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Christopher Douce

Working with the SST

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On Friday 14 July 23, I spoke with colleagues who work within one of the OU’s student support teams (SSTs) with the intention of learning more about what the SST does. I also wanted to learn about what messages or words of advice they would like to share with tutors.

The aim of this post is to highlight some of the great work the SST does, and to share some practical advice to tutors. This post is intended to be one of a series of posts that aim to offer tutors some practical guidance.

Introducing the SST

Tutors are the academic face of the university. You represent the collective views of module teams, and help students to find their way through the materials they have prepared. Whilst you are expected to answer academic questions, you’re not expected to respond to questions that go beyond the boundaries of the module that you are helping to deliver.

In you are ever asked questions about the next module a student should study, what to do if a student find themselves struggling with changing personal circumstances, of have concerns about student fees, there is another group of colleagues who can help: members of the student support teams who work within what is called the Student Recruitment and Support Centres (SRSC).

It is helpful to think of us all members of an SST: tutors are a member, as are staff tutors and module team members. The SST colleagues located within the SRSC carry out a number of different roles: they may be educational advisors, senior advisors, or enrol students to modules. 

One of the roles and responsibilities of a tutor is to proactively refer students to the student support team if it looks like they need help.

At the time of writing, an article on TutorHome describes the SST as “provid[ing] specialist support such as module choice, transferring credit, regulations, disability and can make referrals for careers guidance.” It goes on to say that tutors “can refer students to the SST for detailed advice and guidance. Support teams may occasionally approach Associate Lecturers to undertake Individual Student Support Sessions (ISSSs) with students.  Referrals are made using the electronic Student Referral Form (eSRF).”

What does the SST do?

The SST provides non-academic support and information to students. The SST provides information about different modules, how study takes place, and what the various options might be for student fees. After a student has enrolled, the SST may help a student to think about how to approach their study, and even their study workload. 

The SST uses a model known as Information Advice and Guidance, or IAG, for short. IAG is a model that is applied across higher education, and in situations where learners need information and guidance about learning choices. 

Consider IAG to be a funnel, or an inverted pyramid. Students may begin by asking for information. In turn, they might have further questions about different curriculum choices, and may end up speaking with a senior advisor or an educational advisor who will be specialised in providing different types of advice and guidance.

Seventy percent of queries that the SST handles relates to study intentions. These can include changes to registered qualifications, or increasing or decreasing of study intensity, which refers to the number of modules a student might be studying at the same time. 

Other queries that the SST respond to might be about offering information about assessment and examinations, helping student to navigate university policies, and to offer guidance about reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Advisors will also help with study postponements and fee credits (after postponements), and signpost additional resources such as the student assistance fund.

SST roles

To learn more about how the SST works, it is useful to know a little more about roles of colleagues who work in a SRSC, and how these roles relate to the IAG model.

Advisors (I)

The main role of the advisors is to provide information. An advisor can be thought of as being “a bit like a GP; we need to know a bit about everything – there are specialists we can refer students to”. The advisor acts like the first stage of a filter, passing student queries onto other teams if more detailed responses are needed.

There are often a lot of queries close to, and after a TMA cut-off date. In many cases students are referred back to their tutor and sometimes queries as passed onto the faculty, which will find their way to the staff tutor. If students ask about TMA questions, these will, of course, be referred back to the tutor, and possibly the faculty.

In this first stage of the IAG model, advisors are not meant to offer advice, or guidance or discuss in depth issues that relate to student finance, but they can direct students to information that they may find helpful.

Senior advisors (A)

After the information (I) stage, an advisor might pass a query onto a senior advisor, for the advice (A) stage. It is always worth remembering that senior advisors can only provide advice about study. They can only make students aware of different options that are available to them, perhaps signposting them to different resources to help them to make decision. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide solutions or answers to students: they can only provide them with tools that help them to make decision.

Senior advisors can do a number of things: they can share information about what modules might potentially be useful to study, they might also help students to understand whether any there are any pre-requisites that need to be completed before students choose a particular path of study or module combination, and they can also say something about what is involved with OU study.

Senior advisors also make telephone calls to students if there are any concerns about their progress that may have been raised by tutors with an aim to find out if there is anything they might be able to help with. They often follow up with an email, if necessary, making records to the university student-relationship management system.

Educational Advisors (G)

Education advisors get involved with more complex issues. For example, if there are potential or persistent barriers to learning. If a barrier relates to a disability, they will work with other teams, such as the Disability Support Team. They may also refer students to specialist mental health advisors, or even to a safeguarding team.

It is worth noting that there are some differences in what happens in England, and what happens in the other UK nations. In England, the Disability Support Team works with students to write a support profile, which is available to tutors through TutorHome. They may also help students to begin to claim for the Disability Support Allowance (DSA), to help students to get their right support for their studies. In the other UK nations this support is provided by educational advisors.

Educational advisors may also gently challenge students if there is a sense that someone is taking on too much. They may also offer practical advice about how to catch up with their studies. They may also speak with students if they are finding it difficult to decide whether to continue with their study, and will offer advice about options. They can also help to manage student expectations in terms of the form and extent of support that they are likely to receive, either from tutors or, more broadly, from the university. In this sense, educational advisors can proactively help students to develop the academic relationship they have with their tutor.

The SST always aims to work in the best interests of the students. They are there to make sure students have the right information to enable them to make the right decision, that matches their needs and circumstances.

When should I refer students to the SST?

There is a simple rule: tutors respond to academic queries, and non-academic queries should be referred to the SST. An academic query can be thought of anything that relates to the study of a module. 

There are also grey areas between academic and non-academic support that tutors can proactively help with. For example, if a student is considering stopping studying of a module due to the difficulty of the module materials or the scores they are getting, a tutor should try to speak with a student to find out whether there is anything they can do to help. Sometimes an additional support session might be enough to get a student back on track. On other occasions, a discussion about their TMA feedback might help them to put their work and progress into perspective.

Tutors can also help if a student queries their marks, or asks for study advice within the context of a module. Whilst the SST is able to offer general advice about student, a tutor is best placed to offer detailed practical study advice about what a student might be able to do to maintain steady progress during a module. In a computing module, for example, this might be making sure a student is aware of the importance of getting better through practice. If you are asked some academic questions that you can’t immediately answer, consider seeking advice from the tutor’s module forum, or your staff tutor.

If a student is experiencing difficulties, and feel their personal circumstances may affect either their TMA or exam performance, tutors can and should refer students to the special circumstances form, which can be accessed through the university help centre.

You should refer a student to the SST if there is any non-academic problem that you cannot solve, or a student is asking questions that are not related to the academic elements of the module that you are teaching, or you are unable to get in contact with your student. The earlier you refer the student to the SST, the better.

You should also refer students to the SST if a student has disclosed a disability. The act of a student telling a tutor they have a disability means that they have told the university they have a disability, and tutors are obliged to pass this information on to the SST.

The SST will “usually try to respond within 2 working days, and then 5 working days during very busy periods. That is the same across the I, A and G”. When a referral or request for information or support is passed between different teams, the respond time begins whenever a new service request has been created.

How should I refer students?

Referrals can be made to the SST in a number of ways. There are two main ways that tutors need to be aware of.

TutorHome

The primary way tutors can refer students to the SST is through their student list, which is available through TutorHome. From your student group summary, click on the name of the student you wish to refer. Under the heading ‘referrals’ you should see a link that has the title: Refer to Student Support team. This will open a form which gives you a number of different options. Always ensure that you provide as much detailed information as you can, also saying what you expect to be done with the referral. If you wish to be contacted by the SST, if you have further information to share, please mention this.

Responses to a referral will either be sent by email, or you can see if there are any updates if a ‘C’ (contact history available) flag is displayed next to the student’s name in the student group summary. You can view any updates by clicking on the student’s name, and then clicking on the ‘Show contact history’ link, which provides a summary of the most recent interactions between the university and our student.

If you wish to share some additional information with the SST after a referral has been made, you can use the ‘Update record’ link, which can be found on the right of the student group summary. 

Staff tutors

Whilst working with a student, you might contact your staff tutor for support. In some situations, your staff tutor might ask you to refer a student through TutorHome, or they might get in contact with the SST to ask them for help, by sending a referral through the university systems.

Other approaches

If an issue is really urgent, tutors can also directly call the SST, but it is advised that on some occasions, the extent of actions that might be possible might be limited, due to data protection limitations. The SST finds it easier to handle written requests, since it enables them to make decisions about priority, identify who should be attending to an issue, and gives the SST time to formulate a response.

What do tutors need to know?

The most important point to reiterate is: if a query from a student is considered to be an academic query, tutors should take the initiative and respond to it as best as they can. Although colleagues within the SST know about modules, they don’t know the details of modules, or know the details of what is contained with their assessments. They do, however, know about when assessments take place and the policies that relate to assessments.

When there is a query that may sit within a grey area, such as whether a student wishes to continue with a module, tutors should feel confident enough to ask some probing questions about the extent to which an issue is one that is academic, or needs SST support. If you are unsure about where the boundaries between tutor support and SST support lie, the best thing you can to is to contact your staff tutor for guidance.

Early referrals to the SST are important, since there are dates known as fee liability points. This means that in some situations, if students defer early, they will be eligible have a percentage of their overall student fee returned. If a student is paying for their studies through a series of student loans, this will reduce the amount a student is liable for had they deferred later. From the student’s perspective, if you are unsure whether a student is engaging, it is always better to send in a referral than to hope they will return to their studies.

If a tutor has referred a student to the SST since they are having difficulty getting in touch with a student, this may mean that the SST may also have the same problem. If a “no contact” referral is made, the SST will always try to contact our student. Attempts will be always recorded, and these should be visible through the contact history part of TutorHome.

If students require advice about module choice, whilst tutors can refer students to the SST, one practical suggestion is to refer students to the OU’s subject sites. Subject sites are available for all students who are registered, and offer useful summaries, and pointers to other resources and events. SST advisors direct students to explore the subject sites.

A frequent request that will come to tutors through the SST are requests for TMA extensions, since TMA extensions are an academic and faculty issue. If there is a request for a particularly long extension which is to be approved from the faculty by your staff tutor, tutors are encouraged to speak with their students. In these cases, tutors should work with their students to establish an informal plan to ensure that they submit their TMA by the date of their new next extension, but also catch up with their study.

The following very practical point is important: since such a lot of the communication between the SST, tutors and students take place through email, it is important to remember to ensure that your Out of Office reply is turned on when you are unavailable.

Acknowledgements 

Many thanks are extended to Felicity Howe, Jamie Ireland, Anthony Short, Matthew Protz and Alexis Lansbury.

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Christopher Douce

Inclusive Student Engagement in Level 1 modules

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 31 Jul 2023, 15:31

On 20 July 23 I attended a short one hour seminar that was all about inclusive student engagement in level 1 modules. The seminar had the subtitle: “a supportive framework designed by current/recent students”. The session was prepared and presented by Catriona Bergman, Olivia Brennan, Norain Imtiaz and Owen Lucas, who were also OU student virtual interns.

The seminar had a bit which shared their framework, followed by a discussion activity. I’ll begin by sharing an abridged version of the framework, and then I’ll go on to sharing a couple of points from the discussion, then concluding with a set of reflections.

Engagement framework

If I understood this correctly, their framework shared a number of themes that relate to the student/tutor relationship. There are six key points, each of which was complemented by a suggestion, or a prompt. For brevity, I’ve edited these into a form that works with my own practice.

  1. Addressing the power dynamic: address the difference in status between tutors and students. What do you do to encourage students to reach out to gain support?
  2. Consistency of communication: regular support and timely responses. How often do you communicate with your students?
  3. Proactive communication: tutors taking the initiative to interact with students. Do you contact students before their assignments are submitted?
  4. Humanising tutors: providing an opportunity to build a relationship. Do you feel comfortable in sharing your own personal experiences?
  5. Assessing communication and support needs: in the opening letter encourage disclosure. What opportunities are there for you to discuss individualised study needs with students?

Tutor and students are unknown to each other: a two-way relationship is important. What opportunities are there for icebreaking activities for students and tutors to get to know one another?

The Hidden Curriculum

There was another useful slide during the first section which was all about the notion of the hidden curriculum. I have come across the idea through the notion of academic literacies. Put another way, this is all about knowing the hidden conventions that relate to study, a discipline, and academic communication.

  • Students might not have necessary skills from their earlier education experience. Tutors can direct students to resources that can be used to develop skills (e.g. numeracy, academic writing skills, critical thinking, IT literacy, etc.).
  • Encourage students to reflect on the skills they may need to develop, and provide (or signpost students to) appropriate resources.
  • Encourage development of TMA writing skills and inform students about the importance of good academic conduct.
  • Encourage students to develop their own study habits to support their learning, and embed this within tutorial and one-to-one sessions. Consider the environment in which study takes place.
  • For the module that you are tutoring, highlight, discuss and critique ideas and practices that can contribute to the hidden curriculum.
  • Ensure students are aware of the different avenues that could be followed to gain support (from the tutor, from the module forums, or from the student support team).

Breakout rooms: what do you share, what don’t you tell them?

It was onto a breakout room discussion, where we were asked what we share with our students, and whether we share any of our own vulnerabilities. The intent behind this was to think about the extent to we may disclose something about ourselves, to engender trust and to demonstrate empathy.

Rather than focussing on sharing of vulnerabilities, the group I was assigned to primarily discussed what information we might disclose to students when we contact them for the very first time. Some key points to share include: our qualifications, whether we have been a tutor on the module before, and something about where we are based in the country. There was also some discussion about the importance of tone, and the phrase ‘professional informality’ was shared.

Reflections

I felt this session offered me some reassurance that I have been doing (roughly) the right thing. One way to formalise some of the points mentioned in the framework would be to devise some form of communication plan. This might mean a summary of what is sent to students and when. It is, of course, important to be aware of what module teams are doing, since they may well have their own communication plan, and sets of reminders and messages scheduled.

I was drawn to the session due to the mention of inclusive engagement, since I didn’t really know what this was, or how to describe it. I found it interesting that the focus lies on facilitating inclusive engagement through sharing, and putting oneself, and sharing aspects of one’s identity to others. The aim of doing this is, of course, to attempt to remove potentially perceived barriers, such as power differences between tutors and students.

Reflecting on this further, I have certainly disclosed more personal information. When tutoring on a module about accessible online learning, I have, for example, disclosed a hidden disability. My view is that context is always really important, whether context relates to the subject, or the tutor-student relationship.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the AP student virtual interns who facilitated the session and shared their framework. I hope that the version that appears in this blog matches with its original aims and intentions.

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Christopher Douce

Working with the tutor website

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Every module has a student facing website which is likely to slightly change for every module presentation, and an accompanying tutor facing website. The ‘tutor website’, as I’ll call it, is a really important resource for any tutor who is tutoring a module.

This short blog post highlights some of the most important elements of a tutor website. Every version of a tutor website is slightly different, but is likely to contain a few common elements: one or more forum spaces, a space to access resources (which may, or may not, be also the forum areas), and a space to have online meetings (although the module team and you line managers might choose to use different rooms in some circumstances).

Tutor websites are ‘go to’ places if you have any questions about any element of the module that you’re tutoring. If you have been asked a question by a student, and you’re not sure how to answer it, you should feel free to ask for help on the tutor forum. Also, if you’re unsure how to interpret, or to mark an element of an assignment, you should also ask on the forum. Tutor websites are monitored by curriculum managers, which means they are able to quickly highlight issues to module team members, or even the module team chair.

You usually gain access to the tutor’s website through a link on the student’s version of the module website. Alternatively, your curriculum manager might send you a link, which you should then keep in a safe place. Two recommendations about how to do this are: save the email in a folder that relates your module, and save the link to the ‘your links’ section on TutorHome or to your dashboard.

Forums

Different modules will have different forums. One module might have one main forum, where all tutors exchange perspectives and experiences. Another module might have dedicated forum spaces for each of the TMAs. A recommendation is to have a look at each of these forum areas, and subscribe to each of them.

Subscribing to a forum means that you are sent an email message whenever anyone makes a post. The advantage of subscribing, and receiving an email notification is that your email account can give you an overview of what is happening and what questions are being asked. If you have a high level of email traffic, a practical suggestion is to set up an email filter, so forum messages are all sent to dedicated folders. Do refer to one of the other blogs here about effectively managing your IT. On the subject of forums, do also refer to another article that is about student facing tutor group forums.

Some modules will apply a single component assessment strategy, where module performance is assessed purely through TMA scores. If your module adopts this approach, you might have to carry out what is known as a coordination exercise, which may take place either within a dedicated forum, or on a dedicated forum thread. The aim of the coordination exercise is to ensure that all tutors are marking to the same standards. If you are unsure whether this applies to your module, do speak with your line manager.

Activity

Find an equivalent of a tutor’s café forum. A café forum can be thought of as an informal space where views, opinions and experiences can be shared. If you can’t find a café forum, go to the main module forum area. Look for a thread where tutors introduce themselves. If you can’t find one, start one by posting anew message. When you have made the post, make sure you subscribe to the forum area to you can see everyone’s reply.

On some tutor websites, there might be a forum that is used by tutors to share tutorial resources, such as PowerPoint files, and accompanying resources, such as handouts, which might be in the form of Word documents. Sometimes, tutorial resources might be shared within the resources section, or through another tool, which is known as a Wiki.

Activity

Find out whether your tutor website has a forum where tutorial resources area shared. Identify a couple of discussion threads where sharing takes place, downloading some PowerPoint resources. Open these resources, and consider how a tutor might use this PowerPoint resource within a tutorial.

Resources

As well as being a space to get help and support, the tutor’s website is also a space for the module team to share some essential resources for tutors. For every TMA there will be a set of accompanying tutor notes. These notes, which typically take the form of a Word document, offers exacting guidance about how each student’s TMA should be marked. As well as offering a summary of the marks that should be allocated, they also offer guidance about what answers are acceptable, and what kind of feedback should be offered. The tutor notes represents the offical ‘line’ from the module team about what is acceptable and what isn’t. The role of the tutor is to interpret the student’s submission, the module team’s tutor notes, and to provide constructive comments to help to facilitate learning.

Activity

Find the tutor notes for the next TMA. Download a copy of it, and then get a printout of them if you feel this is an approach that might works for you. Read through the notes, highlighting sections that you feel you need to pay close attention to. You might want to consider highlighting important parts of the marking scheme. 

When I start marking, I always begin with a new printout of the tutor notes. I usually print them double sided, with two pages on a side, just to save a bit of paper, and staple them all together. I also get a printed copy of the TMA questions, so I have them side-by-side. I highlight key sections, but sometimes add my own handwritten notes. By the time I have finished marking, my own set of tutor notes look to be a bit torn and ragged.

Some module teams use the Resources section of the tutor websites share additional resources, such as a link to a set of frequently asked questions, or FAQs, or a set of links to any other documents that may offer further background materials that might help with the marking and the provision of feedback.

Activity

Look for a discussion about one of the TMA questions a forum area. What issues are being discussed? Has the issue been resolved? Have there been any contributions by the module chair or the curriculum manager?

Tutor rooms

Since tutor websites are editable VLE websites, sometimes the module team will add an online room, which can be used to hold module wide meetings. When a module is presented for the first time, the module chair, curriculum manager and other members of the module team will run what is known as a module briefing. This is where the module team highlights some of the key elements of a module design, summarising its structure and assessment strategy.  Module wide meetings may also be sometimes. used to prepare for exam and EMA marking.

Activity

Find out if your tutor website has a module meeting room. If one is available, click on a link that allows you to view a summary of previous recordings. What recordings can you see? Do you notice a recording of any module briefing?

A note about Netiquette

The tutor websites forums are incredibly helpful. If you have a question, no matter how difficult, invariably there will be some tutors who will be able to offer some practical advice to help you out. The tutor forums only work when everyone is willing to share experiences with each other. If you post a question to the tutor forums, do be prepared to answer other questions that are posted. The effectiveness of these spaces relies on everyone being willing to contribute.

Also, if you download a tutorial resource that has been shared by a fellow tutor and wish to modify it, and make use of it in your own tutorial, do acknowledge whoever it was who created the original version. If you do make improvements or enhancements to a resource, do also consider sharing your updated version with your fellow tutors.

Reflections

The tutor website is one of my ‘go to’ places.

I access it before the start of a new presentation and find myself accessing it regularly throughout the academic year, mostly to access, review and respond to posts that are made on the tutor’s forum. I might, of course, access the site to download updates to the tutor notes. 

A tutor website is used as a repository for resources. If you need inspiration for an upcoming tutorial, the Tutor website is likely to contain presentations that have been prepared by the module team and fellow tutors.

It is a place to visit to ask questions and to highlight issues. If you notice an issue with some module materials, or marking guide, to make a post to one of the forums. Similarly, if you have a student asking questions about the module materials, or the module, that you don’t entirely know how to respond to: ask a question. There will always be a response, often within hours of sharing your point or posting your question.

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Christopher Douce

Curriculum continued

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A recent blog post I wrote about curriculum highlighted the concepts of programmes and qualifications. This blog post is a continuation of that earlier article, but introduces the various components that makes up a module. 

This article has been written for tutors who might be new to the university, but also might be useful for students too. For those of us who are experienced with OU teaching and learning, much that is presented here will be familiar.

After beginning by introducing some key concepts, I’ll talk through the ‘unboxing’ of four different modules. What is important to remember is that every OU module is slightly different, due to the role it plays with a programme or qualification.

Module components

Every module has an accompanying module website. Some modules will be presented entirely online, which means that all the module materials will need to be accessed through a computer, or a mobile device, such as tablet computer.

Other modules have a module mailing, which means there will be a package of materials that are delivered to students in the post. In some cases, a module mailing will include a number of printed books. These books might include module blocks (I’ll introduce the concept of a block in a moment) and a set of materials that must be read or studied. Sometimes, there might be other resources, such as audio CDs or DVDs, but increasingly audio and visual materials are available through the module website.

Guides

Every module contains three really important guide documents that you should read, and guide students towards:

  • A module guide offer a module specific summary of its most important elements and resources a module contains. 
  • An assessment guide offers a summary of what is assessed, and how it takes place. This can typically be found in the assessment section of the module website, but it can also be sent to you as a separate mailing.
  • An accessibility guide offers guidance for students who might need to access the resources, assessments and resources of the module in different ways.

Module calendar

A really important element of a module is the module calendar which defines the study tempo of the module, highlighting what needs to be studied and when. The module calendar also highlights when the key points of assessments are to take place. The calendar lies at the heart of the module website, and students are also typically sent a copy if it in their module mailings.

Using the module website, students are encouraged to tick off each of their study weeks. In return, they will see how much of a module they have studied, and how much further they have to go. Tutors should, of course, encourage students to regularly refer to their module calendar to make sure they are on track. You could also refer the calendar during tutorials, and within assessment feedback. 

Module books, blocks, and units

Modules are typically divided into blocks. Blocks can be thought of as a significant section of study that addresses a set of related subjects. Blocks contains numbered units, which can be thought of as topics for study.

An OU published book might be an entire OU block, or it might collate a number of related subjects together. For some modules, a block can be thought of approximately 10 points of study, but in other modules, a different structure may be used where chapters (or units) are the dominant component.

Units and chapters contains a number of important elements that tutors need to be aware of. They are typically studied at a particular time, as defined within the module calendar, and typically begin by highlighting a set of learning outcomes. These unit or chapter learning outcomes can, of course, be traced back to module level learning outcomes. It is a good idea to highlight these unit and chapter learning outcomes to students, since they are directly related to assessments.

Units and chapters also contain numbered learning activities. Although these can be easily skipped over by students, these activities are linked to the learning outcomes, and are also implicitly linked to any forthcoming assessments. The aim of the activities is simple: to give students some practice in developing the skills and knowledge that they will need to apply when they get to completing their assessment. Tutors should highlight these activities to students. They may also be useful to mention, and to draw upon, when preparing for tutorials.

Assessments

There are two main assessment components that OU tutors need to be aware of: continual assessment, which takes place during a module presentation, and the examinable component, which takes place towards the end of a module presentation.

Continually assessment takes the form of tutor marked assignments (TMAs) and interactive computer marked assignments (iCMAs). Tutors mark and to provide feedback on student TMAs, and offer help to students who might be stuck on any iCMA questions. Each TMA must be submitted by a student on a fixed date, which is known as a cut-off date. There will be other blogs about what it means to mark TMAs and to provide teaching comments.

The examinable component is either an equivalent of a written exam, or it is something called an End of Module Assessment (EMA). Think of the EMA as an extended assignment, or essay. It differs from a TMA in a few ways: it is longer, it usually accounts for a larger part of the overall module results, and it marked to higher standards than the TMAs. An EMA is typically marked by two tutors.

An OU exam used to be a written exam that took place in a physical examination hall. Due to advances in technology and changes in examination policies, an OU exam is sometimes an assessment you can complete remotely, at a set time, over a set duration.

The key differences between the continually assessed component and the examinable component is that the TMAs are sometimes though as formative assessments (where the assessment is used to facilitate student learning), and the exam bit is a summative assessment (where the assessment is used to determine what has been learnt). 

In the OU, TMAs can be both formative and summative, in the sense that although they are primarily about learning, the results that students gain from completing them also contributes to their overall score.

To pass a module, students need to technically pass both the continually assessed component and the examinable component. Just to add to the richness of this picture, there is also something called the single component assessment (SCA) module, where TMA results and exam results all combine together to form one score at the end. If single component assessment isn’t use, the student’s results is limited to whatever their highest score is across each of those two main components. Typically, the exam scores are slightly lower than the TMA score.

When it comes to module materials, tutors need to be aware of two key documents or resources that are usually found within the module website: the assignment booklet (which is a version of what tutors can see under the assessment bit of the module website), and the assessment handbook. The assignment booklet summarises the TMA, and the assessment handbook tells everyone what the assessment strategy for a module is. 

It is important that tutors know what the assessment approach for their module is, and how it works, since this is something that students will ask about, and this is something that you can mention during an introductory tutorial.

Module website

A module website is accessed through a student’s StudentHome page. The module website presents the module calendar. In turn, this provides clickable links to materials that should be studied and activities that need to be completed. 

The module website is designed to be used alongside any printed materials a student has received. Sometimes there are extra materials on the website that are not in the module materials. The exact balance of what is available online, and what is provided through printed material depends on the module. Typically, the module team uses the module website to share learning materials that are likely to change regularly.

The module website presents five clickable headings: assessment, tutorials, forums, resources and news. There is also a useful search tool which enables students (and tutors) to search for texts and terms that are used, defined and referred to in the module materials. 

Assessment

This takes students (and tutors) to pages where the TMAs and iCMAs are presented. This section also shares any additional supporting materials which students might need to complete the assessment, the module assessment strategy which students need to be aware of, and accompanying academic conduct policies. There is also information about the exam and associated revision materials. Do encourage students to look through this section, paying particular attention to deadlines.

Tutorials

This section is about online tutorials. It serves a couple of purposes. It is the route through which students access online rooms to attend online tutorials. There are different online rooms for different purposes, which will be explained a bit later on. The tutorial section also allows students to watch tutorial recordings. Tutors should encourage students to this page to attend online tutorial, and also to listen to past recordings. There is also a link between this section and the tutorial dates section of a student’s StudentHome page through something called the university Learning Event Management system.

Forums

Forums can be through of an online noticeboard where discussions can take place. The university provided online forums before the emergence of discussion and sharing spaces that are now available on social media platforms. A number of different forums can be found on a module website: there are tutor group forums, module wide forums, and even assessment specific forums. There also may be forums used to facilitate online group work. 

The exact choice and use of the forums will depend on the module team. Tutors should make use of their own forums, and encourage students to subscribe to updates. More about forums will be covered in a later section. 

Resources

The resources section enables students to access the materials that are shared through the module calendar. In addition to module materials, the resources section shares the following:

  • Guides: module guides, accessibility guides and any software guides.
  • For level 1 modules, there might be ‘getting started’ guides. These couple of pages highlight how to login to Student Home, the importance of the module website, and the study calendar.
  • Links to subject or discipline websites.
  • Useful module resources, such as indices and glossaries.
  • Links to online software tools that might be needed as a part of module study.
  • If appropriate to a module, information about how to download software and tools that students might need during their study.

At the time of writing, the module resources page offered two buttons: a download button, and a library resources button. 

The Downloads button takes students to a page where they are able to download learning resources in a number of different formats. There are typically Microsoft Word versions, different types of ePub files (which are used on e-readers), and PDF files. The reason for these formats is simple: in some circumstances, and for some students, some formats work better than others. Word versions, for example, can work well with different types of assistive technologies used by students with disabilities. Tutors should encourage students to use the different formats that are available to them, to find a study approach that meets their needs.

The Library resources page shares a set of articles that have been curated by both the module team and the library. This might include additional reading, such as academic articles, which complements the module materials.

It is worth nothing that glossaries serve a very practical purpose: they share official definitions of concepts and ideas from the module team. If an exam question asks for a definition of a term, the module team is invariably asking a student for a definition which is similar to the one that is defined in the module glossary. 

News

It is important to occasionally review the news section, and also encourage students to do so. It offers mix of helpful announcements from the university, which might be pointers towards university wide study events, and module specific announcements. A module chair and curriculum manager might use the news section to remind students about module wide lectures or tutorials, or to let students know about any issues, such as TMA or module material corrections.

Activity 1

Look through the resources section of your module website. Take a few moments to familiarise yourself with all the resources that can be accessed through the page. Click on the Downloads button. What different filetypes can you identify? How do you think you might make use of these resources with your own teaching? What might you tell students about the different types of resources that are contained within the downloads section? 

Exploring module resources

Each module uses a unique combination of resources and materials. This section takes you through a non-exhaustive list of some of the different types of resources that may be introduced to students through the module guide.

Software

Sometimes students are required to download, install, and use bits of software. For computing modules, this might include programming tools and network simulators. Design students might need to download mind mapping tools which are used to express their design thinking. Students studying electronics might need to download circuit simulation software. There is, of course, an expectation that students will be able to write their assignments using a Microsoft Word compatible word processor and submit them electronically through the eTMA submission system.

Online tools

In many cases the software that students need is available entirely online. Design and Computing students are likely to use something called Open Design Studio, which enables students to share their work with other students as a part of group projects. Computing students may use programming notebooks and reserve time to remotely configure physical networking equipment that is located on campus. Science students will be directed towards online laboratories which are made available through the Open STEM Labs. Depending on what they study, science students may also have access to virtual microscopes.

Library resources

The university library, which is accessed entirely online, is an amazing resource. Through the Library resources link, module teams may direct students to articles that are made available through the library. For arts modules, for instance, students can be directed to video archives, such as Drama Online, where they may access plays and films. Students in computing modules might be directed towards online versions of popular computing textbooks. Through the library, students can also access well known external resources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The library also provides access to digital versions of textbooks. If students are encouraged to carry out wider reading, do direct them towards the library.

Readers and other books

Sometimes module teams might collate resources together into a book or booklet, which may be included within a module mailing. The module materials will refer to sections in the reader, and may be used as source materials for assessments. In some cases, a published textbook will play an important role within a module. If this is the case, these textbooks will be sent as a part of the module mailing. It is likely that only certain parts of these textbooks will be used; always be directed by what guidance is offered in the module materials.

Set texts

Some modules need students to buy some additional books. This is typically the case for literature modules, where there is a reading list. Some good advice for students is: don’t buy everything in one go, since the module materials might use some books for one presentation, and a different set of books for another.

Print on demand materials

Different students have different study preferences. In the case where a lots of study materials are provided through a module website some students might be content access material directly through the module website. Other students, however, may much prefer to work with printed versions.

If a printed copy of some module materials is required, students can easily get a printable version of learning materials by clicking on a ‘view as single page’ link, and print out what they need. If someone hasn’t got access to a printer, and would prefer to get a printout of the study materials that are available through the module website, the university provides a ‘print on demand service’ where students can pay an additional fee to get a neatly printed version of the materials that are available through the module website.

Module accessibility

Accessibility is a term that can be understood in different ways; it can be understood in either a practical sense, or a technical sense. 

For a module to be accessible, students must be able to attain the learning aims that are expressed through its learning outcomes. In some cases, students might need additional support or technology to access, participate in, and contribute to learning activities.

Accessibility is a topic all of its own, and will be addressed in another section. Before this is explored in greater depth, it is important to highlight that each module has an accessibility guide. This offers practical (and technical) advice to students. To help students, tutors should also take the time to review the module accessibility guide.

Activity 2

Find the accessibility guide for your module by going to your module website. Is there anything specific to your module? If your module uses software or online tools, what does it say about them, and what elements might you have to help students with? Does the guide highlight different formats of module materials?

Examples

In this section, we look at some modules. Although these modules may be unfamiliar to you, there should be similarities with the modules that you are tutoring.

Example 1: A111 Discovering the arts and humanities

Using a university fee waiver, I studied A111 Discovering the arts and humanities, which has been produced by the Faculty of the Arts and Social Sciences. For students who are studying the humanities, this will be their every first OU module.

A111 is a 60 point module. The point scheme is explained later, but essentially 60 points means that it is worth half a year of full time study, when compared to a face-to-face university. A111 starts once a year, in October.

When opening the module mailing, I found the following items:

  • Quick start guide 
  • Welcome Letter
  • Book 1: Reputations
  • Book 2: Traditions 
  • Book 3: Crossing Boundaries  

The quick start guide is four sides of A4, which has the bold title: Read me first. It mentions the student’s university login code, provides an address to the Student Home website, and highlights the module website. It then goes onto mention many of the elements highlighted in this guide: the module calendar (which is known as a study planner), forums, the assessment guide, learning events (tutorials) and, of course, the role of the tutor.

Rather than being organised in terms of blocks, this module is divided into three sections, each of which relate to each of the published books that have been sent to students. The study is divided into weeks, where students are directed to carry out reading and complete activities to help them to prepare for the tutor marked assessments. During their study, they need to refer to chapters within the book, and the material that accompanies each study week.

Depending on their path through this module, students may need to buy up to three set texts, of which, only a relatively small element of each of the books are needed. During the module, students will be also directed to listen to some audio recordings, and watch some recordings of some plays through a service called Drama Online, which is provided by the university library.

Students need to complete 6 TMAs, which is typical for 60 point modules. Rather than having an end of module assessment (EMA), A111 has something called an emTMA; an end of module tutor marked assessmens. Each TMA, including the emTMA, contributes between 10 and 20% of the overall module result. There are also a series of iCMAs, interactive computer marked assessments. To pass A111 students need to gain a combined score of 40% or over across all the TMAs and must get an overall score of over 50% on the iCMAs.

Students can gain one of three different results from level 1 modules: distinction, pass, or fail. Students are awarded distinctions if they gain an overall score of 85%, but this exact score can vary slightly, depending on whether any statistical adjustments are made to ensure consistency between student groups. Since level 1 modules are all about the development of skills, all a student needs to do to progress to the second level, is to pass A111.

Example 2: TM112 Introduction to Computing & IT 2

TM112 Introduction to computing IT 2 has been produced by the School of Computing and Communication, which is based in the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Unlike A111, TM112 is a 30 point module. Students typically study TM112 after having studied TM111 Introduction to Computing and IT 1, which is also a 30 point module.

Like A111, TM112 students are sent three books. These are imaginatively titled: Block 1, Block 2 and Block 3. These blocks are not named, since this module structured around three repeated themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technologies in the wild, which are featured within each of the block.

The module website is split into weeks. Each week has a summary of online activities. These may involve reading some materials, completing quizzes, or watching video materials. Students may also be directed toward programming tasks and exercises.

Since one of the aims of this module is to introduce students to computer programming, students are provided with some quick start guides to help to get them started. There are also some additional materials to help students who might struggle with numeracy. TM112 tutors should be able to direct students towards these different resources.

Since TM112 is a 30 point module, students need to complete 3 TMAs; one for each block. To pass the module, like A111, students need to get an overall score of at least 40%. The first TMA accounts for 15% of the overall score. TMA 2 accounts for 35% of the overall score, and the final TMA accounts for 50%. An additional complication is that students do need to gain a score of at least 30% in TMA 3 to demonstrate they have met all the module learning outcomes.

Like A111, TM112 uses interactive questions, but uses them in a slightly different way. Unlike the A111 iCMA question results, which feed directly into the module results, students are asked to provide evidence of answering some of the questions in their TMA answers. Also like A111, students can gain the overall results of distinction, pass or fail, from studying TM112.

Example 3: M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming

M250 Objects First with Java is a 30 point second level Computing module. Some students who find their way to M250 have previously studied TM112. Since M250 is a second level module, module results directly contribute to a student’s degree classification. In other words, the scores they gain in this module begin to matter.

M250 students are sent a textbook: Objects First with Java. This book is well known by Java educators and is used in many other universities. Rather than having any OU published books, all the module materials that students need are presented through the module website.

Like the other modules, M250 has a clear study calendar. What differs from other modules is that students are directed to carry out reading and activities from the set text using materials which are known as chapter companions. The companion documents can be through of as an equivalent of an OU lecturer taking students through the bits of the text that they need to be familiar with.

The module and set text makes use of a bit of software called BlueJ, an integrated development environment (IDE) that has been designed for students who are learning the concepts of Java and object-oriented programming. During the course of the module, students will need to spend a lot of time using BlueJ, where they will get to solve programming puzzles and, of course, make mistakes.

The set text makes use of external resources, such as YouTube screen sharing videos, where students are shown how BlueJ and the Java programming language works. The idea is that students should be able to copy what is done in the videos to help them to develop knowledge, skills and understanding. In addition to each of the chapter companions, are required to complete a number of iCMAs. These iCMAs test understanding of key terms, and understanding of concepts that are introduced by the set text chapter, and accompanying chapter companions.

A difference between M250 and other modules is that students can submit bits of programming code to be evaluated by the module website before they officially submit section of their work through a tutor marked TMA. Students can, in turn, get an indication about whether fragments of code are likely to be correct, allowing students to build up their confidence. There are also some resources and guides that are not found in other modules, such as a software guide, and a Java language guide.

Like other modules, M250 applies a single component assessment strategy, which is summarised an M250 Assessment Strategy document which can be found under the assessment bit of the module webiste. The TMAs account for 50% of the overall module result, and the exam accounts for the other 50%. TMA 1 accounts for 15% of the whole module result, TMA 2 accounts for 15%, and TMA 3 accounts for 30%. Students must submit an exam and gain at least 30%, and an average score of 40% overall to pass the module. Curiously, at the time of writing, TMAs are marked out of a score of 150, which is converted to a percentage. The module iCMAs are formative and do not contribute to an overall module result.

Example 4: TM354 Software Engineering

As the module code suggests, TM354 Software Engineering is a level 3 module, which means that it is equivalent to final year study at a brick university. Like other computing modules, TM354 is a 30 point module.

The module is divided into three blocks, which are also printed books. Version of these printed books are also available through the resources section on the module website. The module blocks are organised into sequential themes. The first block is entitled ‘from domain to requirements’, the second ‘from analysis to design’, and the third is called ‘from architecture to product’. Each block is divided neatly into 4 units, or sections.

This module requires students to make use of a programming tool, but one that is different to the one that is used with M250. It also asks students to use something called a ShareSpace, an online tool where students are to share some of their software designs with other students, and comment on the work of others.

Like all the other modules, TM354 has a very clear study calendar, which is divided into weeks. For every week, there is a study guide, which refers students to sections of the printed text, but also guides students towards readings which have been made available by the module team and the library. All the units that are provided within the printed module materials are also available through the module website.

Students need to complete three TMAs, one for each block, and sit an end of module exam. Unlike the other modules mentioned here, TM354 does not use single component assessments. Students need to gain an average of 40% in both the continually assessed components (the TMAs) and the examinable component (the exam). The overall score is limited by the lowest score of these components.

Activity 3

What have you received in your module mailing? Open up your view of the module website and look at the module calendar. Can you see how the different components you find relate to the module calendar? Click on the resources link on the module website, and identify where you can find electronic versions of the module materials.

Activity 4

Find the assessment guide. What are the main assessment components for your module? What contributions do each of these components make? What would you say is the largest component? What does a student have to do to pass the module? Does your module apply a single component assessment strategy? Do your students need to submit their final assessment?

Reflections

This blog is one of a short series that introduces curriculum. Before this one, there was a blog about qualifications, and what these are. I do expect to be writing another one at some point. Eventually I’ll collate all these together into a bigger resource.

I’m always struck by how many resources there are on a module website.

When beginning to teach on a new module, I’m often very strategic in terms of what I look at. I make sure I know what the key dates on the module calendar are. I would then have a good read of the module guide, read through the accessibility guide, and then have a read through the assessments. This will, of course, primes my reading for when I get to the module materials. I also get printouts of these guides so I can scribble on them. A lever arch file is my friend.

As well as there being a module website, which is student facing, every module has a tutor website which is for tutors and the module team. They key elements of the tutor’s website will be the focus of another blog.

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