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Learning from mistakes

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I don't know about you but I learn best by doing and making mistakes. I want to get stuck in, be guided, give it a go and try again and keep trying. These is harder to do in academia than in just about every other walk of life. We should be knocking out short essays every week in preparation for the longer, tutor marked assignments. 

As an OU student on the MAODE I went 'totally digital': no printing off, books on an iPad, type everything off. No more! It made my brain soft and inclined to lazy ineffective learning practices like highlighting passages or cutting and pasting text instead of taking notes the proper way.

I'm now all paper and pen. Handwritten notes in files like it was 1979. Once I've got a draft written THEN I will go the the computer to type it up, add footnotes, correct, share, fix, correct, adjust and eventually submit. 

What works for you?

 

 

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Essay Woes

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It's gone. Do I over think them? Is that possible? I end up with multiple mindmaps, Venn Diagrams and Charts which I then try to put into an essay plan.

Have I stuck to the question?

In this instance did I not only identify the correct factors but but did I prioritise them? I have a tendency to get carried away and may put undo focus on the trivial.

Meanwhile, for the umpteenth time in 3 years since graduating with an MA ODE I am trying to get employed in a field that uses the knowledge I gained. This has proved far harder than I had thought as the practitioner working in a university is where I should have begun this journey, rather than where I had hoped to end up. 

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Writing an essay

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It has taken me an entire MA with the OU, and now into the final stretch on a second MA, via 'Learning how to learn' courtesy of Coursera to realise how many steps it takes to reach 'essay perfection'.

It is like growing a seed, from compost, from food you have prepared weeks before: it all takes time to mature. Or rather, it requires time for your mind to make sense of a thing.

I am still uncomfortable with what I feel is wasted ink, digits or effort: I run a learning journal, I read, highlight and take notes. I may have an e-Book or a book in print. Either way I cover the thing in arrows and marks, then sift this through to a blog. 

In time I decide I have to have a shot at answering the question.

This invariably goes horribly wrong. I realise I am way off the mark, and that I am leaning on old ideas as props that might through light on the subject, but don't fit.

I keep reading. I keep drilling on through references. I keep making lists. I prioritise. I focus. And then an essay or two, an article or book out of the blue pull it all together and the tangled mess falls away to reveal greater clarity.

I have gone from the man with the drone and a microscope looking at a forest, to a forester. I am on the ground with my fingers and eyes. It is starting to make sense.

Time. Sleeping on it. Getting it wrong. Talking it through. Having a go. Fixing mistakes. 

Key for me is 'Talking it through'. I wished it, reluctantly upon my wife for 15 minutes and she, the daughter of an Oxford Don obliged.

What I need right now is a 'tutorial': an expert, and three idiots struggling with the topic. An hour of talking it through and you come away with a set of facts prioritised and a 'narrative' for the argument.

Never leave it to the day before. I am 8 days out from submitting this essay. I am reading for another go at writing it.

I don't care, for now, about the 4,000 word limit. I want to answer the question fully and succinctly, with evidence. I will trim later, or add a growing agent to the roots if it is falling short.

Writing is the last thing I should do. I wish it were an exam. I wish I had to pull in all the facts then turn up for a 3 hour exam. Today I will simply vomit words onto sheets of paper. Prepared for an exam I will have, in my mind, a set of some 32 cards, each with a note or fact or idea on them. I will then sit down, look at the time I have, make a quick plan for my response, then mentally set the 20 or so cards I need into the mix. Then I write. Then I fix. Then the bell goes and I am done.

Maybe I should do it this way? This Wednesday evening I will see what I can write, long hand, in an hour. (A fraction of how much I could type). Sometimes the pen is best - it slows you down.

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Tools worth sharing

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 27 Nov 2014, 10:12

Fig.1 Word and Tiki-Toki

Constructing a length piece of writing - over 50,000 words and need to stick to the chronology of events, at least in the first draft, I have found using the timeline creation tool Tiki-Toki invaluable. You can create one of these for FREE.

Over the last few months I've been adding 'episodes' to a timeline that stretches between 1914 and 1919. You get various views, including the traditional timeline of events stretched along an unfurling panorama. However, if you want to work with two screen side by side the 3D view allows you to scroll back and forth through the timeline within the modest confines of its window.

 

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Essay writing style: clay or concrete aggregate?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 1 Oct 2014, 15:10
From River Ouse Low Tide

My tried and tested methodology, beyond the doomed 'winging it' is 'concrete aggregate'. Other weeks or months I accumulate a lot of stuff, much of it in a blog like this; not quite a relational database but the 'stuff' is here, tagged and of reasonable relevance. In a now defunct OU ePortfolio called 'MyStuff' or 'MyOU' - I forget, you could then shuffle and rank your gobbets of nonsense and so, discounting the volume of stuff, potentially, have a treatment that could then be turned into an essay.

Such stuff, if it contains, 10,000 words, often with chunks of verbatim passages, can be a hell of a task to hack into shape. You build in bold forms out of concrete and can only get it to look like a garden, or park sculpture, with a pneumatic drill and chisel. Sometimes it works. You get there. It is dry and workable. You'll more than pass. It depends on the subject, the module and the specific expectations of the assignment. Where you need to tick many boxes this approach may work well.

Clay is the better way forward in most situations. Here you build up your arguments in logical steps then refine them at the end. This, particularly in the social sciences, is where the tutor wants to see how you argue you case, drawing together arguments and facts, mostly those you've been exposed to in the module, though allowing for some reading beyond the module. You have to express your opinion, rather than listing the views of others. Get it right and this is the only way to reach the upper grades? Get it wrong, which is the risk, and you may end up with a hollow or limp structure with grades to match. 

 

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Too much coffee? Its a product of too many TMAs

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Saturday, 6 Sep 2014, 13:45
From E-Learning V

 Fig.1 The effect of drinking too much coffee

With an assignment, TMA or EMA or exam deadline comes the inclination to get up earlier and drink stronger coffee, in larger doses over longer periods. Easing off the caffeine in take comes at a price: headaches. This isn't a drug you can come off in an instant ... or in my case, at all. 

I'm trying to stick to water after breakfast; the problem is that I may have had a jug of expresso by then. If I get a headache later in the day what do I need? Paracetamol and caffeine. 

My symptoms:

  • Ringing in ears
  • Heart palpitations
  • Gut rot
  • Dehydration
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Restlessness

NONE of this is conducive to getting much done. I need to put in a couple of hours a day for the next four days at least. 

Quitting coffee is on the cards. Done with alcohol, meat might be cut back to the weekend or cut out entirely. Quit Facebook. Cut back on Linkedin. Off on retreat in a couple of weeks when I plan to leave all gadgets behind - let's see or prove how productive that can be. Five days with pen and paper.

 

 

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A terrifying realistion

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 5 Sep 2014, 06:37
From E-Learning V

Writing an assignment takes time and requires focus.

Not rocket science, but never before have I been quite so aware of the time it takes to achieve something. Prep over the writing has begun. I use an hour glass to hold my focus, but what do I achieve in an hour? 400 words.

At this rate it'll take another ten hours just to complete the first draft. My only hope is that the preparation will have paid off and that these 4000 words with some spit and polish will do the job.

We'll see.

Suddenly time feels finite and the deadline like 'The Wall' in Game of Thrones looms on the horizon. Just so long as the next series isn't released in the next few days. When is it due out by the way?!

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This will not do!

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014, 09:49

Fig. 1 My A' level Geography exercise book

Somehow a handful of exercise books and files from my A'level years have survived three+ decades. On very rare occasions on stumbling across these in a box, in a garage or shed, or attic I've glanced at a few carefully drawn diagrams or maps, smiled proudly at the grades achieved in the final pages, but never stopped to take a careful look at the truth.

The truth when I read it made me faint. Was I that bad? Was the teacher so blunt? How come I didn't go ape-shit and promptly quit the course? 

If I wish to I could seek enlightenment in the diary I kept at the time; I have little doubt that on a teen quest for 'love' there were other priorities in my life. 

Reading this I fear my brain has buried my feelings; it's as if I am reading it for the first time. Every page, 'only twelve', are lightly scored through. In all credit to a brilliant teacher - I believe, ultimately that all but one or two in the class got an A grade 18 or so months later, he offers a bullet-pointed suggestion of an essay plan. The 'half-term' reply to this gets a C-- and a middling response that clearly indicates that only an 'A' will do. All of this experience is new to me in my schooling to date. Threats usually failed, seven years previously having done badly in a French Test I was threatened with a caning if I didn't get x% minimum in a retake ... after half-term. My arse was saved; I suspect my response could have been as violent as the teacher's had he come near me ... 

When it comes to the 'carrot and stick', my experience is that I need both applied and given firmly. 

Four essays and as many weeks later this teacher's response is somewhat different: 

 Fig. 2. Same Geography exercise book, four to five weeks later.

It is odd, though invaluable to be reflecting on this some 35 years after the event. It relates to learning; I'm not teacher-trained. It relates to e-learning too, at all the levels where it is offered. How does or can the technology be used so that a teacher or tutor can provide blunt, constructive feedback in a way that achieves its aims for the individual student? How did this teacher get extraordinary results out of a class, many of whom I knew well and would have rated themselves at the D/E level of likely attainment?

Fundamentally, I feel, is that he, and most others I had during these years were a) vocational educators b) brilliant at their subject c) practitioners.

This teacher was cold, but hugely enthusiastic and knew the subject down to the tiniest detail. He knew his art and gave classroom presentations that came from his soul, not from an Edexcel textbook on his desk. A year later he frankly said that he would teach us what we'd get in our first year at university to maintain our interest ... to keep us simmering as exams approached. And as the 'Physical Geographer' he would often start a lesson with photographs of a climbing trip in Scotland or flying a glider over Northumberland.

 Fig.3. What kind if daisy is your essay?

At the end of this particular exercise book the teachers fills half a side of A4, in red biro, doing his best, now for the umpteenth time, to get me to understand what an essay at this level requires; it is here that he draws takes up drawing a flower, a daisy, suggesting that the perfect essay has five or six petals and a simple step, not the twelve petals, or lopsided, or trunk of an essay that I could produce. 

The purpose of the essay, especially assignments that are not graded, are multiple but never, from I can see, used in the e-learning produce by the Open University. Where is the chance to find your feet, to have a go and fail, to learn through trial and error how to get it write? What role, in any case, would a tutor play to improve an essay style, or to simply help a student get their approach right? And what is the value in assessing a student in a modular form when they cannot expect to be anywhere near to mastering their subject until they've been studying for a year?

How can this vital, human component, make its mark in e-learning? 

Artificial Intelligence must surely offer a smart answer; how else can the many millions who are denied an education at this level have a chance at the experience?

Tellingly, I see that there are comments made in these text books that I struggle with still. I write too much, but in the essay where the purpose is to gather in and focus multiple ideas from several sources in order, at a later date, to refine and prioritise what YOU personally think matters, then more is far, far preferable and necessary then the essay with the limited word count. What happens otherwise is that too early in the learning process the student is expected to reduce down a substance, their research and thoughts, which in the early stages are bound to be on the thin side. From this 'thin; input a thinner essay is meant to be the basis on which the student takes their learning forward. 

There has to be a better way.

Or alternatives.

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More like a 'House of Cards'

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 28 May 2014, 15:56

I use the metaphor of essay writing being like sewing a tapestry but wonder if making a house of cards wouldn't be better? In many respects this is how I now write: notes from copious reading reduced to frames in a presentation, and even notes on Rolledex cards that are in time grouped into a coherent argument and then 'stacked' into shape to form an essay. Looked at in this way an essay is a case of assembling the right parts in a logical order. Looked at this way, on reading through, you can identify a card that is out of place or faulty. It takes great care if the entire edifice is not to fall, or, however reluctantly, you have to dismantle the thing and build it up again from scratch. THIS is where I fail to get the illusive distinction - faced, inevitably with such a house of cards, I am loath to fix that card, wherever it might be, knowing that to reassemble the 'house' will take time and effort and a degree or repeating a task you thought was done.

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Precision writing

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Fig.1. My ever changing desk

Some weeks into preparing a 4000 word essay I finally, painfully, through copious notes, and assemblages of arguments to support my chosen thesis hit 'Word Count' and to my amazement find this fourth draft far from massively overfilling the cup comes in at 4036 words. It is with an uncharacteristic confession that I should know by now that this kind of considered effort will deliver, while writing as if in a blog will never do. A few marks short of a distinction for my last effort what I need now to do is prioritise the multitude of references that I've attached - some 67 (from a core set of seven or so books and eBooks). Actually I am still missing a dozen references at least. Whilst some of the ideas are mine, most are not, when it comes to the First World War, thousands have been there already (some 23,000 publications on the topic).

There is method to this. All other approaches having failed the above is to be the approach I take for my very last effort to constructing, rather than writing, a novel. It has its moments in the First World War, though it covers a period that a lecturer at the weekend expressed in the phrase, as 'From Super Power to the three day week'. He wanted to know how Britain had gone from Empire to near collapse over 75 years; this just so happens to be the period my main character lives through. 

Over the last four years I migrated from pen and paper, to purist working on and from digital platforms only. Today my approach is blended - anything and everything that works. This means hard back reference books as well as eBooks, a pad of paper and an ink pen and the interface an iPad, and laptop or desktop - documents in Google Docs so quite frankly anything that gets me online will work. Often I take photos of a book rather than take notes. With eBooks I highlight, add notes - then assemble choice points onto Rolledex cards. What counts, I have learnt, is the time and quality of engagement with the subject matter. At some stage the fog does clear and it makes sense well enough for you to be able to talk about it willingly and in an informed way if you so choose - recommended, where and if you can find some many willing and able to listen and respond. 

The result is my understanding of 'Why Britain went to war in 1914'. It is not the conclusion I would have come to a few weeks ago. It has relevance today as 100 years ago too - it comes down to a handful of political leaders: who they are, what they desire and represent, how they behave and to whom (if anyone) and how, they are accountable. 

Somewhere across these posts there are other images of 'my working space' and my 'Personal Learning Environment'. This space is temporary: its the kitchen/dining table for a start. When my teenage daughter gets in from college she takes over with art materials and a sewing machine and I retire to a corner of the bedroom with an iPad. 

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Antidisestablishmentarianism

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 1 Jun 2014, 06:19

I satisfied a life long itch to use this 24 letter word in an essay and successfully did so in a masters level history essay on the way TV producers tell 'The Great War' story. On closer inspection the markers ought to have deleted it as 'antiestablishmentarianism' would have been correct. Next essay I'll see if I can get 'disconbobulate' in somewhere.

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Vehicles for learning or vehicles for assessment?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 13 Dec 2013, 07:44

An essay, and therefore all assignments should be for the purposes of learning. To help the tutor, even your peers, to see where your thinking has reached and add to and correct as necessary. Assessment should be the end of module dissertation or written exam.

What do you think?

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Preparation, preparation, preparation ...

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And breathing space.

How I prepare a TMA or EMA is completely unlike anything I did in the early days, even in the first couple of years or more of the Masters in Open and Distance Education (MA ODE). It is far more like designing an Airfix model, making the parts, then constructing the thing. At this stage, having thought about and written up all the component parts I did a rough assembly and came up with 3437 words for a 4000 word assignment.

Actually this is too many words - not a problem as I know where the fat lies, ideas expressed in too large a chunk. After that it's a case of getting the prose to flow.

Prioritise and give it time to breathe. I've pretty much given up on social media too - this is study journal and a moment to reflect. 'Blogging' and writing an academic paper are very different things - even journalism doesn't get close. Blogging is playing in the sand, journalism is a papier-mache self-indulgent sculpture, whereas academic writing is gathering together a complete set of artefacts, carefully arranging them in a cabinet and including all the labels.

 

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How to write the perfect essay every time

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A 30 second video says it tall:

DSC00351.JPG

 

CLICK HERE The perfect essay (or not).

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How to use your blog for Tutor Marked Assignments

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Saturday, 3 May 2014, 06:58

This is my approach, it works for me.

Everything goes in here: notes from what I read or come across, sometimes so I didn't lose track of them, course related comments I post on people's blogs too.

A good deal of this remains hidden (private), however I will sometimes 'expose' notes and cryptic thoughts in case someone can make sense of it for me, or chivvy me along to construct some rounded thoughts and sentences with the stuff.

There's some random stuff too.

Tagging matters immensely.

'Search' leaves it to chance, which might help you serendipitously to come across a thought or note you had, but is scrappy and can be time wasting, rather be tag happy and have a system.

Everything gets the module reference, if there is an activity reference this is added as a single word such as 'h807activity3.4' or some such so that it can be searched for and found with ease.

Come TMA time I revisit all the content from that block and start adding the tag, for example, 'h807tma2', or as I'm currently doing 'b822tma3'.

Gathered in one search list I then go through each relevant post refining my thinking.

At some stage I may add further tags to identify arguments or to give it a chronology if that isn't apparent. I then cut and paste to a word document.

I MAY assemble in PowerPoint simply to help shuffle ideas around.

A system?

Hardly. Each to their own. I panic like anyone else over an assignment but know the stuff is here and having done the reading and activities and having shared my thinking and had this coloured and shaped by others that I ought to be able to assemble a cogent case.


Tags are strategic, Search is more random.

I switch between the two when revisiting note

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The last of the bunch: daisies that think they are assignments gone wrong

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 2 May 2014, 14:22

The exotic essay. What happens if you choose an elective that isn't your cup of tea. So you write about what interests you hoping that you'll get marks for being obtuse.

I think I'm losing the plot now or getting into my flow: Olympics, Wimbledon, Grand National, Grand Prix. There are many occassions when NOT to write an assignment.

 

A podcast. Who needs the written word when you can say it with a smiley voice?

Lost the plot. Bitty. Random notes with. No beginning, middle or end.

An odd thing. A poem perhaps? Or an essay with a split personality that wasn't much improved by putting bells on it.

 

 

 

Any excuse will do: gone fishing, got a cold, computer ate it, dog ate it, parents unwell, children unwell, busy at work, made redundant (again) ...

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Further mistakes I have made writing assignments and essays expressed as cartoon daisies

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 19 Apr 2012, 08:24

DSC00352.JPG

I wrote one of these for an end of Module Assignment.

I got carried away with a single thesis. Not only did I stick to the topic, but I illustrated it. It was the image of a thermal on which career development was built. Problem was I hadn't given myself time to qualify my thinking, indeed, despite a heap of work I barely mentioned it (and barely got any marks). DSC00355.JPG

Here the essay has been bought online.

Sometimes it is easy to spot the pot. These days software does it for educational institutions.

 

DSC00358.JPG

To the right or to the left; if the essay shows any political bias it is going to score less well.

DSC00359.JPG

 

The essay that's going nowhere.

No idea, no essay plan, contemplates where it would like to go then reflects on where is would like to have been without saying very much at all.

 

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H808 Interview with Dr Z A Pelczynski on teaching, essay style and leadership

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 24 Feb 2012, 05:24

ZAP

Interview with Dr Z.A.Pelczynski

How does teaching differ between school and university?

What do you look for in an essay?

Can leadership be taught?

Could leadership be taught online?

 

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