Blank page syndrome and TMAs

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.

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