||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.
Speak to your tutor
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.
Keep it simple
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.
Use an outliner
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.
Answer the question
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.
Finish before the deadline
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
- Separate structuring and writing phases
- Write simple sentences first, linking them then becomes easier and faster. Not doing this is always a drain on my time as I wonder how to write the perfect sentence for points which aren’t yet clear.
- e.g. simple “Fluctuations in magnetic field strength from sources other than BOLD contrast such as regions of air in the brain”
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.
- 11:00 Re-writing how fMRI works was a lot smoother with few blockages and I turned the list of points I wanted to make into about 200 good quality words in about an hour. Use comments in word processor in the same way that your tutor might. This keeps the flow going whilst creating a ‘to do’ list of things which you can work through on your next draft. The only extra advice I can give to TGSG is do it! Arg. Spoke to my tutor and the clever structure I came up with is explicitly not what they’re looking for! KISS.
- 14:00 Lunch
- 14:50 Starting the restucturing task. If they give you ruled paper, write the same way.
- 15:30 Restructuring pretty much done. Much easier with points still at outline stage.
- 16:45 Have written 178 word paragraph on fMRI advantages.
- 18:00 Have written further 177 word paragraph on fMRI advantages. Break.
- 20:00-21:30 281 words on practical fMRI problems.
- 22:30 292 words on haemodynamic problems.
- 22:45 Stop the hard process of writing and plan tomorrow’s work.
13/5/2014 (deadline day)
- 9:45-11:00 Re-structured what I thought were just problems relating to theory into a new advantage. Found another problem in the process and became concerned that I’m trying to put in the argument my have possibly at the risk of being off topic, but I don’t want to throw it away as it’s taken me so long to understand and summarise!
- 12:00 Almost explained function-to-structure deduction! Break.
- 12:30-13:00 400 (i.e. too many!) words on function-to-structure dedcation and structure-to-function induction. Lunch
- 13:40-14:30 148 words on data analysis problems. Threw away two points.
- 16:00 Brain fried. Just about managed final paragraph of problems. Break (walk, snack).
- 16:50-17:45 150 word introduction.
- 18:00 Now for a quick read of advice on how to write introductions! At 2,300 words but no conclusion written yet. (Writing good quality headings is good as they show the structure and can be turned into the first sentence of the paragraph.) Thrown away all of the “backup material” I had. I removed all of my (useful) headings ready for a printed off a copy ready for red-lining/hatcheting (to see if it made sense without them). Kind of defeats the object of turning them into sentences I just realised. Still can probably pull that out of the intro.
- 18:45 Only just printing after a bit of editing.
- 21:00 Introduction intuitions seemed good but body needs extensive editing. Had dinner. Feeling tired and random. Now have coffee.
14/5/2014 (deadline day +1)
- 02:00 Irritable, frustrated and tired. Second draft.
- 02:24 Sent. Wired. Dead. Sleep.
- Henson, R. (2005). What can functional neuroimaging tell the experimental psychologist? Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Section A, 58(2), 193–233.