|2014 Grade||73% (Pass 2)||85% (Pass 1)||87% (Pass 1)||83% (Pass 2)||88% (Pass 1)||88% (Pass 1)|
|2013 Grade||64% (Pass 3)||77% (Pass 2)||65% (Pass 3)||82% (Pass 2)||N/A||N/A|
|Grade||87% (Pass 1)|
|Previous DD303 TMA03 grade (2013)||65% (Pass 3)|
It was satisfying to see a 14% improvement on my TMA01 grade and a 22% improvement on the methods essay on cognitive neuropsychology that I wrote last year. More importantly, I’m almost certain that I understand the specific changes that I made that resulted in the improved grade. I put way too much effort into this TMA but in the process I think started to see why that was and how I can reduce the time I spend writing future essays. This directly addresses a point raised in the comment that inspired this blog.
A golden rule I learnt from TMA03 is to speak to my tutor before I’ve made any major TMA decisions which will be hard to revert. Had I not done this I would have used a ‘clever’ essay structure which turned out to be explicitly not the structure the module team wanted. I could have saved about half a day by making this phone call earlier.
I have a tendency to over-complicate things and it’s crystal clear I need to follow the KISS principle. The essay structure (advantages and issues) suggested by the guidance notes was adequate. It was the one I started with, changed and then reverted to! The very simple structuring device I supplemented it with involved grouping advantages and issues into categories. This made it easy to organise paragraphs and went down extremely well with my tutor! The other simplification that worked was to initially turn points into very simple sentences. This saved huge amounts of time struggling over trying to find the write words to make a point. The flow between sentences happened a lot more organically/naturally doing things this way round.
Deciding to write using an outliner paid off in a two ways. First, it saved my bacon when I had to reorganise my essay structure fairly late in the day (see above). Second it helped to create a clear separation between the structuring and writing phases which I’m now convinced is really important. Trying to write a finished essay before you know what you think is a recipe for disaster.
Although I still made a few points that weren’t clearly on topic this was probably the biggest issue that I managed to address when compared with TMA01. In the process I think I discovered the main factors that were causing me problems. First,maintaining focus alongside other challenging cognitive tasks like understanding the course material itself is simply (lemon) difficult. Losing sight of the question during this process is natural and if you don’t periodically review the question there’s a high risk of including irrelevant points. If you do periodically compare your points against the question you often have the rude awakening that huge amounts of effort expended to understanding material which is irrelevant to this question. Discarding these points is hard but essential. I spent days reading and re-reading Henson (2005) but by the end I thought I understood it well. I then spent a long time using it to make a number of complicated points. In my final draft there just wasn’t room for most of these and I edited them out. I also replace my own descriptions of function-to-structure deduction and structure-to-function induction with quotes from Henson (2005) and got the only explicit comment relating to the paper that if there was one place to write in my own words, that was it. I remember when I was at and beyond the deadline having to “slash and burn”. It seems that this was the right thing to do but I could have done it much earlier, perhaps before I’d even written a number of points which weren’t (the most) relevant.
This is something I didn’t do for many of the reasons given above. Consequently I had a couple of negative comments about my introduction and conclusion which were the last two sections I wrote when I was most tired. Under less pressure I’m sure I could have resolved these issues.
Luckily I seemed to have identified the major issues with my essays before coming up with a more methodical approach to reviewing tutor feedback after submitting TMA03. Using my TMA03 feedback I’ve extended this approach using a spreadsheet to categorise my tutor’s positive and negative comments. This simple reorganising process highlights positive and negative trends and produces a clear checklist of points/themes to address in subsequent TMAs. I already have a simple, targeted list of things to work on for TMA06.
My tutor commented on my ‘excellent referencing’ and the negative comments dropped from 6 to 1 which I put down to the application of my citation heuristic. The one slip I made was just a formatting mistake that slipped past Zotero. If I’d addressed some of the timing issues I think I would have caught this as I wouldn’t have been so tired when reading the final draft.
Here’s a journal of the final stages of my TMA process. There were ups and downs! My essay compared fMRI against other brain-imaging techniques.
Writing has stalled. I have some but not all of the points I want to make and a couple of ideas for structure. I tried copying and pasting in key term definitions written in my own words which was only partially successful (some were inccurate!). I spent a long time (hours) crafting a paragraph and concluded that it may have too much detail. I wondered why things were dragging. I think I need to go back to the drawing board. I need speed at this stage so I have a map for the essay as I’m not completely sure where I’m going. I’m also a bit concerned that I’m taking my eye off the question as a consequence of this. I think I should be holding in mind a reader who’s considering using fMRI for an experiment and wants to know if it’s appropriate and what to watch out for (Edit: that was my downfall!). I’m starting to see 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. Looking at the outline view also forces you to think of a title for each level which helps clarify your points (Edit: this saved my bacon). Switching from imperative e.g. “Explain how fMRI works” to declarative “How fMRI works” seems to move things forward. Being able to work with larger chunks makes it (practically) easier to move things around but it also starts to suggest grouping and sequence of points (and larger chunks). If you look at an outline then you (literally, in the outliner) see the forest for the trees. Use technical vocabulary freely and just make notes for each one that needs definition prior to use. Re-read TGSG Chapter 10 and about to read Chapter 11. Feels like going 2 steps backwards but I think it will take me one step forward. I should re-read these chapters before every essay.
Things I’m now fairly certain work
Makes it more like doing a jigsaw puzzle (you have lots of pieces and there are obvious clues as to how to put them together e.g. you need to define a term before you use it and as sections form you can work with bigger units) from multiple puzzles (i.e. there are pieces you need to leave out) but the huge benefit is that you understand the concept of how to do jigsaw puzzles. Imagine how hard it would be if you didn’t, that’s what it feels like. This helps with flow as you tend not to get blocked as you can move from section to section. Amazing to see this work. Started off with an arbitrary section for definitions and it became blindingly obvious where to move these to (near to point where they’re introduced) in order to create flow.
The game of reducing words. It helps to do a draft to see what you can reduce further. I just got my description of MRI from about 110 to about 60. I also re-read the question and learning outcomes and am a bit worried that I’m not 100% focussed on the question. I’m only supposed to be comparing against other imaging techniques (not cognitive neuropsychology) and I don’t think I’ve identified enough examples to evaluate biological methods.
|Grade||73% (Pass 2)|
|Best previous DD303 essay grade||64% (Pass 3)|
I’m writing this the day after submitting TMA03. Although the mark was an improvement on my best (from last year) I tried hard to address the problems I thought I’d identified and was disappointed with the result. I read my tutor’s comments a few times prior to TMA03 to identify things I needed to work on and concluded that the main problem (still) was not focussing on answering the question. However, reviewing the comments again having struggled (again) with TMA03 I now see that there are actually some quite specific themes that, had I noticed sooner I could have addressed more directly. Actually, I just discovered a new and useful active task — classifying your tutor’s comments. This is really good value. It took about 15 minutes and I can now start to really see the patterns, something that didn’t happen each time I just read through the comments. I wish I’d done this before TMA03!
|Grade||85% (Pass 1)|
|Previous DD303 TMA02 grade (2013)||77% (Pass 2)|
Not much to say about this one currently. The grade is going in the right direction and I’m pretty sure that’s because I addressed many of the comments that my tutor raised last year. You get a chance to address any issues raised on this one when you come to write your literature review in TMA04 and your RS project as a whole in TMA05.
One lingering puzzle I’ve had is knowing when points in an essay require a citation. I’ve asked my tutor and read the OU guidance on plagiarism but have struggled to find a workable rule of thumb. I did have a useful conversation with someone in the US via the library helpdesk. They gave me a few practical ideas and pointed me at a different document on plagiarism that does a better job of addressing this issue. Today, a quote from The Good Study Guide from the section ‘Using your own and other people’s words’ came to mind
Yet there is also, paradoxically, a strong sense in Erin’s writing that she is putting forward Layard’s ideas to us, using his terms … and his evidence. Both Erin and Layard are ‘present’ at the same time in the writing. It is a three-way dialogue between Erin, Layard, and us her readers.
I think the heuristic I’m looking for is “Whose words are these?”. If they’re not mine, then it needs a citation. Another way to do this might be to visualise what you’re writing as a three (or more) way conversation and/or imagine that you’re recounting that conversation. If you didn’t see yourself speaking the words you additionally need to report who did. This felt like an insight. Or an ‘in cite’.
|Grade||83% (Pass 2)|
|Previous DD303 TMA04 grade (2013)||82% (Pass 2)|
After my success in TMA03 and compared to this TMA last year I felt confident I had done a good job on TMA04 so my grade was a disappointment. Given the 2×2 and 1000 word constraints I chose to write a paragraph on the general subject area and then one each for my DV and IVs. Within each paragraph my literature search supported the theoretical background and my choice of variables. This structure seemed fine but what appeared to let me down most was clear communication of my DV. Having devoted a paragraph to the DV which included an operational definition
Overgeneral memory (OGM) has been operationally defined as the tendency to recall proportionally more general than specific memories on the AMT (Belcher & Kangas, 2013).
I was surprised by my tutor’s comments that I hadn’t defined a DV at all! The main point I took from this is that I would have picked this up before submission if I (or someone else) had read through as someone ‘naїve’ to the subject. Once I was aware of problem, the solution took 5 minutes (and 5 words) and would probably have pushed my grade up to a pass 1.
The proposed DV is overgeneral memory (OGM) which has been operationally defined as the tendency to recall proportionally more general than specific memories on the AMT (Belcher & Kangas, 2013).
This was a bit of a struggle. My project choice last year (L2: The role of phonology in visual word comprehension: homophone confusions in semantic categorization) was primarily tactical. I thought that by choosing a topic for a chapter that hadn’t yet been covered and that was likely to turn up in the exam I could get ahead on some reading and after residential school (RS) it would be a topic I wouldn’t have to revise too much. It’s hard to evaluate this strategy as I didn’t end up taking the exam. However, I did reasonably well on TMA04 and the experiment at RS went fairly smoothly (I deferred before the write-up in TMA05).
The approach I’ve taken this year matches advice given early in Project Booklet 2 (PB2) (my highlighting)
… you should read the information in this booklet carefully, and select a project that you find interesting.
The reasoning behind my change in approach was to ensure there was an underlying motivation to keep the momentum going for TMA04, RS and TMA05. The tasks are hard enough on their own without periodically wondering why you’re studying a topic that you’re not that interested in. This has turned out to be harder than I thought it would. I’d looked at PB2 well in advance and periodically during the topics covered up to this point in the course. I’d even thought about topic areas I was quite interested in (attention mostly) and made a few notes about possible research areas. The problem came when trying to narrow these ideas down to a research question. When I looked at the proposed projects in PB2 they seemed to have narrowed down the topic to the point where it was possible to formulate a research question that could be operationalised (helpful) but in the process, the subject are didn’t seem so interesting any more (unhelpful!). For example, my understanding of the proposed variations to the flanker effect (project A1) is that they would shed more light on how much processing takes place prior to selective attention. I wasn’t sure that I know why I should care. I’m not saying it’s not interesting, just that it wasn’t obvious to me why it is. This was now a problem as it didn’t meet my “must be interesting criterion”. I think there are two approaches to resolving this. First, you can do some research to see if you can find out why it is interesting. One way into this is to find out how it relates to an area of the topic you already know does interest you. The other is to see if the reasons others have found it interesting also interest you. If none of that works, maybe it’s time to look at a different topic (this is what I ended up doing). I noticed that most of the thinking projects have a section entitled “Why is this problem interesting?” which is useful if you decide to take this approach.
The balance that you need to strike seems to be between what’s interesting, theoretically sound and practical at RS. The project ideas in PB2 seem to be very constrained which is good for the theory/practicality but potentially bad for interest. There are hints here and there that you don’t have to use the exact ideas suggested and my tutor’s advice was that they are simply examples that you should use to come up with your own research question. This seems like a better approach to me as you can use the examples and associated literature to keep you broadly on track in terms of relevance and operationalisation whilst broadening the scope so that you can find a question which is interesting to you. Another thing to bear in mind is that I think this is an exercise in proposing a piece of research.
Chatting with my tutor after I’ve done the initial work on a TMA but before I’ve made too many irreversible decisions seems to pay of in one way or another every time. When I made the call on TMA04 I thought I had a reasonable 2 x 2 design for my experiment but wasn’t too sure about the interaction. Although this wasn’t the main reason for calling my tutor it turned out to me the most important point. My understanding is that TMA04/RS is all about producing a 2 x 2 design with a solid rationale, especially for the interaction. Whilst my rationale seemed fairly sound I’ve had to go back to the drawing board as I think I simply have 2 IVs that don’t say much when combined. A bit of a backward step, but I’m glad to have had this pointed out now.
After going back to the drawing board given my initial design problems I came up with rationales for two different experiments. My tutor confirmed that both were OK for TMA04 (as long as I could justify them based on the literature) but we agreed that one, which was a quasi-experiment, might be problematic at RS as it required a pre-test to form the two groups for one of the factors. I thought and skim-read some more and then ran into a new design in the discussion section of one of the papers I was using for one of my designs. The rationale seemed much clearer for this so I decided to switch again (this is idea number 4!).
Standing back from the work I’ve done so far I see I now have 31 papers that I’ve saved from the literature searches I’ve carried out. (I found citation searches using Web of Science useful for locating recent studies which cite the essential and related papers provided in the project booklet.) I’ve downloaded 24 of those which probably means there was at least something beyond the abstract that I wanted to read. Given that we’re only required to cite 2-4 additional articles this sounds like a lot of unnecessary work. However, I haven’t yet read the whole of any of the papers I’ve downloaded. It’s been more reading and re-reading small sections to either generate ideas or check the rationale behind the ideas I’ve had. I can also see that if I’d found my design earlier then I’d probably have only looked at maybe half the number of additional papers. During my research I copied interesting sentences/paragraphs into a document with headings for background material, potential DVs and IVs, research questions, methodological and ethical issues. Returning to this, I thought I’d throw a lot of this earlier work away, but some of it still seems relevant even though my research question has changed a few times. The reorganised notes (I’m using the outliner again) are starting to take shape into a rationale, filter out the papers which aren’t relevant and suggest which papers might be worth reading in a bit more detail to write up the literature review.