the amount to time/work that needs to be put into a module. Getting ahead is nice but it’s not necessary, your weeks are planned out to break down your workload.

If however you’re like me and any sort of rest period triggers a migraine (literally – no rest for the wicked!) – here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Check out the free Open Learn course: Mathematics for Science and Technology which has a couple of units introducing statistics. For building number skills if your Maths is new or a bit rusty you might also like: Succeed with Maths: Part One or Succeed with Maths: Part Two .
  • Download Minitab and the relevant files as soon as the module website opens – don’t wait until you need to use it! It’s a little fiddly to install and the quicker you are to set this up, the easier it will be to iron out any issues with its installation before the course begins. N.B. The Open University provides a licence key so do make sure you wait for the site to open and don’t try and download any other version or free trial.
  • Useful websites: The Undergraduate Maths & Stats home page: and my favourite corner of it ‘For interest & amusement’
  • Keep an eye on the news on your module homepage for Maths/Stats events/talks that might be of interest.
  • Make some new connections. Distance learning doesn’t have to be lonely! Why not check out some of the clubs/societies or volunteering opportunities on offer via the OU Students Association?
  • Organise yourself by setting up folders for different units/TMAs on your computer and noting clearly your TMA deadlines on all calendars/diaries in use. Also, be sure to treat yourself to a trusty calculator – if you are also studying Maths/Science modules, check the module descriptions for the recommended calculators. Whilst a calculator isn’t specified for M140 and you could well use the one on your phone/laptop, my other concurrent module (MST124) had an exam and approved calculators. You may like to consider how you are going to go about activities/exercises too. I almost never had enough scrap paper to handle all my workings out but invested in refill pads of recycled squared paper.
  • Twitter Accounts for M140: @OUMathsStats @OU_STEM @OU_MathsEd @ONS @OUStudents

I’m already studying M140 but I am disappointed with my grades, what can I do?

Firstly, sorry to hear that you’ve probably come across this blog at a really challenging time. Studying, especially distance learning can be really trying – been there, done that and it’s worth it I promise! Go and make yourself a cup of tea, grab a tasty snack and try these:

  • Speak to your tutor. ALWAYS speak to your tutor if you are struggling with the content of your studies. Student Support are beyond lovely, but if the issue is academic, it’s for your tutor. You won’t seem silly, you’re not bothering them, they really aren’t “just saying that” when they say everyone else has had that problem or asked that question – don’t delay it! Contact them. You will feel so much better for doing so. Don’t tell yourself/let other people tell you that you’ll be fine without the extension or that they won’t be able to help with a particular question. Please – just contact them. Sincerely, Miss Got-a-first-class-degree-by-bothering-tutors.
  • Practice makes perfect! I cannot stress this enough with Maths/Stats modules. If you aren’t quite getting it…keep going at it! Work through activities/exercises in the materials and re-run the practice quizzes (it will generate some new questions each time). Watch the screencasts and rewatch the screencasts of any method you are unsure about. Be sure to try and attend some tutorials or at least watch back some recordings. If you are still unsure – it’s time to contact your tutor.
  • Take your time with the online materials. “Fred on WhatsApp says he’s on Unit 7 already and that this module is too easy and I haven’t even started TMA1!” . First things first, if social media is pressuring you or making you more worried about your studies don’t let it. Scroll past or disconnect if you need to. This is your journey – just because Fred is headed for his EMA in October doesn’t mean that Fred is scoring 100% on his TMAs or indeed enjoying his life. Go at your own pace! You will usually be limited to one extension and can’t ordinarily take extensions on TMA4 or the EMA so do try to keep up, but don’t hurt yourself in the process. Don’t feel pressured to race ahead, and don’t worry if you fall a little behind.
  • Worry about yourself – don’t compare yourself to others! George got his result back for TMA3 early and it’s 30% lower than TMA2″. Just because TMA3 has left poor George wounded – doesn’t mean you should be worried! NEVER (easier said than done I know…) compare yourself to others – your module, your journey! I have lost count of the amount of times scaremongering like this has turned out to absolutely not apply to me. A good example is I’ve often been told people routinely do worse on the EMA…I did better?!
  • Little and often. I am a self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination and often struggle to motivate myself to study. I use a productivity app called Forest but you can just use a timer to try and get at least 25 minutes of study into your day. Maths/Stats can feel like an uphill struggle if you try and focus on it for too long. I previously studied Nursing and Education and often pulled all-nighters to draw an essay to a close…this method does not work so well with Maths/Stats. Instead, squeezing short bursts of practice into my day made topics easier to manage and absorb and I got less frustrated with it. Give your poor brain a break!

This final section reviews my experience of the M140 module – its strengths, the challenges I faced and the takeaways that will follow me through my future studies!

Strengths

  • Practical application of skills – I loved that every statistical technique we learnt we got to apply, often to reasonably sized data sets. I don’t consider myself a natural mathematician but I quite enjoy number work (it’s my inner primary teacher I think) and enjoyed working through the activities and exercises set.
  • Real-world values and explanations – I confess I knew nothing at all about CPI, RPI, economics in general before this module and I enjoyed gaining a basic understanding of these. I further found it interesting to explore data around education and health scenarios and to gain an understanding of the application of statistics in these fields.
  • Excellent module materials – I love this modules materials so much I was showing them to other students in a consultation as a top example! The books are laid out with icons in the margins to help you navigate use of a calculator, links to computing activities etc. Number heavy topics are broken down into key screencast videos which make it easy to access audio-visual demonstrations of key concepts and are highlighted in bold type in the relevant module sections. Practice quizzes enable further extra practice in each unit and the ‘Gradebook’ offers a good visual of where your strengths are/what units to focus your revision on. This has been by far the easiest module to navigate and it’s made it a real pleasure to study.
  • User friendly computing components – Despite recent efforts to enhance my tech skills, I am generally quite easily frustrated by new and unusual software but not on M140. The Computing Guide is spot on and its activities enable you to learn how to use the software through practice. My partner uses Minitab at work and was thrown in at the deep end working out how to make the best use of it – he was overwhelmed by my fancy Computing Guide and it remains well hidden on my shelf to prevent him from running off with it!
  • Helpful summary handbook – I am in love with the M140 handbook. It summarises the key components of each unit and has an excellent glossary of terms. The handbook was my bestie during EMA/iCME season and I decorated it with many extra notes throughout my studies to make it even more helpful. Keep it close by!

Challenges

  • Return to Maths/Stats – I haven’t studied Maths since my brief venture into Chemistry in 2012 so I was understandably quite nervous to be undertaking Maths/Stats modules and moving away from my comfort zone over in the WELS Faculty. Despite this, what I will say, is the Maths/Stats tutors are phenomenal! So relaxed, welcoming and helpful. They seem well aware that we do not all have an innate love for Maths/Stats on which we surf through the module in an eternal state of joy…they listened to my frustrations and struggles and helped me face them. I am so grateful to both my M140 and MST124 tutors and quite simply couldn’t have survived without them.
  • Ill health – Personally, I’ve had a truly awful year with my health and well-being and it’s been a fight involving extensions and extensions for extensions. Again, my tutors were on hand to support and I didn’t have to struggle on or suffer alone.
  • Steepish ascent into number – The first few units really do ease you in gently and then – wham! Lots and lots of calculations. It’s still more than manageable and as above, the support is great, but don’t do Unit 1 and crawl into bed until Christmas thinking you’ve got a peaceful year…TMA3/4 require a little more power.
  • Practical experiment – I often joke (as a Geology student) that you really shouldn’t bring any plants near me that aren’t already fossilised. I am a house plant killer and nothing green survives long around me. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn’t able to capture my own experimental data for TMA4 and had to use the course data set. Not an issue in terms of completing the assignment, just a little frustrating.

Takeaways

  • A clearer understanding of statistics – Yes, I had already come across a fair amount of statistics in previous study but now I feel I have a better foundation in these skills and I also feel much more confident explaining them to others, which has improved my tutoring.
  • Confidence in presenting and analysing data – I am the most chaotic writer and struggle to keep things to the point or to present information in a way that makes sense to me when I read it back, let alone anyone else. This module has made me focus on how I present information and analysis of data in order to attain the high marks I was chasing. It’s a skill that will definitely serve me well throughout my Geology degree.
  • Confidence in my mathematical/statistical skills – Maths has never been my friend. I was top set at school and achieved a fantastic grade at GCSE but I tossed it aside at A Level, taking Biology, Chemistry, Physics but no Maths. I’ve always tried to distance myself from it, so taking M140/MST124 as my entry modules rather than S111 was brave but I am so glad I took the leap and challenged myself. First year modules don’t count towards your degree grade, so they are the perfect opportunity to experiment and push yourself beyond your own limitations.

And I’m all out of wisdom for you for today! If you are considering transfer to the OU or considering studying M140 I am more than happy to answer questions – but please note the intro to this post!

Best of luck with your OU studies!

Planning a TMA Assignment

With the countdown on for a new academic year at The Open University I thought I would distract myself from the 19th July results day by sharing how I prepare for and go about writing a successful TMA.

This blog will primarily draw on my experience of writing TMAs for modules in Education and Childhood & Youth but may also be useful to students writing essays in other subjects and under other faculties. As always I advise taking a look through all resources and guidance provided to you for your individual module.

I have structured this blog around an adjusted version of the Hierarchy of Essay writing, introduced to me in a Student Hub Live session. If you are a registered Open University student, I highly recommend these sessions for developing your study and writing skills. The extra time you put into attending these sessions and enhancing these skills always pays off in the long run and they are worth making time for (I credit my first class degree partially to having attended them myself!)

You can check out Student Hub Live’s upcoming sessions and past recordings here: https://studenthublive.open.ac.uk

Understanding the question

The very best resource you have in the preparation for your TMA is your TMA guidance – read it and then read it again for good measure!

I always go through and read generally first of all, and then I go back through with a highlighter. I highlight the key words in the question itself – is the question asking me to describe, evaluate, explain, compare?

Then I go through the guidance itself and highlight any constraints e.g. if an assignment asked me to choose EITHER chocolate OR pizza. Writing about both here would be detrimental to my grade, focusing time equally across both when working the materials would also be unwise. Already, from one sentence I am fine tuning my study and preparation plan.

I also highlight any pointers on areas I need to focus on – maybe it has asked me to define ‘pizza’ therefore I can be on the lookout for a strong definition in my materials. Maybe I have been asked to refer to both the module materials AND outside sources – therefore I know I need to devote some time to seeking out further information.

Through this process I also recommend attending tutorials and clarifying anything in the TMA guidance you don’t understand with your tutor. There is no such thing as a silly question and the clarity you gain through this helps to set you off on the right footing.

Understanding how you will answer the question

Once I’ve been through the guidance I take to the module materials. This is NOT to study only for what is covered in the assignment. I would discourage this. Not only does it run the immediate risk of misinterpreting the materials when you haven’t covered the wider context, or perhaps missing a key reference, at the OU, it just makes life more difficult in the long run. Most modules conclude with an EMA or exam which will cover the full breadth of topics covered across the module and while cutting corners might help with a TMA or two, with EMAs and exams often more heavily weighted, it pays to put the work in as you go or face a frantic and stressful end of year.

Instead, I cover the materials as required but as I go along I will highlight in a selected colour or note quotes/page numbers/references in one place (I kept a TMA notebook per module which I used only for TMA relevant notes). This helps when it comes to writing up the TMA making it much quicker to return to relevant resources as well as piece together your ideas.

Select the appropriate evidence/ Linking the evidence to the point

I’m a born waffler – can you tell? It’s a great thing for constructing informal, helpful blogs filled to the brim with ideas but it’s quite the curse when it comes to writing an assignment so these are my top tips to avoid the waffle and answer the question!

Firstly, construct a table using PEEL (Point/Evidence/Explain/Link) or if you are Level 3 or beyond you might prefer PESEL (Point/Explain/Support/Evaluate/Link) or some variation of the two. See my example below:

From the table above you can see that under point I have briefly jotted in what I would like my point to be about – I use the TMA guidance to guide this as well as the common themes I have noticed in taking notes throughout my study of the module.

In the evidence block, I either copy and paste and leave in quotation marks and attach the link where I found it OR I simply jot down a note of where I am going to draw a piece of information from. It’s important not to just save the evidence itself – you must be able to reference it. If referring to a journal remember to save a PDF or record the title so that it is easier to find again if you are not already using a referencing tool to save your research such as Zotero (which is well worth checking out!)

In the example I have few pieces of evidence but when I am writing a TMA I include as many as I can. Putting it all into a table in this way as a plan first allows me to do three really helpful things.

1) It allows me to collate evidence that supports/contradicts and can be used in my critique.

2) It allows me to pick and choose the best quality evidence for each point and discount others. Indeed, sometimes, if I don’t have enough evidence for a particular point, I may discount the point itself in favour of focusing my writing where I have more substantial supporting evidence.

3) It allows me to check each piece back against the point and the question itself and assess its relevance. This latter point is crucial! So often I find an interesting article or piece of information I am heart set on including but actually, it’s not very relevant and uses up precious words. I am certainly more ruthless when I plan this way.

In the explain block you can see I have begun to jot down ways in which I can put my point across. I am leaving my own opinions out of it and looking at ways to coherently express the information that I have found through my research. While some essays may be more reflective and allow scope for personal insight, I am merely a pizza eater and therefore in my explain section I am leaving the content to the experts and cleverly collating my findings by bringing my evidence together in a accessible way.

If using a structure that looks at evaluation or critique of sources I use PROMPT to make some relevant assessments that I can include in my writing. To critique sources in your writing using PROMPT, check out The Open University guide available here: https://www.open.ac.uk/libraryservices/documents/advanced-evaluation-using-prompt.pdf

Ensuring your writing flows

In the descriptions of the table in the previous section you will probably have noted that I missed link. This is crucial to giving your writing the flow needed for those high end marks. I always include this in my planning table as it allows me to ensure that I have a good flow between the points I have chosen to focus on. It is incredibly rare for my structure to remain as I originally boxed it up and I will often cut and paste rows to restructure throughout my planning to ensure that I get the perfect flow.

Referencing

Referencing varies between modules and it is absolutely paramount that you check your module guidance regarding this and that you do this every time you start a new module. If you are new to referencing or this a real wobble area for you, I would encourage you to book into a library training session – if you are an Open University student these are available here: https://www.open.ac.uk/library/training-and-events

Referencing is a key skill and cannot be avoided. Many students struggle with it but the problem won’t go away without you actively working to resolve it (sorry).

Cite Them Right is an excellent resource and covers a huge range of reference types. Due to copyright I won’t be able to share here any of their resources but on each reference type you will find examples and blanks that you can fill in. These are really useful in ensuring that you accurately report your reference.

For example, your referencing guide may suggest something like this, with a fill the blanks example and a complete reference example as follows:

Surname, Initial. (Year) Title [Format], Place, Publisher.

Aynsley-Green, A. (2018) The British Betrayal of Childhood: Challenging Uncomfortable Truths and Bringing About Change [ebook reader], London, Routledge.

You can see that in entering the book I have read, I have carefully recorded it paying close attention to punctuation used and the italic style for the book title. This is important. If you choose to use referencing tools it is further important to check that the output is as described by your referencing guide – sometimes there are slight variations and it is important to take the time to edit these.

Another top tip (because I recently realised not everyone knows about this feature) – if you select your references, the A-Z button on Microsoft Word (circled above) can alphabetise your references so you don’t have to.

Editing

It is important to leave some time for editing, ideally a good amount of time so you can take some time away from your work before returning to it with a fresh pair of eyes. When I edit I read my TMA multiple times, each time focusing on just one feature – Does it answer the question? Does it flow? Does it follow all of the TMA instructions? Is it critical? Are my punctuation and grammar accurate? Do my in text references match my reference list?

Working on feedback

It can be oh so easy to hit send on the TMA and frankly be glad it’s out of your sight to glance at your % on return and flop on the sofa with a huge sigh of relief…but the feedback is possibly the most important bit! I always take a day or so after my grade but then return to my feedback, noting down key points that I can take forward to my next TMA in my TMA notebook. These little pointers from your tutor are there to help you grow and improve over time so take the time to read them and understand them – and again, be sure to clarify with your tutor anything you do not understand. Utilising your feedback is probably the easiest way to build on your success and learn from your wobbles.

I hope you have found something useful in this blog to help you with your assignments. I’m always happy to reply to questions/comments but please be aware I cannot help with your assignment as this must be your own work in line with University policy.

Happy writing 🙂

#TheFutureIsOpen

Collage of 9 study journey images. E309 module text, a Lego figure exploring the Peak District, MST124 and M140 module texts, two Lego graduation figures from an Open degree and PGCE, a picture of the author in a makeshift graduation gown and with accumulated folders and books at the end of their degree

I missed my A Level grades for Dentistry by one mark and it sent me on an unexpected, lifelong learning journey.
I dropped out of my Chemistry degree in 2012, worked numerous amazing jobs in outdoor education, museum education and youth programmes – I even worked onboard a cruise ship!

In 2016, I took a career leap and returned to university to train as a Children’s Nurse but it wasn’t right for me. I would spend my life counting down the days until my next primary school workshop in my part time job as a Widening Participation Ambassador, and it dawned on me then, that I cared more for education.


I walked out of nursing and transferred my credits to The Open University – topping up with a module from Education (E309) and a module from Childhood & Youth (KE322) and graduating with an Open Degree and 1st Class Honours in 2020. I was accepted onto a School Direct PGCE Primary in 2020-21 which I passed with Qualified Teacher Status.

I’ve spent a decade telling children, young people and colleagues that you should ignore the crowd and go your own way. YOU DO YOU! So for once in my life, I took my own advice!

My greatest regret in life is never getting my Science degree. Yes, I’ll be thirty seven when I can finally call myself a Science grad but I’ll be my own example that it’s never to late and you never have to give up on a goal. 7 year old me would be overjoyed to hear that 2022-23 is filled with rocks, fossils and Lake District field trips.

The Open University will always be so much more than a crest on my degree certificate – it’s opened doors to new educational roles, given me the confidence to stand for election (successfully – I’m the OU Students Association’s Vice President Engagement for 2022-24) and boosted my digital skills, leading me to complete three coding courses alongside my studies. It’s been truly life changing and I can’t wait to see where the next few years takes me…

#VoteLou4VPEngagement

My Campaign Manifesto

In my term as VP Engagement my aim is to extend the reach of the OUSA, creating wider and more varied choice of communications to ensure more students than ever before can find and connect with the opportunities and communities that are on offer. 

Building on the success of the current VP Engagement, I hope to expand student participation with The Hoot and develop further student-led blog/vlog opportunities. 

OU students have a wealth of skills/experience to share and rather than continually recycling answers to common questions online, I hope to create a student led bank of blogs/videos giving student insights into everything from modules to clubs. I created personal insight blogs for my previous modules which have proved useful to those exploring their module choices or preparing for their next module.

Further to this, I hope to be the listening ear of the student body and facilitate better variation in student feedback opportunities. Too often the same voices are heard while other students struggle to find the time to engage. I hope to consult with those who find engagement more challenging to promote a structure that works for all students.

During my PGCE course I was representative for my training hub – facilitating change through student feedback. I previously worked on the team behind @WeStudentNurse – a Twitter account offering support and engaging Student Nurses across the UK and beyond. At the OU, I have been involved in feedback, particularly Curriculum Design, and have published articles for The Hoot.

My Pledges

Support more students to find ways to engage with OUSA.

Further promote participation with The Hoot and expand the availability of student insights through student-led blogs/vlogs.

Improve the variation of feedback processes to ensure a wider range of student voices are heard.

In 100 words, how will you seek to uphold the Association’s mission to make a positive difference for all OU students and our values of integrity, equality and inclusivity, openness, kindness and compassion and collaboration?

For me the role of VP Engagement is entirely about equality, inclusivity and collaboration. My main aim must centre around engaging more students and removing barriers to participation, to promote greater diversity in both student feedback processes and community activities. Openness is also essential. I see myself as the effective listening ear, engaging as many students as possible to ensure all students are heard but also as a champion of communication to ensure OUSA’s opportunities are equally received by all.

Question: What is it about this particular role which interests you the most?

I am a keen communicator and enjoy listening to students and their varied experiences, collating their ideas and championing change with their feedback at board level. The balance of the feedback aspect of the role with the Digital Engagement strategy is a real draw for me, having previously worked for @WeStudentNurse and blogged in various capacities, I am enthusiastic about facilitating further opportunities like these, to welcome a diversity of student voices in our variety of media and digital spaces, as I feel the OU’s strength truly lies within its many incredible students and their stories.

Thank you for reading and if you do have any questions at all, please feel free to get in touch.

Please feel free to share my campaign with others.

Image summarising the campaign with links to the campaign video also featured below.
Campaign short video summary via YouTube

How to vote in the OU Elections

Check out the answer to this question on my TikTok (no account needed to view) vm.tiktok.com/ZML47n9Xq/

💙 Follow @OUStudents on Twitter

💙 Follow @OUStudentsLive on Instagram/TikTok

💙 Candidates announced and Manifestos/Pledges published on the OUSA Website: 19/04/22

💙 Keep an eye on The Hoot to see answers to some of the Candidate Questions sent through the Elections Website

💙 Voting is open Friday 29th April – Wednesday 18th May

💙 Candidates will be announced on Friday 20th May

Best of luck to all other candidates standing 🍀

Writing your Personal Statement (for PGCE)

This week (w/c 12/10/2020) the UCAS Teacher Training site begins taking applications for 2021/22 entry. As a current PGCE Primary (School Direct) student I’ve had a lot of questions about writing a successful personal statement. Now I’m no expert, but I’m no beginner either because in the last academic year I successfully made it through both Teach First and UCAS application cycles (after a later change of heart!) This blog talks through how I went about preparing and writing my personal statement and hopefully it will offer some useful advice for those facing the same challenge now.

I’m happy to answer questions on here or via my Twitter handle (@lrobbo89) but please note I will not be able to send you a copy of my own statement and cannot offer to proof read statements at this time.

It is advised that you do not share your personal statement, UCAS runs applications through plagiarism software and if someone was to copy your work, it could result in their plagiarism being flagged to their chosen providers!

Useful websites

https://www.ucas.com/postgraduate/teacher-training/apply-through-ucas-teacher-training/how-write-ucas-teacher-training-personal-statement

https://getintoteaching.education.gov.uk/how-to-apply-for-teacher-training/preparing-your-teacher-training-personal-statement

I used the above two websites in helping me to decide what I should include in my statement. I then created notes detailing the following key sections:

  1. Why I want to be a teacher. I first detailed every reason I had for wanting to be a teacher in the form of a mind map. I then tried to answer the question succinctly, which I did by typing it into a tweet. I tried to condense it down to just 1-2 tweets rather than a huge thread. I also tried to avoid any eye-roll inducing cliches.

2. Why I want to teach primary. I followed the opening lines up with a second mind map of all the reasons I wanted to teach primary age and a general curriculum rather than secondary chemistry for £26000 (I add this because I knew this had to be very convincing). Again I used the Twitter character method to try and keep this succinct and inspiring. (It may seem odd but I’m a keen tweeter and it’s a format where I waffle less!)

3. What had led me here. Important because, why didn’t I do a BEd in the first place?! (My friends have asked me this over a decade and I still haven’t been able to give a straight answer). In this section I mentioned my current studies and how this would support my postgraduate AND teaching ambitions. PGCE, even school based, isn’t just about wowing in the classroom. You have to make the provider belief you can pull it up a notch academically to Level 7 too!

4. My school based experience. DO NOT PANIC! I can assure you my lecturers and my alliance team are VERY aware that we are in the middle of a pandemic. If you don’t have school experience – it is likely not the end of the world. I had relatively little classroom experience having worked in museums, outdoor education etc. I talked about the little experience I had but I talked about it in a REFLECTIVE way (capitalised to emphasise how much I recommend this). Don’t just tell them you did two weeks in school and you had a jolly good time – tell them what the take away was. For me, I unintentionally declared an appreciation for Bruner (“Any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development”) in expressing my amazement that it’s all about how an idea is pitched – even 4 year olds could learn about atoms!

5. Personal skills/qualities potentially useful in the teaching profession. I first drew a mind map of all the skills and qualities and then for each one I detailed one example of where I had demonstrated this through my work/study. To write this piece, which made up over one third of my statement, I chose those that I felt sold me best to a primary headteacher. I reduced the mind map down to only around three answers. The power is always in the example. “I am a great communicator” is thrown into university/job applications more times than any recruiter cares to mention. Great. What sort of communication? Written? Verbal? Four different foreign languages? Morse code? Also…says who? You who is doing the talking? How do you know that your talking has been effective?

6. Why here/now? Due to my personal circumstances, I did not want to move away. It was paramount that I secured a local training position and I dedicated a couple of closing lines of my statement to declaring why my local area was the place I wanted to start my career.

Top Tip: If you want to write your personal statement first in Microsoft Word use the Verdana 11 font- this will ensure the lines match those measured on the UCAS system. It saves you having to race against the UCAS website time out feature.

Also: Always proof read! Read aloud. Read for spellings. Read for grammar. Read it after a break from writing it.

This is by no means the model method for writing the personal statement, and people’s varied backgrounds lend themselves to differing structures/styles but there may be some useful takeaways here to support your own personal statement writing.

If you are looking to train as a teacher in England – do also contact Get Into Teaching who can set you up with an advisor to support you throughout the application process.

Wishing you all the very best of luck with your application!

Lou 🙂

A Letter to the Minister of State for Universities

This blog contains the letter I wrote and posted to the Minister of State for Universities on the day of my Open University degree result. I am sadly yet to receive a reply, and have since moved address but hope that my message made it – even though I am just one teeny, tiny voice.

Trigger Warning: Suicide

Dear Michelle Donelan,

I am writing regarding your recent speech on the future of Higher Education which has in many ways, deeply troubled me.

I wholeheartedly agree that university is not necessarily the best route for all and have friends who have been successful both with and without a university education. However, this statement I find raises concerns with regards to your commitment to the future of Widening Participation (WP) programmes and their funding.

I was a WP student – I received support from my local university, attended taster sessions there and even spent a week at Oxford University Medical School as part of the Sutton Trust Summer School programme. I have since gone on to work on two WP teams alongside my studies – work that not only enabled me to give back, but also supported my own studies financially.

I grew up in a low income household, my family have no GCSEs between them, and my mum cleaned the local school for a living. We had a lot of family debt which made day to day living a financial challenge. I was in paid work from the age of thirteen and university always felt like a far flung dream.

WP gave me the chance to meet students just like me, to explore subjects that I had never heard of (essentially those that weren’t school subjects), and to see all the benefits of continuing education. Without WP, I wouldn’t have met any people outside of my school or dentist/doctor’s surgery who had a graduate education.

The research work of the OECD indicates that by the age of seven, children have already limited their career aspirations. “You can’t be what you can’t see” – and this means WP is vitally important, in fact, you could argue should be extended, to ensure earlier coverage of options (see the fabulous work of Primary Futures!)

WP never seeks to erase children’s aspirations, only to raise them – if they want to be a YouTuber, a plumber or take on their family business and don’t want to go to university – we congratulate them and encourage them. WP isn’t about misleading young people; it’s about arming them with all the available choices for them to make a proper informed decision about their future – something I couldn’t have done without WP programmes.

Where alternative options do exist, they need to be viable. Apprenticeships can be problematic for disadvantaged young people. Pay for an apprenticeship needs to enable the young person to be self-supporting. Many families living with disadvantage cannot support their child to work for £3.97 per hour instead of finding full paid work beyond the age of 18, cutting their educational path short. I was lucky to take an apprenticeship with food and board covered, but the skills from it weren’t accepted outside of the company. I had considered further apprentice options to enhance my skills in childcare/youth work but could never afford to take the pay cut to work as an apprentice without food and board – it simply would not cover my rent.

You further spoke about university drop-outs:

 “If a student goes to university and then drops out after year 1 and has a year’s debt, what does that deliver for their social mobility? Nothing. In fact, it sets them back in life. It’s about them completing high quality academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs, and that’s the important measure we should be looking at”

Firstly, my back story: I received seven A*s, two A’s and a B at GCSE. I naturally went on to study for A Levels and had three offers made for Dentistry. Unfortunately, I left with AABC (plus CD at AS) with my B in Chemistry (just one mark off the A grade) and I lost my place. I eventually went to university in 2010 (after working and doing an apprenticeship) to study BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science at a Russell Group University.

Between the strain of long course hours, part time work and my personal circumstances I struggled to get on with the course. I transferred to the BSc (Hons) Chemistry programme in the hope that a more practical subject would be more engaging and help me push through, but my struggle continued.

I eventually ended up leaving when in the Easter of that second year, my friend committed suicide and the university counsellor told me that they could not provide support. Indeed, they even went as far as telling me my friend’s suicide “didn’t count” because she was not a member of my direct family.

I left university in floods of tears, I was always the A grade student, always pushing to be top of my class and I had been let down. For the following four years I told everyone that university was not for me.

In those four years I saw friends in museum education take on more exciting roles because they had a degree and I didn’t, I worked summers managing youth programmes alongside graduates who were surprised I would be unemployed when the summer drew to a close, and I watched as friends graduated or spoke fondly of their “career” while all I had was a “job”.

By this point I had joined and started training with the Royal Naval Reserve as an Officer, having passed the Admiralty Interview Board. I felt out of place and lacked confidence in training. I’d more than qualified for my place, but I was left feeling trampled by successful graduate colleagues.

I thought that I couldn’t go back to university because Student Finance England calculate funding as: Years of Course + Spare Year – Years of Previous study, leaving any potential university asking for £9000 up front because I wasn’t eligible for loans in Year 1.

Eventually, after much convincing, I looked at Nursing & Allied Health – some of the few degrees that did allow funding despite previous study and settled on BSc (Hons) Children’s Nursing. This course rapidly became a poor fit for me – I was successful and received good grades and placement feedback, but I did not enjoy my placements. I realised I was living for school placements and WP work. I knew I had made a mistake and I transferred for my final year to The Open University where I studied one module from Childhood & Youth and one module from Primary Education to leave with a BSc (Hons) Open degree. I will go on to teacher training locally through School Direct (Primary) in September.

I’m proud of my degree, and I’m proud that despite every hurdle thrown my way, I graduate this week. So, I’m a student that went to university and then dropped out after year 2 and had 2 year’s debt, what did that deliver for my social mobility? Everything. In fact, I came back fighting. It’s not about completing high quality academically rigorous courses that lead to graduate jobs, it’s about the skills, experience, confidence and aspirations that I have developed along the way. It’s about the sheer determination to get to the end and sit behind a laptop I bought for myself, telling the Universities Minister that it is most definitely about groups. We have so much we can offer, for example, by diversifying the white middle class image of teaching. If your mum cleans the school toilets you 100% can be a teacher – maybe one day even the Headteacher.

Please, I urge you, don’t forget about me, or the thousands of other young people who share my wobbly pathway to success. Instead, please look to raising our aspirations and helping us stay in university long enough to reach them.

Things I believe could help:

  • I agree, more flexible and part time routes are ideal but please do not blur the lines here. Part time often means evening classes – this is not flexible. We don’t all work 9-5 (as most critical workers will tell you).
  • Flexible courses need more financial support. I was lucky that my partner supported me this year to complete my Open University modules and cut back on work, but the reality is many are simply working double time – with no maintenance loans and no entitlement to childcare.
  • Unlike most disadvantaged students, I agree that a university education should cost. So, we probably have that in common. However, when it costs so much that repeating a year becomes unimaginable or access to loans to cover these costs is capped by previous study, you leave people who wish to change career, or who made a poor course/university choices at 18 locked out of the system, with few ways of being able to afford to pay themselves back in. Imagine if we were all held fully accountable for every decision made at 18 in this way.
  • You spoke of the 20% attainment gap between black and white students. Academic support, anonymised marking, and listening to black voices on this matter is so important – I direct you here to the work of the awe inspiring Hayley Mulenda – a student who returned to university after dropping out due to mental ill health a few years ago. She’s written a book and continues to present motivational talks about her journey.
  • Support is needed for those struggling with estrangement or leaving the care system. Extending financial support coming from universities to support summer accommodation for care leavers and funds for students experiencing unexpected hardship are vital. Estrangement is particularly forgotten by many HE providers and the work of the Stand Alone Pledge needs wider coverage.
  • Continuing with WP programmes, and expanding programmes such as Primary Futures exposing minority groups to both university and a wealth of other career choices (because “You can’t be what you can’t see”).
  • Improving student mental health services and continuing to work on expanding health transition services beyond the age of 18. For many the shift to university is a challenging time made worse by poor transition to adult health/mental health services or lack of access to these services at a time of acute change and stress. I witnessed this first-hand on my nursing course. One big indicator that a student is struggling is often a change in their engagement and attendance. I cannot understand why, when universities so often record this data, it is used to penalise rather than support the student in question. How many lives and futures could be saved if we saw this as a point of support rather than ruling someone unfit for academic success?
  • Consulting with students to explore the challenges contributing to low retention numbers rather than assuming we drop out because university was a poor choice for us. I believe there’s a lot to be learnt from consulting, particularly with non-traditional students and those who have prematurely left higher education.

University is so much more than my degree, and it will always be so much more than my pay cheque. It’s at the very least, developing the confidence to write to an MP and champion that same chance for every other little bright spark sat without central heating, eating beans on toast for the third night running, who wrongly believes only the privileged go to university.

I will always continue to raise aspirations and champion opportunities for those groups less likely to pursue higher education, because in the wise words of Teach First: “Where you come from shouldn’t affect where you’re going”.

Yours Sincerely,

Lou