Well, that’s another exam in the can. How’d I do? Weeeeell, if the memories of a couple of other people are accurate, then I missed an entire part of the exam. So not extremely well.

The parts of the exam that I did happen to read were, by and large, trickier than the past papers, but I had notes jotted down in my handbook for all but two of the trickier parts. One of the two I think I did alright on. The other … Well, the only people who will have gotten it right will be people who wrote the exact example of that method down in their handbook.

Between last year and this, the OU cut back on the number of exam centres drastically. Instead of driving across town from where I work, they wanted me to drive another 30 miles, to a town with horrible traffic, and a total of about 50 miles from my house. So … No.

I switched centres to one the opposite direction of my work. The downside is that I have to take a whole day off instead of just a few hours from work. The upside is that it’s on the sea front and gorgeous. The downside of that is, of course, I was trapped inside taking an exam and not able to watch it. The upside, though, is that it was miserable weather and I was glad to be missing it. The downsi… Forget it.

Anyway, I took the train (which was 15 minutes late) this time, and brought the following: A few wrapped breakfast pastries, the same boiled sweeties as last time, a water bottle, my handbook (as permitted by the exam arrangements booklet), my wallet (with photo ID), my phone (I get nervous about journeys I have no direct control over so can’t convince myself to leave my phone behind), the exam invite (never necessary or glanced at), some painkillers, and two pens. All in my backpack, which went up against a side wall during the exam.

The painkillers were because I’ve developed tension headaches from revision this year. They start around noon, and get worse until about five or six o’clock, then start to back off. They can be quite bad, and make walking difficult. As I backed my revision off this last week, though, they’ve been fading in intensity. I took some just before the exam as I started to feel one coming on, and it backed it off through the entirety of the exam.

Writing for three hours, I need something I don’t have to grip hard and I don’t need to use pressure for. So I used a gorgeous fountain pen that holds a tonne of ink and glides on paper, and a backup that, well, gets the job done. Both were filled with a waterproof ink just in case I spilled while hydrating. (Note to self: don’t hydrate. I spent the last twenty minutes rushing so I could get out and visit the little students room. The invigilators allow you to have bio-breaks, but they also scare you first with tales of students who were never heard from again. Or something like that. I stopped listening.)

The new venue was much better than the last. In addition to the seafront location, there were posh padded chairs to sit in, and the desks were high enough that I didn’t have to bend in half to write. There were no signs pointing the way for OU students like the last hotel, so I had to argue with the concierge that his directions sucked for two minutes before I finally found the right way. Then I saw others start the same argument with the concierge so I went and grabbed them and led them back. (They did NOT want to start any small talk. Absolute focus.)

I got there just one minute before they opened the doors into the exam hall. There were about eighty exam desks lined up, and sixty or so of them had exams waiting on them. Over two dozen were devoted to M250. I was on the front of a row, which was nice. It gave me more leg room, and I didn’t get nervous seeing people in front of me finishing faster. (The guy behind me took about half the time I did, though, and left.)

On the desk was my exam question paper, a desk record, a plastic clip, a metal paper clip, and an answer book. I was allowed to sign my desk record, but nothing else until the exam started. When it did, I wrote my personal identifier on the answer book, copied the exam number onto it from the desk record, and was off.

I won’t get into specifics for now on the exam, as others still might not have taken it. It threw me a few times, I know I missed marks for at least two sub-parts, and apparently I didn’t see an entire section, but can’t be sure of that until the paper is released in a few days. Regardless of missing that, I’m fairly optimistic for a distinction.

I had to rewrite one method at least three times, and I had to restart another more times than that. It had some very subtly tricky questions. The definitions and prose answers were my weak spot, and I feel confident with my performance on those.

You can’t leave during the last 15 minutes, and I was very close to being done with half an hour to go. I rushed my last two sub-parts, clipped everything together, and left. It felt like I was there for twenty minutes.

If I get a Pass 2, that’s okay. I’m very pleased with my effort level and understanding level this time around. I’ve got another exam next year and two EMAs, so we’ll see how much time I can find to revise for that.

First, I’m a little way into revising for M250. My first step was to tackle the most recent past exam paper under exam conditions, to get a feel for where I’m at, so I know where I need to be.

It wasn’t pretty. I’d definitely have gotten a Pass 2 result based on this performance, and the knowledge has been (mostly) retained through my primary study of the module. But what’s missing is speed. By the time I finished my first question (of three), I noticed that an hour and a half had passed. By the time I finished my second question (in a rush), I only had 45 minutes left. And as much as you can pretend to do things in “exam conditions” for practising, you don’t get things like proctors coming up and fumbling with your paperwork and ID, trying to sort out the answer booklets, asking for new answer booklets, bolting all your materials together for marking, etc. The truth is, you’re possibly going to lose 5 to 10 minutes of the exam just to … well, paperwork. But that’s how narrow my margin for error is.

So I do need to brush up through the glossary a bit, and I do need to go over my notes a bit, but what I really, really need to do is to practise hand-writing code with a clock ticking down. No comments, no design principles, and possibly no helper methods. I just don’t have time for them. (I’m going to make an attempt to write helper methods using HTDP‘s wish list, which might work very well with hand-written code.) I hope I can find enough practice questions to get this down.

Second, I’ve started module planning for next year. I was surprised to see that preliminary due dates for major (and some minor) assignments have already been scheduled for the modules I’m enrolled on. The great news is that I don’t have any TMAs due within one week of each other. Two are due within eight days of each other, and another two are a fortnight apart, but that’s as much of a crunch as I’ll get, EMA notwithstanding.

M269 has two TMAs, an exam, and no fewer than seven iCMA quizzes. The other two haven’t got their iCMAs listed yet, and each has an EMA assignment at the end. TM257 has two TMAs, and TT284 has three.

Wooooo!  It’s over!  Yesterday was the big day, and I’m done with it.  What follows is sure to be a very long, very rambling description of my first experience with an OU exam.

Things basically began the evening before, when I took my final past exam (September 2014) in exam conditions.  By “exam conditions,” of course, I mean I had to let the dog in and out every twenty minutes, deal with the exam room doubling as a kitchen and tea station, and a desk unsurprisingly as large as a kitchen table.  But it was close enough to get an idea for how well my revision had gone, and it was great: My fastest time (90 minutes) and best score (100%).  I knew it was too good to hope the real thing would go so smoothly, but it bouyed me up with sacks of confidence.

That confidence really took care of my nerves throughout the day.  That, or maybe it’s that it’s my busiest week ever at work and I didn’t have time to panic.  Either way, I didn’t have any performance anxiety.

I’d been advised several times not to arrive more than about 15 minutes before the start of the exam, but that’s not in my nature.  I had to fight with myself not to show up an hour early, but still ended up being about 45 minutes early.

Though the OU description of the venue said that there was “ample parking onsite”, there was not.  It was completely full to bursting, but just caught a space as I was leaving to park at the (expensive) mall car park a ten minute walk away.  I entered, and was greeted with several lovely signs directing OU exams students to wait in the atrium to be called.  The exam was in a hotel, and the atrium was a relaxing place to wait, with a restaurant and a coffee bar, and a water feature filling the room with pleasantly soothing sounds.

It also contained the reason for the lack of parking: Three or four dozen Open University students waiting to take their exam.  Apparently being an hour early would have been about average.  Still, there were enough comfortable armchairs to go around when I arrived, so I settled down to wait.  About half the students I saw had MST124 (or MST125) handbooks with them, some others had different maths books, and there were a few Stage 2 students doing non-maths.  (Interestingly, there were no Stage 1 exams for anything other than maths in our centre.)

I’m not sure when we were called into the hall, as I’d left my phone (and therefore clock) in my car.  I had only my wallet, keys, MST124 handbook, Casio fx85-PLUS calculator, pen, and three pencils with me.  Oh!  And a sack of rhubarb and custard sweeties.  There was a hastily drawn A2-sized map of the room by the door, showing which rows different modules were sitting in, and where the alphabet breaks were on each row.  There were about sixty students in all, with about two dozen there for MST124.

The desks weren’t large.  I’d guess about sixty centimetres wide, and less than half a metre deep.  They could have been worse.  On top of the desk were our desk record (an A5-sized slip of carbon paper with your personal identifier, name, exam number, course name, signature box, and a few boxes to write things), the question booklet, an answer booklet, a folded-over CME (computer-marked exam form), a plastic … clip of some kind, and a flat metal paper clip.  This took up basically the whole desk.  My stomach actually cramped sitting down at it because of the tight squeeze.  I opened my sweeties and placed five of them across the top of the desk (and stowed the rest under my desk) and my three pencils covered the rest of the desk.

One of the invigilators went on for about ten minutes about what not to do, and saying over and over to read all instructions, and follow all instructions.  (What he meant was don’t read all of the instructions and follow all of the instructions, instead guess which instructions pertain to you and follow those, instead.)  And then we started.  For MST124, I should have taken the unnecessary answer booklet and placed it under my desk, and ignored it completely.  But I filled it out dutifully, as it had instructions telling me to do so.

I filled out my desk record, and left it with my driver’s license.  That always has to remain on the desk, so there’s a large chunk of the desk real-estate you’re never getting back.  Next I filled out the admin part of the CME, and placed it on the bottom of all my paperwork.  Finally, I opened up my question booklet, and got to work.

This part I’d practised about half a dozen times at home, so there were no difficulties with it.  I would work a question, see if it matched any answers, and then see what went wrong if it didn’t.  By question 2, I was already stymied.  Nothing matched my answer, or looked very much like it, so I re-worked it, and got the same answer.  I did it two more times, and noticed myself start to get frustrated.  At this point, I mentally put the brakes on, took a deep steadying breath, and convinced myself to skip it and come back to it later.

I completed questions 3 and 4, and noticed while finishing question 4 what I’d probably missed in question 2.  Sure enough, I had the right answer, but a simple re-arrangement soon had me circling one of the answers, and moving onto the second page.

After that, the answers mostly tumbled out.  The pace felt slower than normal, but I wasn’t struggling.  Everything made sense.  There were some tricky questions (and trickier answers) but I felt (mostly) confident about all of them.  I did run into a degrees/radians mistake at one point, but caught myself in time.

My pencils flew off the desk several times, and I felt I must have been the noisiest one in the room.  I didn’t hear anybody else flipping through their handbooks for formulae like I was.  But before I knew it, I’d circled the last answer, and I was reaching for the CME form to put my answers down.

I had bought a pack of Staedtler HB pencils last week, and I’m glad I did.  Even though I’d been using HB pencils for my practice exams, the Staedtlers marked the paper much better.  I’d used one for the question book’s rough work, and one for marking the CME.  So having an extra one that was sharpened and ready to go if anything went wrong was nice.

At this point, 90 minutes had passed, matching my best practice exam.  I then turned my attention to memorising my answers.  All rough work must be done in the question booklet or (unnecessary) answer booklet, and no writing should be done in the handbook, and nothing you write on should be taken out of the room with you.  But I found no rules against memorising my answers.  It’s not easy to walk away with 42 characters memorised, but I stared at my CME for about fifteen to twenty minutes with various mnemonics, and finally had it down.

I gathered my forms and papers and sheets and booklets together, bolted and clipped them all together, and then raised my hand and waited for an invigilator.  She whispered that I’d basically done it all wrong, had me write some numbers in boxes, and did some origami to sort out my paperwork.  Hopefully it all gets marked properly.

I gathered my things, swooped out of the room as quietly as I could, sat in the atrium, and wrote down my answers.  Our results won’t come back for about six weeks, but we can get the questions in about two days, and I’ll be able to check my answers against Wolframalpha and find out how I did.

And I think that’s it.  When the questions are released in a few days, I’ll update with what I think my results are, and I’ll make a different post when my official results are received in July.


2018/06/07 Edit: It looks like I’ve got a 98%!  At the very least, assuming my form gets marked, I’ve got a distinction.  I didn’t seriously consider that a possibility coming into this module.  For my module result to be 98 (from OCAS 99 and OES 98) would have been completely unbelievable to me when I signed up for MST124.  It’ll take a few days to get over the shock.)

It’s practically my first real exam.  I could count my CompTIA A+ certification (1995?) and my Knowledge of Life and Language in the UK (2014, I think) exams, but they were each considerably quicker than an hour.  My Graduation Equivalency Diploma in 1996 definitely counts, though.  It was a three hour exam taken at the community college I dropped out of, so … Awkward.

Subsequent to my last post about MST-124 revision, I’ve gone through every unit of the module completing practice workbooks offered on the module.  I had intentionally saved these for revision, but forgot about them until just after my last post.  It took about three weeks to get through them, but it paid off.  My performance on past papers went up nearly 10%, and I now feel like I’ve got a real shot at a distinction, if I can keep my brain fresh for just one more week.

Next Tuesday is the exam.  I panicked today and bought new pencils to keep in my car.  And cough sweets/drops because … Look, I already said I panicked.

What I’d like to do from now until then is just do every past exam paper over and over.  I’m not remembering the exact answers, and the questions are all so similar (at least for the 2-mark Section A questions 1 through 32) that they all blur together, which may be further helpful in the exam.  They take just under 2 hours each, though, so the commitment is not insignificant, and I only have time after the little ones’ bedtime.

At some point I’m going to properly review MST124 and TM129, but I don’t know if I’ll get it done before or after results day, which is mid-July.  I should probably do it sooner rather than later, because my opinion of TM129 appears to be plummeting the more time passes.

My revision plan has been … untenable.  I had hoped to start with a practice of the entire exam, find my weak spots and get a sense of time, and slowly work away at those, then do another full practice of the entire exam maybe a week before the actual exam time.  I liked this plan because the weak spots identified this way would be exactly the types of questions to show up in the exam, as the exam questions seem to (mostly) follow similar types of question year after year.  The practice exam before the real exam would hopefully work as a confidence builder going in, or at least a road map of where to start cramming in the last week.

Unfortunately, this plan requires two uninterrupted blocks of three hours several weeks apart.  I can’t seem to get any block of time that large while working full time, caring for little ones, and other responsibilities.  I’ve been so good with time management for studying over the last two years that it’s completely escaped my attention that I normally handle small day-to-day home life responsibilities a few times an hour between blocks of concentration.

So instead, I’ve been revising … everything.  All twelve units.  I got through the last one a couple of nights ago.  I’ve been tracking my progress using MST-124’s Revision Quiz.  This is a quiz with just 12 questions, one random one from each unit.  I’d have thought that this structure would make it very uneven for a battery quiz, but it proved to be quite effective.  No matter how many times I took it prior to revising, it took me one hour (with a variance of 7 minutes).

After three weeks of revision, it’s down to under 25 minutes.  I’m pretty sure that’s as fast as I’ll be able to get, so the rest of revision will be all about accuracy.  It’s a shame my revision time is nearly half up already.  Most students are starting their revision period today, though (as our final TMA was due last night), so I’ve given myself a large advantage.

More good news comes in the form of realising how much I actually have to remember.  A pass is 40% and the exam is made up of multiple-choice questions with five possible answers each.  If x is the percentage of the exam I can remember from revision, then assuming I get 1/5 of the remaining answers correct from the things I don’t remember, then in order to pass, I need

x + 0.2(100 – x) ≥ 40
+ 20 – 0.2x ≥ 40
0.8x ≥ 20
≥ 25.

So if I remember 25% of the material covered by the exam, and I get 1/5 of the remaining 75% (or 15% of the total) questions due to probability, that should combine to see me through to the 40% needed to pass.  Although making assumptions based on probability isn’t wise, at least I know my basic algebra is sufficient.

I’m done with the OCAS portion of MST-124!  That means that all my assignments are submitted, and the only the left is my certain doom the exam.  Thanks to the bewildering array of rules which make up the OU’s assignment substitution policy, I didn’t really have to submit my last assignment, TMA04, and would still have achieved a distinction level on the OCAS portion of the module.

It’s in, though, and I’m done!

Oh, wait, no.  There’s still that doom exam I mentioned.  Erm.  Imma talk more about the TMA.

The last TMA was by far the most difficult.  At least two, and maybe three questions aren’t directly referenced by the module materials at all.  And one other question is quite possibly a trick question.  I found three distinct and justifiable answers to it, so we’ll see how the one I picked goes.  (I liked maths because there wasn’t a subjective nature to the answers.  What are you doing to me?)

There’s one sub-part to a question which … Goodness.  It looked darned near unsolvable.  In fact, I thought it literally was for a few moments hours, because the modules basically only state that this type of thing exists, and doesn’t describe it at all.  Other websites also didn’t go into very much detail about the topic, so for once that didn’t help at all.  After trying very, very hard to crack the nut, I randomly selected the right nutcracker and found that … well, it was really all very simple all along.  (Except that it specifically asks you to do it in a way that makes it look impossible.)

I tried to make that last paragraph more vague, and I think I just about got it perfect.

So … Guh.  Revision.  I have a plan.  I’ve glanced at enough past exams papers to note that the majority of questions come from a set of very specific types of questions.  If I only revise those types of questions, I’ll probably come out with a Pass 2.  I’m starting to think a Pass 1 will be impossible due to how slow I am, and not all questions are from that specific set.  But we’ll see how it goes.  I’ve managed to give myself two extra weeks of revision time by finishing the study materials early.


2018/05/17 Edit: The mark on TMA04 for MST124 was the same as all others: 100.  I really would have liked some kind of feedback on my TMAs, and really only got tick marks on the answers.  I’m sure there were different approaches I could have used which could have been faster, or easier to remember, or in some other way preferred.  At least I can say I’ve been happy with my effort level all year long.  My practice exams are all coming within 3% of a distinction, so I’m really going to have to get that up about 10% to be confident under exam conditions.  I’ve got two and a half weeks, so here’s hoping!