Blank page syndrome does not only hit creative writers.  I learned in the Systematic Program Design MOOC some great ways of attacking it when it hits programmers.

It can also rear its head when sitting down to a new TMA.  Okay, so it pretty much always rears its head on TMAs.  Or not so much rears its head, but just kind of stares at you expectantly since it never put its head down since the last time it reared away.

For me, a plan of what to do before, during, and after studying a block has been a good way to attack a TMA:

  1. I skim the TMA questions for low-hanging fruit.  These are questions which require no planning, little thinking, and generally a lot of button pushing.  On TU100, the Sense programs fall into that category for me, but they won’t for everybody.  It might be the maths questions, or a library searching exercise, short-form answers, or something else.  But look for some low-hanging fruit, preferably that you can do before even studying the associated block.  Even if it’s wrong (for now), it’s in the TMA, the TMA isn’t blank, and you’re off to the races.
  2. I create a TMA Notes document.  I start by taking notes on each question itself.  For example, I highlight specific words I need to address in my answer.  If I know the OU has a specific definition for something it’s asking for, I might put that definition in these notes.  (The OU drills students on indentifying “Content” and “Process” words in TMAs, with the process words being the required tasks central to the TMA question.  It’s a good idea to use the OU’s definitions of these words when considering how to answer them.)
  3. While going about my study, if something jumps out as relevant to a TMA question, I’ll quickly jot it down in the TMA notes.  I don’t work on it at all, so as not to interrupt my study flow.
  4. After finishing the block study, I next finish up my TMA notes.  This may (okay, almost certainly will) include writing notes on articles, finding tools I’ll need to use and linking to them, gathering references (using online tools), or other necessary planning.
  5. I attack the actual TMA.  If I’ve done my planning right, I shouldn’t need to consult any other source at this point than those in my TMA notes.  All the work should have been done by this point, so it’s just a matter of writing it out, and wrestling it into the word count.  I label this as my first draft.

If I did step 4 right, I don’t have to worry so much about the blank page.  Sometimes I’ll literally just write a line from my notes to get me started, knowing I’ll have to go back and write something that makes sense later.  Heck, once I just re-wrote my bullet point notes into paragraph form because I was so desparate, and went back to edit it later.  It was ugly, but it got me past the blank page.

If anybody’s interested in the rest of my TMA plan, after the blank page is gone, here it is:

  1. I wait at least 24 hours, then open up the original TMA questions (not my notes) and go over each question part, making certain that I’ve answered the question.  I tidy up what needs tidying, correct what needs correcting, then label the result as my second draft.
  2. I then forget about it (or try to) until the tutorial in which the TMA will be discussed.  I’ve been lucky thus far to have my second draft done by the time that rolls around, but I don’t know if that luck will hold.  Anyway, I ask questions about anything I’m not certain of, fix what needs fixing, and finally have my final draft.
  3. After all that, I still don’t submit quite yet.  I give it another 24 hour cool-off period, give it a final read-through, and then dump it into the submission site.

These final steps don’t always work ad consilium, but my tutorials have thus far come just before the TMA cut-off date.  It does mean that I need to finish up my studying a minimum of half a week before the TMA due date, but I think the plan spreads the work as well as it can throughout the planner.

On a related note, TU100 TMA02 is in the can.  It’ll probably be about two weeks before it comes back.  I’m expecting the result to be on par with the last one.  It’s certainly more ambiguous than TMA01, so it could come in lower than expected.

2016/12/12 Edit: TMA02 returned: 100!  Though no marks were deducted, I was still given a lot of great feedback for future TMAs, such as using comments in Sense and avoiding the Word formula builder.

Writing TMAs can be quite the task, and they can really get you down if let yourself get overwhelmed.  So I thought I’d do something to keep my spirits up with this one.

I’ve laid a small Easter egg in my TMA02 for TU100, and today was the day for the finishing touch.

It’s not big, but enough to make me smile.  The part in question involves netiquette, and finding information sources on the Internet.  I managed to find two sources on the Internet relating to my topic which were written on the same day in different years.  And then I’ve also written something myself on the same day this year.  Which happens to be today.

So I have things in the forum written on 21/11/2014, 21/11/2015, and now 21/11/2016.  I’d like to push it a bit further, and have an article in mind, but it will require an appropriate post to respond to, without torturing it too much.

It’d be nice if it caused some confusion during marking.

The Facebook groups took a turn the other week.  A few people had been asking for help, a few people had been giving help, everything seemed copacetic.  And then things got weird.

There are a few people who are genuinely struggling with the material.  My hope is that those who are doing well will be asked for help, and they’ll be able to share what helped them when they were at that position.  Because we were all at that position at some point, even if it was years ago.

Instead of people trying to help by finding out what was causing the struggles and overcome them, however, they mostly attempted to help by shaming those in the group who had admitted to doing well.

At one point, the atmosphere was so nervous over this, that nobody with a TMA score above 90 dared to post their results, though scores below this were posted.  This gave an unrealistic picture of how difficult the assignment was, as though any amount of effort were not enough for high marks.  The result, to me, seemed to discourage more effort, if such a goal were unattainable.  Eventually, someone ventured to give their score in an encoded format, and many other high scores followed, dramatically shifting the picture of the assignment’s difficulty.  It was now clearly possible to attain the high marks, encouraging more effort if it was just out of reach.

If someone isn’t doing well, ridicule is extremely unhealthy for the advancement of the group as a whole.  The same is true if someone is doing well.  We all need to know where we stand so we can advance.

Those who are struggling need the group to advance.  Those who are doing well likewise need the group to advance.  That advancement can’t happen if nobody can admit to doing well, and ask for help from those having the same types of problems.

Edit 21/11/2016: Pretty much never mind.  A few days after I wrote this, there was a bunch of actual bragging on one of the groups, and I have to side with those against it.  In the long run, the difference between my opinion on it and theirs is just how much discussing your current status counts as bragging, and I can’t fault someone for having a more severe opinion on it than mine.

As the due date of my first ever Open University TMA passed last night, I feel nearly comfortable talking about it in very broad, generic terms.  Even typing that out loud makes me nervous of somehow being stamped as colluding, perhaps the very worst thing I can be.  Or that’s how I feel after actually doing the TMA.

I can’t actually find a single university policy telling me not to post every question and every answer from the TMA.  Rumour has it that his is a no-no, as the questions might be recycled, so it’s odd that they don’t tell people not to do it.

Anyway, I’m not going to do that.  But I am going to shed some light on the content, regardless.  So if the OU police come knocking at my door, you’ll know what happened.  Remember me fondly as you accept your degree.  Or probably not.  Remember me with a “What happened to that guy?” when someone mentions annoying bloggers.

If you haven’t sussed it out, yet, what you’re supposed to learn on a module isn’t necessarily what you think you’re getting into from the module title, or possibly even the description.  What you’re supposed to learn are the items in the Learning Objectives.  So as annoying as their template is, make some kind of peace with the Learning Objectives themselves.

As the TMAs … actually all the assessments … are testing how well you’ve grasped the content you’re supposed to, that means that the TMA questions will fundamentally be tied to the Learning Objectives.  In TU100, the first half of Block 1, that means various study skills (such as taking notes and active reading), netiquette, good academic practice (re: plagiarism), remote collaboration, number bases, binary, computer history, exponential notation and growth, and basic web design concepts.  You can make a few guesses as to what might show up on the first TMA.

Additionally, there’s a bit with the SenseBoard telling you what buttons to push and recording the response.  Which may or may not be testing your ability to copy and paste spreadsheets.

As you can probably tell from the length of most of my blog entries, my biggest difficulty with the TMA is getting the word-count down.  Most sections have a maximum word-count.  There may or may not be a 10% leeway on the upper bound of the word-count, depending on your tutor.  I certainly wouldn’t count on it for an EMA, which will be marked by someone other than your tutor.  Word count tallies, at least on this module, should accompany each section with such a limit.

I finished my first draft about a week before the beginning of the module presentation.  I later decided that my entire third question had to go, and I tweaked question one several dozen times, as well.  Even so, I still put it up on a proverbial shelf to sit for several weeks before submission.  I wanted confirmation on a referencing question, and so waited until our tutorial on the TMA less than a week before the submission due date.

The response to my question was that she didn’t really care.  She didn’t really care if I even attempted a reference, so cheers for trying.  So I changed one word (no hints) and submitted it that night.  And then wrote half of TMA02 for kicks.

The tutorial was great, by the way.  Less than a handful of us showed up for it, and all three of us were done with our TMAs, and one had even already submitted it.  (A fourth showed up half an hour later, which was either late or bang on time, depending on which message from our tutor one decided to read.)  Okay, so my tutor isn’t extremely aggressive with communication, or organisation details like when tutorials are, and she insists that purple Comic Sans is a professional font due to its legibility, but she’s actually very experienced in her role, and it shows.  What she lacks in protocol she more than makes up for in being able to describe complex concepts directly, simply, and quickly.  And, I imagine, is probably good at easing nerves of those less confident with the processes.

Indeed, I found her tutorial much more useful than my previous experience.  Even though I’d be able to stumble through TMA01 and TMA02 without the tutorial, I was made much more confident of the process, as well.

I’ll update this post later with my TMA results, but I’m expecting just below the 90-mark point.  We’ll see how closely calibrated my expectations are.

2016/11/07 Edit: I got my TMA01 results back: 94 !  I lost two marks (of fifty possible) for something cheeky that I did intentionally: I left off the full title and author of an article, and just saved them for my references.  I was pretty much at the very limit of my word count, and the title was some ridiculous twelve words!  That’s six percent of my total allotted word count!

I don’t really know what the last mark was off for.  It was part of the “Relevent skills from the unit” which aren’t specified.  Frankly (as I hinted) I would have taken off another two or three marks if I were to mark it, so I’m hardly going to worry over it.

As I’ll probably detail the reasons for shortly, this is likely the only place I’ll share my results.  It is, however, nice to know that my dedication over the summer has paid off.