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Academic writing in TM470

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One of the questions I’m regularly asked regarding TM470 is: “how should I write my TMAs and the EMA? Should I write it in the first person or in the third person? Should I say ‘I did this and I did that’, or should I say ‘the author did this, and the author did that’?”

First of third person?

I recommend using the first person, rather than the third person, since you are doing the project, and you are learning from the experience of completing it. The reason I say this is because of the importance of writing clearly, and that it does sound a bit weird (and adds a whole load of extra words) if one refers to oneself in the third person, referring to oneself as the author. 

I consider that the first person is more accessible to the TMA marker and the EMA examiner. Clarity is important, since the EMA report at the end of the module is all about presenting what I consider to be a "technical story" or narrative. All this said, the TMAs and EMAs should be written in quite a formal and academic way. In other words, your submissions shouldn’t be too chatty, and should adopt an academic tone, whilst clearly drawing on materials and sources in a critical way.

What does “being critical” mean?

I understand “being critical” as “showing that you have through about something” and demonstrating that through your writing. It can mean understanding that there is an argument to be unpicked, or it could also mean choosing (or summarising) resources that will then be used and applied (in a critical, or thoughtful way) later on during your project.

In an earlier blog I wrote, I dug out a number of links to a some OU study booklets which are really helpful. I do recommend that you have a quick look at Thinking Critically. The section Writing with a Critical Voice, might be useful too. Section 3.4 on page 22, getting critical thinking into your writing, is also useful too. Also, before you get to the writing bit, there’s also a booklet about Reading and Taking Notes.

Another booklet called Preparing Assignments also offers a bit of guidance about writing introductions and conclusions, writing paragraphs, paraphrasing, quoting and referencing.

Referencing

Talking about referencing, it is important to spend a bit of time looking at the CiteThemRight website. This offers guidance about how to reference anything and everything. It contains sections about referencing academic papers, textbooks, internal reports, bits of software, and even personal correspondence. Reference everything that may have influence your thinking. Also, do be specific in your referencing. Do include page references to really demonstrate the extent and the depth of your reading.

My colleague Charly Lowndes also provides A one minute reminder of where to get advice on the OU CiteThemRight citing and referencing style (YouTube).

The project isn’t just about what you do. It is also about what you have learnt, and you can demonstrate that by the extent and the quality of your writing and referencing.

Other resources to look at

Finally, a few other resources that might be useful.

I’m a big fan of a book called The Good Study Guide. I was sent a copy of it when I started my OU studies back in 2006 or 2007. I remember thinking: “if I had read this when I was an undergraduate, I might have gained a higher degree classification”.

I’ve also written this short blog about academic writing (OU blog), which offers a summary of some of the points that a fellow tutor gave me when I was studying.

Whilst working on the project, it is helpful to have a project log. To help to get a view on what is needed, I have written a short blog, but about how to create and structure a TM470 project log (OU blog).

Finally, looking longer down the road to the EMA, I have written a blog that offers a suggestion about a TM470 report structure (OU blog). Since very project is different, these are not hard and fast rules. It is more important to hit the learning outcomes than to try to follow this structure.

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A short blog about academic writing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Feb 2021, 11:43

A couple of years ago I received a shock; I received a TMA result which I was not at all happy about. 

I was initially really annoyed, but then after the annoyance subsided, I had a good look at my tutor’s comments. The main thrust of his feedback was that I needed to sort my academic writing out. He was kind enough to offer me a one-to-one chat that must have really helped, since I went from getting a score that made me really grumpy, to getting an EMA score that made me really happy.

What follows are three tips that I’ve picked up over the last couple of years. The second tip comes directly from my tutor.

Tip 1: Paragraphing

A paragraph should contain a single idea. 

It shouldn’t be too short, and nor should it be too long. My own principle is: if one is writing more than 4 sentences, then perhaps the paragraph is getting a bit big? Also, regarding the sentences, don’t make them too long.

Tip 2: Making an argument using resources

This was the killer tip that was given to me by my tutor. When doing academic writing, you might want to use the following template. Each part relates to an element of a paragraph.

Part 1: The main point

This first bit is the main point that you want to make in the paragraph; the point that you want to assert or are arguing about.

Part 2: The evidence

Introduce some evidence that supports your point. This might be a quote from something that you’ve read (perhaps a chapter from a set text, a paper, or some of the module materials).

Part 3: The connection between the two

This final bit represents almost a conclusion to your paragraph. Explain how the evidence that you’ve provided is related to the main point that you’re making. This, essentially, is the critical bit. 

When I was writing up my dissertation, I applied this pattern time and time again. I also had introductory and concluding paragraphs.

Tip 3: Referencing

One thing that my tutor was on my case about was referencing. This is important since it shows the extent of your reading, and referencing within an EMA demonstrates that you have understood the teaching from the module materials. A further tip is to make sure that your bit of writing is showing that you have met the learning outcomes that are being assessed.

My tutor was very insistent: put things in quotes, provide the name of the author, and provide a page reference. This final bit, the page reference, clearly shows how closely you’ve read (and have understood) the materials.

More information about referencing can be found by going to the OU’s Quick guide to Harvard referencing (Cite Them Right). Further information is available on the external Cite Them Right website.

Resources

There’s a whole set of resources that might be useful. One place to start is the OU Study Skills website which contains a section about writing and preparing assignments

Further advice can be found on pages about Writing for University and Writing in your own words

Another set of useful resources are the university’s Study skills booklets which you can print out, highlight sections and scribble over. A good one to look at is called Preparing Assignments (pdf)Looking back to my earlier Tip 1, part 5, which is about writing paragraphs, might also offer a good bid of advice.

Another booklet is called Thinking Critically (pdf)Again, looking back to Tip 2, part 5 of the booklet, Writing with a Critical Voice, might be useful too. The section on page 22, a process for getting critical thinking into your writing, certainly echoes some of those points that tutor told me, but presents everything in a slightly different way. Also, before you get to the writing, there’s also a booklet about Reading and Taking Notes (pdf)

Finally, I do recommend The Good Study Guide (pdf). I was sent a copy of this book when I enrolled for my first ever OU module, and when I read it, I thought to myself: “if only I had read this book when I was an undergraduate, I might have got a higher degree classification”. I have a paper copy of it on a bookshelf, next to my desk (it is that good!).

Two chapters that specifically relate to academic writing are Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process (Northedge, 2005, p.296).

The title of Chapter 10 is important, since academic writing is a skill, but one that requires the use of a whole set of hidden rules. Hopefully some of the resources presented in this blog will help to explain what some of those rules are.

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