Writing Essays

The essays in DD303 go by so fast that I haven’t had enough time to really gather my thoughts on this topic.  As I write this TMA03 is nearly due which means there’s only one more essay left (TMA06).  I’ve found the advice in chapters 10 and 11 of The Good Study Guide comprehensive and practical and recommend reading them well in advance of starting the module and again before each essay TMA (01, 03 and 06).  Those chapters comment to some extent on most questions or problems I’ve had with writing essays.


I’m sold on the benefits of using an outliner to create essay structure.  It allows you to work with structure at the point and paragraph levels and quickly move things around without getting lost in the details.  OU essay guidance often poses a number of questions which help you to address the essay question.  One approach is to use these as your initial top level headings.  This helps to keep your reading focussed on answering questions as you research the essay.  As you address each point, convert the question to an answer and add sub-headings for evidence which supports main point.  When you’ve answered all of the questions (and possibly with a bit of reordering) it should be possible to follow your argument by simply reading the fully expanded outline.  To complete the essay, top level headings get converted to the first sentence in each paragraph and sub-headings get converted to sentences providing supporting evidence within a paragraph.  This is also a good way to create flow between paragraphs without getting bogged down with the insides of each paragraph.  If the outline is readable as a continuous flow the final essay should be too.  It also gives a structure for the introduction and conclusion.  An additional tip whilst you’re trying out different structures is to use the ‘versioning’ feature of your word processor which allows you to save multiple versions of the same document in the same file.  It’s also useful at the drafting stage in case you want to look back to an earlier draft.

Talk to yourself

A recurring, useful principle I’ve come across when thinking about and writing essays is that they are conversations.  I was reminded by one of the talks at residential school that formulating arguments in everyday conversation is more or less effortless.  This is easily missed under the more formal conditions where you have to construct an argument to answer an essay question.  Also, because it tends to be a solitary activity I think you need to explicitly engage this type of thinking.  A simple approach is take opportunities to make your argument to someone who’s willing to engage and see how persuaded they are and whether you can address their objections.  As these opportunities don’t always present themselves to fit in with TMA deadlines I’m always on the lookout for ways to do this for myself.  One way which helped me resolve a problem with knowing when to cite is to try to take a different mental stance.  This is sometimes easier said than done when you’ve worked so hard on taking a particular position in relation to an essay question.  A slightly easier habit that I’ve formed is to use my word processor’s comment feature to argue with myself.  This reduces the sustained effort of maintaining a position different to your argument but captures those magical WTF moments where you read back what you’ve written!   Adding questions, challenges to points you’ve made or other comments on your essay (“what do you mean by X?”) is like taking the mental stance of your tutor.  I used to put these types of comments inline with my essay, but I’ve found that as comments they automatically create a list of issues to address and then delete prior to submission.  Effectively you are anticipating and addressing negative feedback before your work is assessed!


Here’s a list of  essay writing resources I’ve found useful.


How to study DD303

This post was inspired by a comment on a popular blog which includes a set of  DD303 summary notes

I am interested in the methods you applied to learning the DD303 material. Having done all level 2 modules I am doing DD303 next. I have never been happy about the way I am learning and struggle and spend considerable amount of time doing TMA’s. My primary interest is therefore your methods of note taking, summary, memorization and examination preparation. Any information on this would be most appreciated.

I remember having exactly this question at level 2 and finding it still unresolved when transitioning to level 3 after a poor ED209 result.  I actually did a double take to make sure I hadn’t written that comment myself!  Firstly, I recommend  The Good Study Guide as the best single source that talks directly to the points raised by the question and provides practical exercises for improving the associated study skills.   My aim is to address issues either not covered by this book or that are specific to DD303.  Many of my thoughts have their roots in the progress I made in this area towards the end of DD307.  If you haven’t started the module yet then you may find the comments from previous DD303 students useful.

At the outset I want to make a point relating to developing study skills during OU modules in general and DD303 in particular.  In my experience, the earlier you recognise the skills you want to improve the better.  Irrespective of the gaps you want to bridge, you need some kind of structure to ensure you are continuously making and monitoring refinements.  This has a tendency to slip when faced with limited time to complete reading and TMAs, but the longer you spend without having worked on your weaker skills, the more they contribute to a “quicksand effect”, particularly if you’ve fallen behind at level 2.  Furthermore, in my opinion DD303 isn’t best structured to support this development.  Understanding the TMA structure will allow you to make best use of tutor feedback (your primary progress metric), something I didn’t appreciate in 2013 when I ended up deferring at TMA05.  The 2014 presentation is the same as 2013 with a 50/50 split between essays (TMA01, TMA03 and TMA06) and experimental reports (TMA02, TMA04 and TMA05).  My 2013 grades show that the experimental strand was going in the right direction but I clearly had some issues with essays.  Because this only became apparent after  TMA03 it left me with only TMA06 to both clarify and resolve those issues before refining those skills so that they could be applied to essays under exam conditions.  Although I was only half way through the module when the alarm bells started going off, I didn’t think I had the time to make the necessary improvements (and get tutor feedback to indicate I’d done so) to get want I wanted from the module.

Despite extensive and repeated exposure to a range of OU principles and techniques I’ve found that my study skill development has stuttered rather than steadily improved.  TMAs and exams are still more likely to induce anxiety than present an opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge.  However, I’m starting to get a sense of why this might be and what I can do to shift the balance.  Furthermore, the more I apply what I’ve learnt, the more I seem to appreciate and be able to apply the general advice I’ve picked up from the OU and books like The Good Study Guide.  The process itself (which is a constant work in progress) has felt like writing a “missing manual” to support these sources.

Active learning principles

Possibly advice you’ve heard before but the answer to a simple question will probably determine the effectiveness of any study you do:  Is my learning active?  If the answer is consistently ‘yes’ I suggest it will take the mystery out of which note taking, summarising, memorizing and exam preparation techniques to use and when to use them.  But how do you know when your learning is active?  My aim is to try to answer this by compiling approaches and activities I’ve find useful.  However, I think there are some general principles that can help to identify active learning.

The first principle relates to striking the right balance between thinking and remembering.  Levels of Processing (LoP) (Lockhart & Craik, 1990) suggests that long term memory can be considered to be a side-effect of thinking.  This supports active learning as a principle to drive study skills in the right direction and ensure they meet assessment expectations.  Firstly, everyone has subjects on which they can form multiple coherent arguments with no sense of recalling or fear of exhausting their subject knowledge.  I’m suggesting that by placing the emphasis on thinking, the same type of confidence can be achieved in the limited domains of DD303 topics.  Secondly, as assessment measures clearly reward thinking over recall, this is the more important skill to develop.  TMAs and exam questions always emphasise thinking over recalling.  Compare how often you see questions in the form “selectively apply appropriate information from this limited domain of knowledge to answer my question” (processing) versus “tell me what you know about this limited domain of knowledge”.  Another signifier of this you’ll have heard is in the decreasing level of importance of research findings, researcher(s) and date.  Recalling research details is good but far less important than their meaning and implications.

The second principle is that active learning tends to have a phenomenological dimension.  Active learning tasks often seem (at least initially) difficult, frustrating and make you want to switch to an easier task or stop studying altogether (at least temporarily)!  I’ll call this the ‘no pain no gain’ (NPNG) principle as the physical exercise metaphor works well.  Recognising these phenomena has three positive aspects.  First, it suggests you’ve identified an active task that you can draw on in future (add it to your list!).  Second, even though it’s hard/painful you can be pretty sure it’s doing you good.  Third, like exercise, if you keep doing it you should find it becomes easier which will speed up future study sessions.  The second phenomenon I’ve noticed with active learning tasks is that they often to slow me down, especially when I need to think hard in order to clearly understand something.  This can be frustrating and lead to a task switch as it tends to focus your attention on what you perceive as a mountain of work that isn’t getting done.  However, the same positive aspects described for the NPNG principle probably apply here too.

The study skills below are areas in which I’ve tried to apply these active learning principles.


Lockhart, R., & Craik, F. (1990). Levels of Processing – a Retrospective Commentary on a Framework for Memory Research. CANADIAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY-REVUE CANADIENNE DE PSYCHOLOGIE, 44(1), 87–112.

DD307 Redux

In my end is my beginning

A final reflexive analysis ;) on  DD307 and the exam I took 5 months ago!  Overall I got a Pass 2 made up of 65% (Pass 3) OES and 85% (Pass 1) OCAS.  I think that was about fair, although I thought I was worth a Pass 2 on the exam.  If I could give my previous self one piece of advice based on DD307 it would be spread your effort evenly throughout the module.  I can trace most of my problems back not following that high level strategy on DD307.  This is more easily said than done and I now see my exam result as the final domino in an effect caused by not heeding this advice.  For example, I was mindful of the diminishing returns of polishing some exam answers at the expense of attempting all the questions.  However, despite being pretty confident and comfortable with the questions I chose, I still ran out of time on the final question and ended up having to write in note form.  I guess this didn’t work for the examiner as my best two answers were Pass 2 and my third a fail.  I’m certain that I knew about as much for each answer and that it was the timing that let me down.  With a little more exam technique practice I don’t think I would have made this mistake.

The main imbalance in my resource allocation was a failure to create good revision notes during the module.  This was the factor that didn’t allow me to devote most revision time to answering exam questions.  Part of the problem was that it was simply too large a task that close to the exam.  Also, I think you need to spread this task out so you have done enough processing on each topic for the connections between them to emerge as you go.  My reason for not having produced good notes was that right up to the revision period I hadn’t concluded what ‘good’ meant for me.  Working this out involved much trial and error that I should have made early in the module (or at level 2 if I’m honest).  What ended up working for me was a sketchnote summary of the extensive, elaborate processing I’d put into revising each topic.  The big problem was it took about 80% of my revision to finalise my approach which ended about a week before the exam.  Still, it might pay back on DD303!

Phenomenological Investigations

Here are some (edited) notes I made about a week before the exam.  On reading them back they clearly reflect many of the points made above.  Mostly for my benefit but may be of limited use if you’re doing DD307 revision.

On preparation

Throughout my revision I’ve been reminded that everything takes longer than I estimate and I have to adjust my plan accordingly.   The final phase is proving to be no exception.  I’m recalling how before recent exams I invariably think, “If I had one more week I’d be ready.”  I don’t, so I’m now getting into the guerilla tactics.

Start early to come up with personal abbreviation style, note style etc. (e.g. know how to make effective use of bullets, tables etc. in your word processor).  These will pay back over and over as you will reuse them on each module.

Final topic notes

On day one my plan was to spend a couple of hours condensing my revision notes for ‘attitudes’ into a format that I could use to do 3 or 4 essay plans for exam questions and practice writing one full answer from a plan.  After 5 hours I had turned my notes from 2 weeks ago into 4 pages of concise points!  This was the very first topic I studied and my notes were a bit messy but it was still way too long if I’m going to cover all my revision topics.  Positives were that I saw how I could pull some points into a customised version of Table 3.1 (from Book 1) which was useful for all answers.

Notes for “Group Processes + Crowds” took 5 hrs and it took me 2 more versions before I had a working set of notes!  The first of these used full sentences (labour intensive), the second was summarised at a more useful level (based on feedback from my tutor and her tutorial notes).  I was very short of time at that stage but my notes were gaining an air of quality.  When they’re ‘right’ they’re like a page of primes ready to trigger recall of the details from your thinking!  Again, moving content around (e.g. to put criticism inline with research and refer back to question) helped with this (and triggered further thoughts and ideas).

Testing recall

My first recall test consisted of looking over  these notes a few times and seeing what I could recall in 45 minutes.  With the apprehension of  finding out what I really knew I sat for (literally) half an hour of looking at a blank page before I could put my notes aside and start writing!  It was a mildly unpleasant experience probably because it was starting to simulate exam conditions.  It was also a very good use of time.

Recall is active learning!  I recalled all of my main points and more than I thought but the processes was far too slow (I only have 10 minutes, not 45 to do this).  I need better notes for quicker recall for time limited plans.  Second time (‘group processes’)

  1. It was hard work.  I remember it feeling like that from the last exam I did.
  2. When writing essay plans I just put ? where I couldn’t quite remember something.  When reviewing my recall I added  the bits I’d missed or on which I was unclear in a different colour so I could check my notes on them.
  3. I spontaneously did lots of abbreviating which made me realise it’s worth planning some of these in advance.  e.g. B. = Behaviour.
  4. Finalise a layout that will make formulating an argument easiest.  Layout took 2 sides of A4 which I’ll allow for in answer books.  This became clear as I was writing.  I naturally did 2 columns for perspectives which was different to the way my notes were laid out.  I thought about this more at the end and it gave me an idea for reorganising my notes.  I think this will condense them further (possibly onto 1 A4 if I shrink the text) and should help with format for final notes on other topics.
  5. Studies:  Cue to fill out WWWMFI
  6. Remember number of key terms and try recall them all.  Underlined them using the same colour as my revision notes.


  1. Random integrative tasks.  Re-reading about power relations then going for a 15 minute walk led to a very different kind of integrative thinking.  For example, how to organise themes within content.
  2. There was value in writing out the interrogative themes in my own words (hard work 1 hour) then confirming and double checking re-watching the video (more relaxing 20 mins).  I did this before final essay plan notes but should have done it 9 months ago!
  3. Tasks give you a focus (effective use of time e.g. turning table into final exam notes) can be assigned and ordered!  Like (duh) answering exam questions.
  4. Converting notes to a format suitable for an essay plan gives you a target.
  5. Turning a table into real sentences is active, it checks for lack of understanding in your notes and it also checks the right level of detail by ensuring your final page is within what you can write in 40 minutes or so.
  6. There’s a flavour (and an anti-flavour) to active tasks that you can use to detect good study.  It hurts a bit!
  7. Last minute essay plans had a similar ‘focussed’ feeling that I had when I had to do TMA-in-a-day.  A frame of mind where I could quickly and ruthlessly hack out the ideas/words I was attached to!
  8. 2 days before the exam (i.e. too late) I found myself able to pull points (and sentences) from different topics to make arguments.