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.

Miscellaneous

  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.
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This is the end (nearly)

My half written post about mid-to-late stage revision for DD307 will have to wait until after the exam.  Summary:  I need one more week.  Instead, here are the guerilla tactics I’ve found most useful given the imminent deadline:

  1. Write essay plans under exam conditions.  I’ve done a couple of these and aim to do as many as possible before the exam.  They’re quick (10 minutes), shone a bright spotlight on what I can actually recall and had various fringe benefits such as knowing in advance my essay plan layout, abbreviation tricks and various other things I recall wasting time thinking about during previous exams!
  2. Write full essays from a plan under exam conditions.  I’ve done one of these, I’m not sure I’ll have time to do another.  It confirmed how much I can write in 40 minutes (600 words or about two and a half sides of A4) and reminded me of what happens to time under these circumstances.  This is another thing I’ve learnt from past experience is better reflected on outside of the exam.
  3. Review the interrogative themes.  This was really good value.  I created a one page table from the various materials describing them but writing definitions in my own words.  This took about an hour.  I checked and reinforced what I’d written by re-watching the talking heads version on Video Clips 1 (about 20 minutes).  It was useful to do this in advance of the next task.
  4. Write a generic essay plan for each topic.  I concluded that the tabular format I’d settled on for my final notes wasn’t ideal when it came to answering questions.  Reflecting on the feedback from my essay plan/answer experiment and a layout I saw on Facebook I’ve started to reorganise one last time for each topic as follows:
    1. Reorganise my notes into a linear format under section headings for each of the main points I expect to make.  Like all of the reorganising tasks I’ve done this is more active learning.
    2. Within each section, turn my abbreviated notes into sentences as I would write them in the exam.  Again, this feels like active learning.  Furthermore, if the completed document isn’t around my 600 word limit I know I need to remove some of the less important points.  It also gives me a rough, visual feel of whether the balance is right between description and criticism.  The definitions I wrote for the key concepts are useful here as I can selectively copy and paste them where appropriate.  I’m hoping a fringe benefit is that some of the sentences will be ‘under my fingers’ when it comes to writing the essays.

Writing exam answers

I thought I’d have a break from making summary notes to take start facing up to the practicalities of writing exam answers.  I’m currently allowing about 10 minutes for writing an essay plan and re-reading what I’ve written, which leaves 45 minutes for writing each answer.  To get a rough estimate of how many words I can physically write in 45 minutes I copied out one of my TMAs (for a topic I hadn’t revised yet).  I got a mean of about 19 (just about readable) words/minute.  I’m sure this would drop under exam conditions so after a further rough calculation (based on mean 15 wpm) I think that I can write about 8 paragraphs/answer.  This seems to map fairly neatly onto an introductory paragraph, a paragraph each for 6 major points and a conclusion paragraph.  I’ll revise these estimates after I’ve take some measurements from some more realistic scenarios (answering real questions with and without revision notes).

DD307: An exam preparation method

Background

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 I struggled with DD307 in terms of motivation and the module material.  I did, however, manage to maintain a Pass 1 throughout my TMAs.  When my motivation reached its bottom I was left with a day to complete TMA05.  At least 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 thought I might be onto something.

Fast forward to my exam preparation which stalled for a while as I planned 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 and in passing, I discovered some practical approaches to apply the general revision principles recommended by the OU.  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:

  1. It’s methodical.  There are a fairly short sequence of steps which you can learn and apply quickly.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. It’s quick.  The templates I created for questions on self and group processes each took about 45 minutes to produce.
  5. 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.
    1. 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
    2. Focus on the question supported by the module materials.  You’ve heard this advice a million times but this makes sure you apply it.
    3. 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.)
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

Method

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

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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
      1. 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.”
      2. Framework:Explain how the two perspectives understand the self.”
      3. Essay: “The social psychological perspective understands the self to be … In contrast, the phenomenological perspective …”
    4. 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
      1. 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.”
      2.  Framework
        • What is Darley and Latané’s central hypothesis?
        • How did this influence the design of the research?
    5. 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.
    6. 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’.

Phase 1

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.

  1. Gather the relevant resources as identified in the first section of the template.
  2. Use the remainder of the template to focus on the specific content that is relevant whilst reading.
  3. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  4. 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
    1. Group related key terms
    2. Order the groups to match that of the chapter
    3. 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:
      1. Active learning/testing of your understanding of key terms.
      2. Linking between key terms.
      3. Definitions you can write in exam answers where necessary.
      4. Psychological vocabulary that saves you time when writing exam answers.
  5. 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.

Phase 2

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Anything I couldn’t categorise I just put in a miscellaneous section.
  3. 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.

  1. The process unblocked me and got me to a first draft of usable revision notes.
  2. 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.
  3. Most points that I couldn’t initially categorise naturally fell into place.  If they didn’t they were likely to be irrelevant.
  4. 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).

You might also find Tim’s DD307 revision notes useful (although I think it’s better to produce your own notes).  Good luck.