I’m at that magical part of revision where full-blown panic starts to settle in and become normal. Suddenly finding motivation to sit down with my notes isn’t hard. It finds me, instead. No matter where I’m hiding from it. It’s not as bad as with the maths exam last year, because I’m more comfortable in general with the source. But I’m also convinced that means I won’t do as well because I’m not panicking enough to motivate quite enough revision.

Such is my mind. Or lack thereof, because I seem to have lost it somewhere.

Here’s some tips for revising M250 from what I’ve found so far. If you’re not me, then your style of learning probably isn’t mine, making these tips worthless. But they might be adapted to something useful for yourself.

  • Do as many past papers as you can.
    • I’m going to guess this is the top tip of any Open University exam where there have been exams previously. I don’t know what to do about inaugural module presentations … I don’t ever plan on taking another one at the OU as my first was … Well, not a literal disaster, but I’d rather eat my own foot, so somewhere between the two. Anyway, I’ve cut my answer time in half by doing this, and that alone would make it worth it. I’ve also found gaps in my knowledge that I’ve done my best to shore up.
  • Of course, hand-write the exam papers.
  • Start with the oldest past papers.
    • The earlier exams were based on a different structure. There were more questions, but not all of them are relevant to the current exam. So if you cut out the irrelevant ones, the remaining questions are quite a bit easier. So it’s harder to judge if you’ve progressed enough toward the end of revision.
  • Split up the questions.
    • If you don’t do a lot of handwriting (I’m doing it constantly these days just for the pleasure of a gorgeous buttery-smooth fountain pen nib on paper), you’ll want to practise writing for a three-hour stretch a few times. But other than that, it’s hard to find that much time at once in your day, and you can’t just save revision for the weekends. (Or maybe you can. I envy you. And am jealous of you. And probably hate you a little.) Just give yourself one hour per question, and do them when you can squeeze them in. You don’t even need to do them grouped together from the same paper.
  • Transcribe your answers into BlueJ. Or an IDE that’s actually usable.
    • We’re not given the answers (or answer examples) from past papers, but we can get some idea of how well we’ve done by seeing how much has to be changed just to get it to compile. We can also test the code and see if its execution matches the specification. In a few cases, testing can require coding a LOT of “assumed” classes that the code says will be provided in the scenario, but not literally given to the student. Implementing these requisite classes can be their own exercise in revision.
  • Submit your (corrected) answers to the M250 revision forum.
    • Having another set of eyes can help identify blind spots. I’ve had numerous such weaknesses in my code identified, and really help me get a better grasp of what’s possible on the exam.
  • Look over your TMAs and consider treating them as practice exams, too.
    • One thing my tutor has mentioned a few times is that at least one question on the exam for the past few years has borne a striking resemblance to one from the TMAs that year.

If I find anything else is really helping, I’ll come back and add to this later.

One thing I tried that didn’t seem to help was a revision tutorial the other night. It provided one example question for the exam, so that was nice (though I expect I’ll encounter the same one on a past paper in a few days), and there were some multiple-choice questions that highlighted that I haven’t memorised the module materials (there was one question where the answer is literally mentioned once in the assessed materials) … But it wasn’t anything that will help me either on the day, or with the rest of my revision. I’ve typed up notes for the tutorial that puts it into a format which would have made a nice handout, but that’s really about it.

Anyway, my result will be entirely down to my exam score. I got my TMA03 score back, and got the full 100 marks. That also means that my combined OCAS for the module is 100, so I’m very pleased with my effort levels. As always, my tutor provided excellent, insightful notes on how I can progress, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I hope I end up on a third module with him.

TMA03 is due soon for M250, and I’ve got a line fault in my DSL connection. It’ll take at least a week to fix. One of the hazards of online study is that you’re at the mercy of the technology. I’ve arranged my study plans to allow for outages, but that just deals with my initial study of the material. It’s not robust enough for either preparing assignments for a module that requires coding in an IDE, or revising for them across all the various media on which I have notes and materials.

I got the TMA in over a month ago, but this is really making revision awkward. Not impossible, but I find I’m wasting a lot of paper on printouts.

I shot my final TMA of the year off to the submission service last Thursday, but just finished with the proof reading and resubmitted it. (I’d rather have an unproofed version marked than forget to proofread and submit.)

The TMA was really enjoyable, and there was a lot of room for creativity, more creativity than I’ve experienced at the OU so far. I do pity the tutors having to mark submissions which can basically come from anywhere. I was, perhaps, a little too free with the specification. There are times when it informs a specific order of steps to be taken, and I change the order and do the seven-step process in two (well commented) steps, instead. I’m pretty sure that I will lose marks for it, but I’m extremely confident of this assignment. I expect to get better than 90 marks, but even if I did spectacularly poorly, I’m unlikely to get anything but a Distinction on the OCAS portion of my results.

(Wow! Look at me be all cocky. I’m normally hedging every prediction I make. It feels good to be completely confident, for once.)

The OU and I both agree that one of the best things that students can do is reflect on their study methods to discover the most effective way for them to learn. Because of my own reflection, I’m not going to start my revision for the exam quite yet. If I were to do so, I fear I’d burn out well before June, and forget half of what I’d revised.

Instead, I’m currently making small programming challenges for myself, and trying to code them by hand. (An example from last night is to parse a maths problem written in text, such as “28 × 17.04”, along with some error handling and resiliance.) I’m not having much luck witing code by hand, though, because I don’t design programs from top to bottom. If I’m writing a method, and realise I need a helper method, I normally jump to my helper methods section of a class, and put a method outline there, including proper header and an appropriate (but wrong) return line, then jump back to the method I was writing. I can’t do that on paper. I’ll have to learn how to plan every single detail before I write anything, and I just don’t know that I care to train myself how to do something I never plan to do. I’ll take a lower result if I have to, I think.

Anyway, we’ll hit up revision some time toward the end of April, I think.

This week has been … quite a week.  I’ve been ill since Sunday, and it’s been worse every day.  There has been a concerted effort by drivers, weather, and road works to keep me away from home.  (I usually have a twenty minute commute.  I’ve spent about six hours stuck in traffic jams this week.  I normally encounter four in a year where I live.  There were five between leaving work Wednesday and getting into work Thursday.)  And work is its own thing right now.

On the other hand, I managed to completely catch up on TM254, submit TMA01 for TM254, catch up on M250, and as of ten minutes ago submit TMA01 for M250, two weeks early.

I’ve got plenty of opportunity to get a bit further ahead in M250 right now, and I’m going to take it, but I’m just about at the first portion of group working in TM254, so won’t really be able to move too far there.  Which is fine.  I really can’t take much more of that module as it is.  (I think I did better than anticipated on the TMA, but not by much.  I think I might squeak in at about 80 marks, but I think a Pass 1 on it will elude me.  I mostly just wrote the ITIL definition of service and/or value over and over until I had 2000 words.)

I feel confident of my M250 TMA, at least.  I know (and really like) my tutor from a previous module, so I know he’ll go out of his way to pull me up on something or other on it, but I shouldn’t get below 90%, I don’t think.  My guess is he’ll claim that my self-documenting code isn’t clear enough and that I should have had at least one coding comment in one of my methods.

As it turned out, being six days behind was not sufficient for completing TMA01 for TM254.  I had to finish through week 7 completely (and some advance reading in week 9 for two answers) before I could complete the TMA, but it’s done!  It’s not great, but it’s also not my worst effort, I think, so I may end up doing better than I initially worried.  Knowing what style questions they have planned for the exam, though, I’m more than a little nervous about that.  I’m glad that the result system for TM254 won’t be the lowest-of-OCAS-or-OAS that’s common for the OU, but it may not make a lot of difference in the end.

I’ll talk about about M250 early next month, I hope, but it turns out I’m not really behind there, either.  The TMA is a very fluffy bit of programming which really just needs more thought on testing than coding, and the tutorial I attended last night set me at ease about potentially having much to catch up on.  I’m hoping to have things sorted for the Christmas break soon.

Well, I went and did it.  Despite it being my most important rule … I’ve let myself fall behind.  There are warring parts of me that want to blame anyone but me, and accept all the blame.  But I honestly think that TM254 is just terrible enough to bear more than some of the responsibility.  I get so angry with how poorly written it is, how often it contradicts itself, and, of course, how wrong it is, that I have to wander away from it for a bit or risk stress levels that are way too high.

I fell several weeks behind.  As of right now, I’m still technically six days behind, but that’s sufficient for me to start work on the TMA that’s due in a week.  I’ve got most of my notes for the TMA complete, so it’s mostly writing it up.  That should take me between two and four nights.  The worst part isn’t how it’s impacting TM254, but that my other module is suffering while I’ve tried to catch up.

Just a quick example of how poorly thought out the module is: The first TMA is due in week 8.  It evaluates material (or at least your reactions to being assessed on material) from week 9.

Here’s another example: An alleged 7 hour block part is broken down into 7 sections.  These sections are 10 minutes, 35 minutes, 5 hours and 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 25 minutes, 5 minutes, and 10 minutes.  Am I the only one who thinks that if these are the way the sections break down, perhaps there was a much more logical way to break the sections down?  And this occurs in most of the block parts.  The beehive structure does not lend itself well to study sessions.  And it’s less of a beehive and more of a Frisbee, anyway.

(I will interject a defence of the module here, in that at least they warn you ahead of time that the block part is unbalanced.  It doesn’t make it any more logically written,  however.)

I should be able to get both the TMA done and the six days’ work I’m behind this next week, then it’s time to concentrate on the TMA I have due in my other module.  (That one at least has actual answers, and not “Guess what I’m thinking” questions like, “What does this imply?”  Knock it off.  Your assumptions are not assessable facts.  And from the way everything else has been written, the TMA rubric will require that your answer match the question’s author’s, regardless of how well defended, cited, referenced, reasoned, and articulated your answer is.)

I’m shooting for about 70 marks on this TMA, even though the lowest I’ve ever gotten on anything with the OU is 90.  I’m going to take a result of Pass 2 on this module and attempt to make up for it in future years.

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!

Thanks to the quick pace of studying matrices, MST124’s TMA03 was handed in early, putting me a month ahead of schedule in both modules.  I’ve decided to concentrate on just maths revision for the last few months of the academic year, so switched back to TM129 to complete the last block, Linux.

The first few weeks have many inconsistencies, typos, and factual errors, but then the block improves.  Actually, despite working professionally with Linux, I came to enjoy the block.  The materials weren’t personally challenging, but the ePortfolio again provided fun avenues for self-directed learning.  (Bonus: I picked up many tips.)

A minor issue was the ePortfolio back loading.  The ePortfolio works best if you work on it as you go.  This both checks current understanding, and distributes the workload.  The Linux block has small, mundane activities at the beginning, and several large, interesting ones after completing the final week of study.  This results in students crushed with many longer ePortfolio activities, then the final TMA, then the EMA, in consecutive batterings.  I feel the module team may have missed this perspective.

The TMA is also a bit questionable.  Several marks aren’t covered at all in the materials … which isn’t necessarily bad.  Independent research is clearly indicated, but methods of evaluation weren’t discussed, so it’s testing students’ innate ability rather than understanding of the learning objectives.  Some marks probably test checking Linux man pages … an answer does appear in a man page, but not the related page, giving me ambiguous feelings.  One question involves Intellectual Property law, entirely absent from module materials (and learning objectives), which I feel entirely inappropriate given the complexity of IP law.  Difficulty linking assessment questions to learning objectives has been a consistent issue with this presentation of TM129.  (Another question confuses “Linux” with “Ubuntu” …)

I’m already working on the EMA’s notes.  I doubt I’ll complete it this week as hoped, though.  TM129 TMA02 still isn’t back, but I’m hoping for that this week, too.  I hope to switch back to maths while I’m still ahead there.


2018/05/17 Edit: TMA03 for TM129 back: 96%.  As that’s the lowest mark of all TMAs across my modules this year, I’m pretty happy with my effort level.  All four marks came for the same point: My testing strategy for an impossibly complex task with only 400 words wasn’t robust enough.  I feel that this one failure couldn’t possibly have been worth 1/3 of the points of a section that had four subsections, particularly when some parts of my testing were quite good considering the ridiculous word count.  So in this instance, I respectfully disagree with my tutor’s assessment.  There were only 3 marks reasonably at stake for the testing section, and I definitely secured at least one, so my score should have been a 98.  But what’s two marks, especially when it’s the first and only time I’ve had a strong disagreement with a marking?  (As I’ve had initial disagreements with other markings, but come to see them from my tutor’s perspective over time, there’s a very real chance the same will occur with this.)  On the other hand, his feedback was insightful and useful!  And who could ask for more than that from a tutor?

Just as I was starting to despair ever seeing TMA02 again, it popped up in my inbox in the middle of the night, about a week late.  I had a stern talk with it, let it know how nervous I get when it stays out till all hours.  I’d like to say that it wouldn’t happen again, but I think we all know that it will.

The results were again too good.  I didn’t get full marks, as I had half a mark deducted for an amazingly obtuse error on my part, but it rounded back up to full marks for the result.  I don’t think later stages will be so forgiving.  It was, of course, on the one part of the TMA that I couldn’t bring myself to proof read, because it was ages since I’d done it, and barely remembered how.  (The exam’s going to be a real treat at this rate.)  Still, aside from that one mistake, I’m very pleased with how well I’ve been doing.  I’m understanding much more than I thought I would, but that’s often due to seeking resources external to the OU for assistance.

After the slog that was differentiation and integration, studying matrices as an absolute sleepwalk.  They weren’t immediately obvious, but I didn’t have to practise too much before they were second nature.  In fact, I found them downright logical and useful.  The mathematics for linking input and output networks have never been that difficult, but they’re messy, and matrices tidy them up nicely.  I tore through the whole unit in two days, and got to work finishing up TMA03.

I submitted my first draft at about 2:30 AM this morning – just half an hour after I got TMA02 back!  I submitted my second draft at about 10:30 AM.  I’ve given it a decent read through, and it’s probably the best I can do for this round, but again I think I’ll do well with it.  As difficult as calculus is, I feel I’ve done a good job grounding myself with it.  And to do it more than a month ahead of the due date is an unexpected relief.  I thought I’d be struggling for time after the way calculus started off.

Part of TMA03 is a practice section for an exam.  It’s only three questions long, and it took me half an hour to get through it.  (The last question was of a form I’d only practised twice before, so it took me nearly all of the half hour to complete.)  At that rate, come exam time I’ll need a little more than four hours to complete the exam, and they only give us three.  I foresee a lot of practice in my future.


2018/03/29 Edit: MST124’s TMA03 back: Full marks again, no comments from the tutor again.  This one was returned only 20 minutes overdue.  I was really pleased with my effort this time, though, and feel for once that the high marks were deserved.

Last year I was in the States for Christmas, and I had run out of things I could study, anyhow.  (I needed to study an online-only section of the module, and it hadn’t yet been opened.)  By the time January rolled around and the new material was available, I had all the enthusiasm of a slug eyeing up a saltine.  Motivation was … well, it just wasn’t.

This year, on the other hand, was great for study!  As MST124 had hinted that it might be more difficult than anticipated (it may not be, it appears to have been one poorly written unit), I had been putting off the networking block in TM129 until a couple of days before the Christmas break.  I was able to catch up during those few days, and then I remembered how difficult it was to start studying again after a break last year, so I carried on with TM129 over Christmas, particularly the week after.

I wrapped things up on New Year’s day, and cut through all but one question on the TMA yesterday.  So that’s the networking block done, and I’m free to wrestle with maths until just about March.  This should see me through the calculus stuff, so I’m pretty happy about the convergence of events.  I feel there should have been a prophecy to give me a heads up.

So, to the rundown of TM129’s networking block!

The OU didn’t really prepare any of the material for this.  There was an outdated textbook from Microsoft with OU commentary on the chapters, and activities that were also mostly taken from the textbook.  I’m of two minds about the activities.  They were exceedingly simple tasks, that took the form of, “Type this line exactly, and copy down the response you see,” and there wasn’t any thinking involved, even for students who had never run the utilities before.  On the other hand, these are tasks that I perform day-in, day-out for my job, and it’s pretty essential that someone saying they’ve studied networking has had some hands-on experience with it.  I just think that, given the unbridled simplicity, there should have been some beefier assignments on the side.  (Trying to write my ePortfolio’s section reflecting on skills demonstrated, when all I was asked to do was type an exact command and copy-paste the results, was the biggest challenge I faced.)

Significant portions of book discussed dial-up networking.  You’d have to try really hard to still find a dial-up ISP, so while it may help someone pass a certification exam, it’s not going to help anybody do anything useful going forward.  (My condolences to anybody disagreeing, you’re obviously still dealing with dial-up and deserve my pity.)

A section on subnetting had the subnetting wrong in an example.  I was working from an updated release of the book where the mistake had been identified and fixed, except it was still wrong after being fixed.  (The OU staff have found the problems and fixed it properly in the module’s errata section.)

Other than that, the textbook was decently fit for purpose, though it could use some updating about speeds, technologies that are available and prevalent, there could be a lot more time spent on VLSM (variable length subnet masking, which is how subnetting typically exists in the wild, though may not be considered a best practice as not all routing protocols support it), and of course Windows Server 2008 hit End of Life status three years ago this month.  Students were mainly asked to ignore the Windows Server bits, though, so that’s not really an issue.  It’s a decent, if slightly outdated, grounding in networking.

I’m a little concerned about the TMA, though.  In the first section, the number of points allocated appear to disagree with the number of statements I need to correct, so I may need to take a closer look at either the assumption I’ve made about the statements, or the assumption I’ve made about the scoring.

Another problem is that the author of the last question seems to misunderstand the word “scalability”.  The author seems to think that it means the ability to cope with a very large scale.  It means, however, the ability to change the scale with which it can cope, typically from very small to very large.  Crucially, it deals with change, or the ability to be upgraded to handle more capacity with increasing demand without a total redesign.  So I’m going to have to spend some of my very precious 200 word count defending both a system’s ability to handle a large scale, as well as its ability to increase capacity based on increased demand, which I’m pretty sure was not the author’s intent when the word count was set.  So I’ll have to leave out some other parts and will lose points here, as well.

Still, I’d be very surprised if my TMA came in lower than 90%-95%, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut and soldier on.

So that’s a very long winded post for today, but it does represent eight or nine weeks of study compressed into two.  Also, Storm Eleanor is blowing buildings around here, right now, so long-winded seems appropriate.


2018/3/9 Edit: TM129 TMA02 finally came back.  It received a 97.  Missing marks were because the tutor felt I was being redundant at an aspect I felt I was being thorough in (fair enough), and two marks off because I didn’t discuss the history of a technology, which wasn’t expressly asked for.  This is not a bad thing.  It looks at first blush like saying, “You didn’t guess the colour I was thinking of,” but realistically, that’s part of the job.  We’re not given full context in our questions.  It’s up to us to discover or create context, or (failing that) to give a complete answer despite not having full context.  It’s a skill I’m normally good with, and I fell short this time.