This will make most sense if you’re taking (or have taken) the Open University module DD307: Critical Perspectives on Self and Others. It might be of use if you’re studying another OU Psychology module. I also highly recommend The Good Study Guide on preparing for exams. If you just want to see if the approach is any use to you, skip to the Method section below.
Firstly, I have to admit that struggled on DD307 with motivation and the module material. Judging by Facebook comments and conversations with people who’ve taken DD307 previously I’m not alone. Although I almost quit twice, once before I started(!) and then again just before TMA05, I managed to maintain a Pass 1 throughout my TMAs. Having talked myself out of quitting (second time) I found myself with TMA05 to complete, one day to the deadline and a blank page. It helped me focus! Something that took me a long time to spot is that the TMA guidance notes can be condensed to form a template answer. This really helped me knock together an 85% “TMA in a day” despite being 500 words under the limit. As the same approach produced similar results on TMA06 (including writing up in a day) I think I may be onto something.
Fast forward to my exam preparation which stalled for a while bouncing between email, Twitter and Facebook and making a plan to make a plan. I’d made a small step forward by deciding which topics I planned to revise when I chanced across the guidance notes for specimen exam paper (SEP, link only accessible to DD307 students). I noticed that this document contains outline exam answer guidance in a format strikingly similar to the TMA guidance notes. Time stopped, space collapsed, self, others and world merged, but more importantly I realised that I could apply the TMA technique to exam preparation.
I had early success creating templates from the guidance notes for the specimen question on self and group processes. In the process I discovered a few useful ways of applying some of the general approaches to revision that the OU recommends. Finding a systematic approach to revision allowed me to produce a detailed exam preparation timetable that will hopefully bridge the gap between a pile of module materials and a sheet of paper with some questions on next month. [Update: At our final tutorial my tutor drew our attention to the guidance notes as a useful resource and for the SEP attitudes question my template correlated well with her outline answer.] Here’s a short list of boxes the approach ticks for me:
- It’s methodical. There are a fairly short sequence of steps which you can learn and apply quickly.
- It’s consistent. The approach seems to work for any combination of topic and question so you don’t have to waste time worrying about which approach to use.
- It’s cumulative. Each time you do it you produce a template/essay plan/revision notes which build up as you go. These naturally draw out links between topics.
- It’s quick. The templates I created for questions on self and group processes each took about 45 minutes to produce.
- The process seems to naturally suggest supporting study skills. One thing that slightly bothers me about the OU is that they provide lots of suggestions for study skills without taking a strong position on which are the most effective. I know that individual learning style is a significant factor but I think clearer guidance on how to selectively use them to meet the learning objectives would be helpful. At the start of the year I read a paper which evaluates the effectiveness of various study techniques. Whilst producing the test template appropriate tools for filling it in came to mind.
- Use active learning by asking questions. The whole method is based around this. It starts with the question and even the processes of turning the guidelines into a template (i.e. before you’ve started adding module content) ‘feels’ somewhat like learning. My understanding of levels of processing is that memory is a ‘side effect’ of thinking so if you can build an approach which you know is making you think, you can spend less time worrying about whether you’ll remember the content and focussing on shallow learning techniques. <- wild speculation
- Focus on the question supported by the module materials. You’ve heard this advice a million times but this makes sure you apply it.
- Generates summaries. The method is designed to turn verbose text into bullets which use imperative language. You could reproduce the summary using your preferred recall format (mind map, mnemonics etc.)
- It suggests a way of using colours effectively. For me this meant deciding what was worth highlighting (process words, perspectives, themes) and picking colours which meant something e.g. purple for phenomenological, then using them consistently. I think this will pay off the more of these I do.
- Generative. Even doing the test template I started to notice ideas “between the words”, in this case how ontology, methodology, methods and analysis might help answer a question.
So here’s the method in a step-by-step format. It falls into two broad stages of making a template for the topic/essay (see the test template I produced when putting the method together) and filling it in.
Producing a topic/essay template
- Using the Specimen Exam Paper (SEP), copy the question and guidance notes into your favourite word processor. This is quick and easy with the guidance notes. If you’re working with a question from another exam paper you have to do the hard work of writing your own ‘guidance’ although if you have the time and inclination I’m sure this is a good activity (as in ‘active’ learning).
- Identify the resources which will answer the question and turn them into bullets. In the guidance notes this is done for you so it takes a minute or two. You could also add resources you think may have been missed.
- This is the main step where you convert the guidance notes into a series of bullet points. It takes me about 45 minutes and you can get a good idea of what it produces if you compare a template with the guidance notes it was based on. Here are some general principles I found useful.
- Remove superfluous words from the guidance replacing them with abbreviated bullet points and sub-points. You should find this naturally produces a fairly small number of top level bullets. The module guide suggests 4-6 main points as an appropriate number given the time limit for an exam answer.
- Highlight process words using whichever colour you’ve assigned for this. I find this clarifies what quantity and type of words are expected and process words I need to ensure I understand.
- Replace vague, ‘suggestive’ language with imperatives. I often notice process words (or their definitions e.g. “provide a clear and concise account” -> outline) within the guidance and use them as ways of providing ‘internal structure’ to the framework/essay. For example
- Guidance: “To begin to address this question you would need to spend some time at the beginning explaining how the two perspectives understand the self.”
- Framework: “Explain how the two perspectives understand the self.”
- Essay: “The social psychological perspective understands the self to be … In contrast, the phenomenological perspective …”
- Turn pointers towards relevant content into questions. Making sure you answer all of these questions gives a focus to reading the materials and is active learning. For example
- Guidance: “You will therefore need to demonstrate familiarity with Darley and Latané’s experimental work, outlining their central hypothesis and how this influenced the design of the research.”
- What is Darley and Latané’s central hypothesis?
- How did this influence the design of the research?
- Highlight any other words using appropriate, consistent colours so that you can rapidly see patterns within and across templates. Obvious choices are perspectives and interrogative themes but possibly ontologies, methods etc. I was trying to find some kind of link between the colours and the category e.g. purple for phenomenological.
- Note any study techniques such as grids that would obviously help you fill out specific parts of the template. These will be useful when adding content to the template.
Adding content to the template
Once you’ve completed the previous step you have an essay plan! The next step is to fill in the template with content from the resources section. This is a harder and more time consuming task. My first attempt (on the Block 3 topic: attitudes) took 8.5 hours demonstrating how wildly inaccurate my estimate of 2-3 hours was. I think a good chunk of the disparity is down to what I did (or rather didn’t do) during the course. I did read the chapter and mark-up the book with things I thought were relevant. I didn’t make any notes. If I’d known what kind of notes would be useful at this stage I could have spread this work throughout the year (hindsight etc.). As it is I effectively have an additional task of making notes for each topic instead of just organising them in a format suitable for answering questions. On the plus side, once done I seem to have produced 1-2 sides of A4 notes per topic that remove virtually all reliance on the module materials themselves and are sufficient for answering the question. I’ve found myself working in two broad phases each of which seems to have an active learning ‘feel’.
First, using a pencil and a printed version of the template, I produce a summary of the topic using the relevant module resources. This allows me to quickly make notes and draw arrows linking ideas. I read hierarchically, first looking at the module guide overview of the topic, then the introductions, conclusions and commentaries and finally the chapter/readings themselves. Here’s a rough sequence of steps I followed.
- Gather the relevant resources as identified in the first section of the template.
- Use the remainder of the template to focus on the specific content that is relevant whilst reading.
- Use appropriate study skills to organise the content. I tend to identify a few of these when producing the template and more as I juggle information around.
- For example, summarising similarities and differences in conception of the self between phenomenological and discursive perspectives suggested to me a grid with 2 perspective columns and rows for ontology, methodology, methods and aims.
- I use the Who What When Methods Findings Implications (WWWMFI) to summarise studies (reducing huge chunks of the text to what’s relevant and memorable). I added Where the study was carried out as I thought (in conjunction with When) it was useful for identifying situated knowledges.
- The PEE method is also useful for creating structure from content. You use it to make a Point, support it with Evidence/Example(s) and then Explain how this advances your argument/essay.
- Take the key terms from the chapter in the module guide and drop them into the first column of a two column table. Referring to the module guide and the chapter
- Group related key terms
- Order the groups to match that of the chapter
- Add definitions/notes to the second column. You can normally find the term in italics or ‘quotes’ by searching the PDF version of the module materials. There should be a definition nearby which it’s best to write in your own words. Where appropriate, use other key terms in your definitions. This has a number of benefits:
- Active learning/testing of your understanding of key terms.
- Linking between key terms.
- Definitions you can write in exam answers where necessary.
- Psychological vocabulary that saves you time when writing exam answers.
- Note how the interrogative themes apply to the topic. I have been strongly (and repeatedly) advised by my tutor to draw on these in exam answers.
At this point I’m mentally exhausted and ready for a change of topic/revision task. The payoff is that I’m much less dependent on the primary module materials.
Once I had the energy to face the topic from the previous phase (I aimed for, but often didn’t manage, next day) I tried to distil my useful (but somewhat chaotic) notes, using a word processor, into a more concise and tidy format using the template as a guide. However, I often found myself wondering how my notes seemed so clear and concise when I wrote them and so opaque when reading back even a day or so later. Initially this was frustrating and felt like a waste of valuable time as I sat there trying to understand what I meant or wondering whether I’d understood what I’d read. The main problem I wanted to overcome was getting from the rough notes to something that was clear, memorable and usable for answering questions. The solution I found most useful was to just copy my notes verbatim into the word processor without worrying about anything that didn’t make sense. This is what I did.
- Working from top to bottom of my rough notes I copied them into the word processor putting them under section headings and bullets that made sense and creating new sections, tables, bullet lists etc. as they occurred to me.
- Anything I couldn’t categorise I just put in a miscellaneous section.
- Anything which didn’t make sense or I wanted to make further notes on (links to other topics, bits of the module guide) I highlighted in red.
This is what I noticed.
- The process unblocked me and got me to a first draft of usable revision notes.
- The copying/organising processes itself made a significant amount of the ‘mystery notes’ make sense again. It also clarified my understanding of the material and occasionally corrected misunderstandings or generated new ways of looking at something.
- Most points that I couldn’t initially categorise naturally fell into place. If they didn’t they were likely to be irrelevant.
- The red items were things that I either didn’t fully understand or at a level of detail too fine to be of use. Either way it was fairly easy to search the PDFs of the module material to either improve the notes or remove them altogether.
I think I need one more pass to distil the notes to the point I can realistically apply them under exam conditions to the specific SEP essay question (and hopefully to any other question on the same topic, e.g. from past papers).