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TM470 Understanding the Literature review

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One of the important components of the TM470 EMA is your literature review.

The literature review component serves a number of purposes:

  • It tells your examiner what you have read, and enables them to understand where you are coming from. In other words, what you present in a literature review enables the examiner to understand, broadly, what your project is all about. 
  • It enables you to demonstrate to your EMA examiner your research and critical thinking skills. 
  • It allows you to demonstrate your writing and communication skills. Just as your TM470 EMA is a narrative of your entire project, the literature review within that broader narrative (or story) presents a narrative  (or story) about your reading and your research.

The literature review can be primarily linked to the following TM470 learning outcome:

LO4: Gather, analyse and evaluate relevant information to complete the project successfully.

It can also be linked to the following learning outcomes:

LO3: Identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Identify and address any associated risks.

LO7: Communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions clearly

A really important rule of thumb is: if you use a resource in the body of your report, that resource should be introduced within the literature review section. A resource might be any number of different things, depending on what your project is all about: it might be some module materials, a textbook, an academic paper, or even some software. Also, if you have something in the references section, it should have been ideally in the literature review section (although it is okay to occasionally break that rule, if it helps with the writing and presentation of your project report).

What follows are a set of what I hope to be useful ideas about how best to complete a TM470 project literature review.

Starting the literature review

An important question to ask is: how do I start my literature search? The biggest tip I can offer is: begin with what you know. This might be the specifics about a project, or maybe beginning with some of the level 3 module materials that you have previously studied. If you have studied TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience, for example, a really good place to start is the module materials, and the accompanying set text. The textbook contains a lot of references which you can look to, and you can find many of these resources in the university library.

The OU library is also a great place to start too. It contains a whole host of useful resources, such as eBooks, and hundreds of thousands of academic articles that have been published in academic journals. When starting out to look at a subject they have not looked at before, some researchers carry out searches of library databases using a systematic approach, making notes of what keywords they have used, and what they have found.

Another tip is: if you find an interesting paper in the OU library it is sometimes possible to find out how many times a paper or article has been referenced, and what papers have referenced the paper that you have found. Looking at the popularity of papers, and chains of referencing can enable you to find out what papers or bits of research have been influential in a subject area. Sometimes, it is also useful to look to see what other papers a particular author has written about.

A final tip in carrying out a literature search: ask your tutor! The TM470 module team try to match students and student projects with tutors who have a particular specialism. After having an initial discussion with your tutor about your project, it is completely okay to ask the question: do you have any suggestions?

Criticality

During the course of your TM470 project, you might look at a lot of resources. Whilst it might be tempting to show everything that you’re read or looked at whilst working on your literature review, please don’t. You need to be selective, and you need to do this to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. 

More information about what this means is available in the OU booklet about Thinking Critically.

In terms of TM470, it is important to ask: how does this resource influence, affect, or relate to my project? A good literature review will introduce some concepts or ideas, which are referenced. These concepts or ideas are then used or applied within the body of a report to solve a particular problem.

Resources

In TM470, there are a number of useful resources that you may have seen, that you should be aiming to revisit whilst you work on your project.

The two key bits of module materials that you must review have the title: Preparing a Literature Search, and Reviewing Literature. A recommendation is to get a printout of these resources (by using the “view as single page” option), and work through each of the activities. You should also have a listen to the Finding and using research podcast. 

From the Preparing a Literature Search resource, do pay particular attention to the four stages of a literature search. The Reviewing Literature resource offers a set of useful pointers in the introduction which helps you to look at resources. 

Regarding this second resource, the following bit of advice is important: “This template isn’t always applicable, not least because it can become monotonous to read. You will need to make your own decisions about which elements should be included and which omitted.” These two sentences relate to the point about criticality, and the need to write a literature review that is appropriate for your own project.

On the subject of writing, a good resource to look to is the OU’s pages about Developing academic English. I also recommend The Good Study Guide, which is available to download as a PDF. Chapters that may be particularly useful when writing the literature review (and your EMA report) are Chapter 9, Researching online, Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process.

Referencing

If you use, or write about a resource in your project report, you need to make sure that you reference it correctly. In your TMAs and EMAs, there are two key bits to think about: the first is how to reference something within the body of your report (when you’re referring to something), and the second is how to provide a reference to a resource within the references section towards the end of your EMA. Another rule of thumb is: if you are writing about a resource, you need to reference it. Similarly, if you quote from a resource, you definitely need to reference it. 

The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing system, which is both comprehensive and flexible. Using this system, you can reference just about anything. Not only can you reference books and journal articles, you can also reference art works, web pages, and software. The OU has a subscription to a web resource called CiteThemRight. If you’re unsure how to reference something, do have a look at this website. 

When referencing papers or textbooks, a firm recommendation is to make sure that you also include page numbers. The reason for this is simple. Including page numbers clearly demonstrates attention to detail, and gives your EMA examiner further evidence of your depth of reading and understanding.

Finally, do make sure that you reference (and demonstrate an understanding of) earlier OU modules you have studied. This is a really efficient way to demonstrate to your examiner what topics or subjects your project relates to. You can reference any OU module material, whether it is a module website, a PDF, or printed module block. If you’re unsure about how to reference materials from any of your earlier studies, do ask your tutor.

Common Questions

Do ask your tutor any questions that you might have whilst carrying out a literature review. Here are some answers to some common questions, which might be useful.

Q: How many references should I provide?

A: There is no hard and fast rule for this, since every TM470 is different. You should choose enough resources to demonstrate the reading that you have needed to do, to complete a project that shows technical skills and knowledge you have gained during your degree studies. If pushed, I would say that a distinction quality EMA report might reference as many as 20 resources, but these resources must be important, relevant, and applied within the body of your project. In other words, your chosen resources should have influenced the work that you have done.

Q: How much time should I spend on the literature review?

A: Again, there is no hard and fast answer to this one. Some EMA reports are all about carrying out research. In a research focussed EMA, you might spend more time doing a literature review than you would for a very practical EMA. Overall, the literature review section contributes towards 20% of the overall EMA mark, but this doesn’t mean that you should only spend 20% of the time. A suggestion is to approach the literature review iteratively. For example, whilst trying to solve a technical problem, you might have to do more reading, which means that you might have to go back and to edit your literature review section.

Q: How long should the literature review be?

I’m afraid I’m going to give you a similar answer to all the others: it depends on your project! The TM470 module guidance suggests that you should be able to write everything you need to write within the 10k word limit. Given the importance of the literature review to a number of learning outcomes, I would say that the literature review is quite a substantial section within your EMA: it sets the scene, and goes a long way to demonstrating your critical thinking and problem solving skills (through the resources that you choose). Some project will have longer literature review sections than others. It should be as long as it needs to be, given the aims and objectives of your project.

Summary

This blog has shared bits of advice (and some links) that might be useful when it comes to writing your TM470 literature review.

One of the most useful bits of advice about report writing that someone gave me was: make sure it is interesting. 

Although this bit of advice related to EU project deliverables, it is just as applicable to your TM470 EMA. 

Your TM470 EMA is a technical narrative (a story) about your project. The literature review section within your report is a narrative within a bigger narrative; it is the story of your reading. It is a story which introduces resources which you will then go onto apply later on within your report. It is an important section which demonstrates the depth of your reading, and shares what you know about with the examiner.

Other blog posts that relate to the study of TM470 can be found through the TM470 blog tag.

Good luck with your literature review, and remember to make good use of your tutor, by asking them lots of questions.

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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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Unpacking a TMA question: tips from A111

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022, 15:34

As well as being a tutor, and a staff tutor, I’m also a student. At the moment, I’m studying the arts and humanities, and I’m part way through the equivalent of my first year. I’m really enjoying it, and I can certainly say that I have learnt a few things.

This short post summarises some really helpful hints and tips about responding to a TMA question. These key points have been taken from from the A111 Discovering the arts and humanities study skills materials, written by Judith Rice. During my studying of this module, these points have really stood out in terms of being helpful. These tips may be relevant for other subjects and disciplines, not just the arts and humanities. 

Question words: how, why and what?

This tip emphases that “questions like these are asking you to make a judgement of some kind”. For the arts and humanities modules, there is “the expectation is that you use evidence from the sources or module book to support your answer”, so make sure that you reference module materials, and quote judiciously to demonstrate your understanding, and to show your reading. 

Compare and contrast

The essence of this tip is as follows: “if an assignment asks you to compare two sources, you are expected to look at ways in which they are similar and ways in which they are different. If the word ‘contrast’ is in there too, you should look especially hard for differences between them”. This is all about demonstrating your thinking as well as demonstrating your knowledge of the materials. 

Describe

This keyword “indicates that you are being asked to talk about what you see in a picture, hear in a piece of music, or read in a text; it could also indicate that you should give an account of what happened over a period of time.”

Explore

Explore isn’t a word that I’ve seen very regularly in TMAs, but when explore is used “you are being asked to look at an issue or an idea in a balanced manner, probably across a number of different examples. A definite ‘answer’ is not required but you will need to examine the evidence to look out for patterns.”

Consider

Like explore, this isn’t a TMA word that I’m very familiar with. The module materials offers a bit of guidance: “the task here is very similar to the one signalled by the word ‘Explore’, but there is slightly more emphasis on weighing up the evidence in order to reach some kind of balanced assessment in your conclusion.”

Assess

Simply put, assess is all about making “some kind of judgement or measurement, and to think about various aspects of a source or collection of sources.” Again, do reference any appropriate module resources.

Explain

Finally, “explain” is all about giving “reasons for something.”

Preparing to answer TMA questions

When answering a TMA question, I have started to adopt a particular way of working. 

I begin by flicking through all the module materials, making a note of the significant headings. I then take a bit of time to review some of the key bits of module materials to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. When I have reacquainted myself with everything with the main themes that the module team are trying to convey, I then have a good look at the key words to get a feel for what they are fishing for.

Another approach that I’ve adopted, depending on the question, is to make sure that I have all the references in order before starting the writing. To do this, I do a bit of digging into the CiteThemRight website to remind myself how to reference everything I might need to reference, such as module materials, set texts and anything else.

Other tips, resources and blogs

TMA questions are connected to module learning outcomes. In addition to focussing on the TMA questions themselves, it is sometimes useful to have a good look into what the module team are looking to assess. Put another way, by looking at the learning outcomes and the accompanying activities may well help you to “get into the head of the module team”.

There are a range of other resources that can be useful. Some of these are summarised in earlier blogs about study skills. I also regularly recommend the Good Study Guide (pdf).

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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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Study Skills Resources: what is available?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Mar 2021, 17:05

The Open University provides a lot of study skills resources, but these are scattered across a number of different sites. This blog post is intended to provide a quick 'summary page' of some of the resources that might be useful for anyone is are studying with the OU (or, in fact, studying at any other universities).

Firstly, a book

After enrolling for my first OU module, I was sent a textbook called The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge. I didn't ask for this book, and I had never seen this book before. In fact, I was really surprised to get an unexpected book!

I found the time to sit down and read it, and this was time well spent; it offered a wealth of study tips, resources and strategies.

If you're an OU student and you don't have this book, then do get a copy. If you're an existing OU student, then do make the time to look over this book time and time again: its really useful.

I think I have once written that I hold the view that if I had learnt about this book during my undergraduate days, I might have got better scores in both my essays and my exams!

Skills for Study: a really useful resource

There are some really useful resources that are available online. I particularly recommend that everyone visits the Open University Skills for Study website.

There are two really useful parts of the site (which is separated into tabs): a section about preparing and writing assignments and another section that is about revision and examinations. The preparing and writing assignments is particularly useful; it offers ideas about how to begin an assignment, to create a draft and think about how to edit what has been written.

There are also a set of downloadable study skills booklets. Key topics include: thinking critically, reading and taking notes, and develop effective study strategies. One particularly useful booklet is: preparing assignments (PDF). It contains some really useful sections are about paraphrasing, quoting and referencing, and improving your written English.

Library resources

The OU library is massive: it enables students to access papers and publications that are about anything and everything. The library have developed a set of useful study skills resources, but these are not very easy to find. 

In the help section, there is a link to a section that is all about Referencing and Plagiarism (OU Library website) it contains a really nice animation that explains things. One thing to remember that plagiarism is a term that can be pretty emotive. A key point is that it's important to make sure that you reference all the sources that you use, and that appropriate referencing does two things (1) it shows your tutor how much you've been reading, and (2) shows how you are becoming familiar with what it means to do academic writing.

A further links leads to something called the avoiding plagiarism pathway (OU being digital). This is one page of a wider set of library resources called Being Digital (OU Library services site) which is all about developing digital literacy skills. These pages contain a set of really useful interactive activities (OU being digital) that aim to develop computing, IT, and digital literacy skills.

The library also provides a link to something called the OU Harvard referencing guide. This shows you how to refer to any kind of resource: books, academic papers, conference proceedings, blogs, news articles and videos. If you're not sure whether you can reference something, do check out the OU Harvard guide; this should offer a bit of useful guidance.

Developing good academic practice

The library resource about Referencing and Plagiarism links to a short course that is called Developing Good Academic Practice (OU DGAP website). Although this is a short resource, it is very useful. It helps you to understand what good academic practice is and why it is important.

English language development and Open Learn resources

Some programmes aim to integrate English language development and skills into their modules; this is what Computing and IT does. Other subjects or programmes are slightly different: there is a module called L185 English for Academic Purposes which some Science students might study. Business studies students might study LB170 Communication skills for business and management.

One really cool thing that the Open University does is make a small percentage of its modules available to everyone for free though a site called OpenLearn (OU OpenLearn website). Up to ten percent of all OU modules may be available through OpenLearn, and it also makes some older modules available too.

Essentially, OpenLearn offers free courses. There are a series of English language skills courses (OpenLearn site) that anyone can access. One course, entitled English: skills for learning looks to be particularly useful. Here's a description:

“This course is for anybody who is thinking of studying for a university degree and would like to develop the English reading and writing skills needed to succeed. You'll be introduced to academic reading and effective note-making strategies. You'll develop your essay writing. You'll look at academic style and vocabulary-building strategies. You'll also enhance your understanding of sentence structure and punctuation. You will learn through a range of engaging activities aimed at extending your existing language skills.”

A more recent Open Learn resource has the title: Am I ready to be a distance learner? The summary to this module says: "will help to boost your confidence. You'll explore useful skills so you can discover how ready you are to study and how to develop your study skills in six steps to become a successful distance learner." Sounds useful!

There are also a range of courses that come under the broad title of 'learning to learn'. One course that jumped out at me as being particularly important was called: Learning to learn: Reflecting backward, reflecting forward; I'm mentioning this since reflective writing is particularly important at higher levels of study.

There's also some more OpenLearn resources for postgraduate modules, called Succeeding in postgraduate study; certainly worth a look if your considering taking a MSc.

Resources from other institutions

Students in other universities face exactly the same challenges faced by students in the OU. Since study skills and writing are important issues other universities have developed their own resources. A small sample of what is available is given below. 

One thing to add is: if you're an OU student, do look at the OU resources first before looking elsewhere. It's not that other institutions will offer bad or wrong advice (I always believe that different perspectives can be really useful in terms of understanding things), it's more a matter of terminology: the OU loves its abbreviations and sometimes has a certain way of doing things.

Final thoughts

This post contains link to many different resources and it might feel a bit overwhelming. The trick is to figure out what you need, to consider how you learn, and to then to have a look at some of the resources to see if you find them useful. If you need additional help in figuring out what you need, you should then also consider giving your subject student support team a ring.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Tricia Cronin and Ann Matsunaga; I have drawn on some of the links they have provided in their Resource to support students with English as a second language document.

Updated 1 March 2021

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Academic conduct symposium – Towards good academic practice (day 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2021, 18:57

This is the second post in a series of two about an academic conduct symposium that I attended at the Open University between 20 March and 21 March 2013.

The difference between the first day of the conference and the second was that the first day was more focussed towards the student and the essential role of the associate lecturer.  The second day (in my opinion!) seemed to be more focussed towards those who have the role of dealing with and working with academic conduct issues. Below is a brief summary of the three workshop sessions, followed by some final reflections on the whole symposium.

Student perspectives on good academic practice

Pete Smith from the Faculty of Education and Languages, was the facilitator for my first workshop of the day.  This session addressed a different perspective to all the previous workshops.  It aimed to ask the question:  'what is the published literature on the student perspective?  [or 'views' about academic conduct].  Pete presented what was, in essence, a short literature review of the subject.  I was really struck by the wealth of information that Pete presented (which means that I'm only going to pick out a number of points that jumped out at me).  If you're interested in the detail of the research that Pete has uncovered (which is almost akin to a masters thesis), it might be a good idea to contact him directly.

Some key notes that I've made from the session include the point that learners can perceive themselves in terms of different roles in terms of how they relate to issue of academic conduct.  There are also differences of perceived seriousness and attitudinal differences.  Factors such as topic knowledge, cultural influences, demographic variables, new technology and conflicting advice are all considered to play a part.

Multiple reasons for academic misconduct range from genuine lack of understanding, attempts to gain greater levels of efficiency, temptation, cultural differences and beliefs. 

When looking more deeply at the research it was commented that there was a lack of robust evidence about the success of interventions.  We don't know what works, and also we don't have consistent guidance about how to begin to tackle this issue.  One important perspective is that everyone is different and knowledge and understanding of a learner is needed to make the best judgement about the most approach to take.

What resources are available?

This session was facilitated by Jenny Alderman from the Open University Business School and another colleague who works in the Academic Conduct Office.

One of the reasons why academic conduct is considered to be so important is that there is an important principle of ensuring that all students are given fair and equitable treatment.  Jenny reminded us that there are considerable costs in staffing the academic conduct office, running the central disciplinary and appeal committees and supporting the academic conduct officers.

An interesting debate that emerged from this session related to the efficacy of tools.  Whilst tools such as TurnItIn can be useful, it is necessary to take time to scrutinise the output.  There will be some clear differences between submissions for different faculties.  Some more technical subject (such as mathematics) may lead to the production of assignments that are necessarily similar to one another.  This has the potential to generate false positives within plagiarism detection systems.

Key resources: code of practice for student assessment, university policy on plagiarism, developing good academic practice website (which was linked to earlier), and the skills for study website which contains a section entitled developing academic English (Skills for Study).

Other resources that could be useful include Time Management Skills (Skills for Study), Writing in your own Words (Skills for Study), Use of source Materials (Skills for Study) and Gathering Materials for preparing for your assignments (Skills for Study).

The library have also produced some resources that can be useful.  These include a video about avoiding plagiarism (which features 'Bob').  The library have some resources about digital literacy entitled 'being digital'.  There is also a plagiarism pathway (Being Digital, Open University Library), which contains a number of activities.  (At the time of writing, I hadn't seen these before - many of these resources were pretty new).

As an aside, I had some discussions with colleagues about the need to more fully embed academic English into either individual modules or programmes of study, and I was directed to a module entitled L185 English for Academic Purposes.  Two fundamental challenges that need to be overcome include that of will and resource.  This said, there are three sections of the L185 module that are available freely on-line through OpenLearn.  These are: Paraphrasing Text, Summarising Text and How to be a Critical Reader.

Since the workshop, I've also been directed towards a resource entitled, Is my English good enough?  This page contains a link to the English for OU study pages.

What works?

The final session, facilitated by Jonathan Hughes, was all about what interventions might successfully nurture good academic practice (and what we might be able to learn from student casework).

Connecting back to earlier debates surrounding the use of technology to detect plagiarism, the issue of spurious reports discussed.  In instances where we are unsure what the situation was, we were reminded that the right thing to do is refer cases to the faculty academic conduct officer. 

I've noted that academic conduct is an issue of education and an important part of this is sharing the university view of what plagiarism is.  It is also connected with the judicious application of technology in combination with human judgement and adoption of necessary of process to ensure appropriate checks and balances.  (Again, all this is from the notes that I made during the event).

During this session I remember a debate about whether it was possible to create something called a 'plagiarism proof assignment'.  One contributor said, 'if you write a question, if you can do a quick internet search for an answer, then it is a poor question'.  The point being that there is an intrinsic connection between academic conduct and good instructional design.

One question that arose was whether the university should be telling our students more about tools such as TurnItIn and Copycatch.  Another approach is, of course, to have students submit their own work through these detection tools and also permit them to see their reports (which is an approach that other institutions adopt). 

Final thoughts

This conference or symposium was very different to other conferences I've been to before.  It seemed to have two (if not more) main objectives.  The first was to inform other people within the university about the current thinking on the subject and to share more information about the various policies and procedures that the university employs.  The second was to find a space to debate the different conceptions, approaches and challenges which come with the difficult balancing act of supporting students and policing academic conduct.

In terms of offering a space that informs and facilitates debate, I felt the conference did a good job, and I certainly feel a bit more equipped to cope with some of the challenges that I occasionally face.  Moving forward, my own objective is to try my best to share information about the debates, policies and resources with my immediate colleagues. 

I came away with three take away points.  The first relates to the definition of what 'plagiarism' is.  It now strikes me that there are almost two different definitions.  One definition is the internal definition which acknowledges that students can both deliberately and inadvertently fail to acknowledge the work of others.  The other more common definition is where plagiarism can be interpreted (almost immediately) as maliciously and deliberately copying someone else with the clear intention of passing someone's work off as your own.  Although the difference is one that is very subtle, the second definition is, of course, much more loaded.

The second take away point lies with the policies and procedures.  I now have a greater understanding of what they are and the role of the academic conduct office.  I can clearly see that there are robust processes that ensure fairness in academic conduct cases.  These processes, in turn, help to maintain the integrity and validity of the qualifications.

The final take away point is that I am now a lot clearer in understanding what I need to do, from my perspective, to help both students and tutors deal with different types of academic conduct.

Copies of slides and videos are now available on the Academic Conduct Site (Open University staff only)

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Academic conduct symposium – Towards good academic practice (day 1)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2021, 18:58

This is the first of two posts about an academic conduct symposium that I attended at the Open University between 20 March and 21 March 2013.  I'm mainly writing this as a broad 'note for self', a reminder of some of issues that emerged from the event, but I hope it will be useful for my OU colleagues and others too.

The symposium was kicked off by Peter Taylor who spoke briefly about an academic practice project that ran in 2007 which led to the last conference (which coincided with the launch of policies) in 2009.  Peter emphasised the point that the issue of academic conduct (and dealing with plagiarism cases) is fundamental to the academic integrity of the university and the qualifications that it offers.

Each day of the symposium had three parallel sessions which comprised of three different workshops.  Each workshop covered a slightly different aspect of academic conduct.  I'll do my best to present a quick summary of each one.

Keynote: Carol Bailey, EFL Senior Lecturer

Carol Bailey, who works as an English as a Second Language lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, gave a keynote that clearly connected with many of the challenges that the symposium aimed to address. 

One of Carol's quotes that I particularly remember is a student saying, 'I never wrote such a long essay before'.  This is a quote that I can directly relate to.  It also relates to the truth that academic writing is a fundamentally challenging endeavour; it is one that requires time and experience.  To some, the process of writing can be one that is both confusing and stressful.   Students might come to study having experienced very different academic approaches to the one that they face either within the Open University or within other UK institutions - situations where the teachers provide all the resources necessary to complete study, situations where access to information technology may be profoundly limited.

When it comes to study, particularly in distance education, writing is a high level fundamental skill that is tested from the very start of a module.  Students need to quickly grasp the idiolect of a discipline and appreciate sets of subject words to begin to appreciate what is meant to become a part of a 'discourse community'.  It takes time to develop an understanding of what is meant by the 'casual elegance' of academic writing.

There is also the tension between accuracy and personal expression.  When faced with new study challenges where students are still grappling with the nuances and rules of expression, misunderstandings of what is required can potentially lead to accidental academic misconduct.  The challenge of presenting your ideas in your own voice is one that is fundamental to study within the Open University.

Hide and Seek : Academic Integrity

Liz McCrystal and Encarna Trinidad-Barnes ran what was my first workshop of the symposium.  The premise of this workshop was that 'Information is hidden and we need to seek it out'.  Encarna opened with a question, which was, 'what do you understand by academic integrity?'  Some answers included: honesty, doing it right, following academic conventions, crediting other people - all these answers resonated with all the participants.

We were then directed to some group work.  We were asked a second question, which was, 'how do you find information [about academic integrity]?'  Our group came up with a range of different answers.  Some of them were: official notes offered to tutors by module teams, the developing good academic practice site (OpenLearn version), assessment guides (also provided by the module team), helpful colleagues and representatives of module teams.

Another question was, 'when would you expect students to look at or be directed to the information?'  Answers included: ideally part of the induction process, before the first assignment, feedback from an assignment, tutorials (and associated connections with the on-line forums).  One perspective was that issues surrounding good academic practice should be an integral part of the teaching (and learning) that is carried out within a module.

A final question that I noted down was, 'is it clear what academic integrity is?'  The answer that we arrived at was information is there, but we have to actively seek it out - but there's also a responsibility by the university and for those who work for the university to offer proactive guidance (for students) too.

A useful resource that was mentioned a couple of times was Writing in your own words (OpenLearn), which contains a very useful podcast.

Plagarism: Issues, Policy and Practice

The second workshop I attended was facilitated by Anne Martin from the Faculty of Health and Social Care.  In comparison to the first workshop, this workshop had a somewhat different focus.  Rather than focussing on how to find stuff, the focus was on the importance of policies and practice.  Key phrases that I noted included: university and policy context, definitions of terms and the importance of study skills.

On the subject of process, there was some discussion about the role of a university body called the academic conduct office.  The office accepts evidence, such as reports (from plagiarism detection tools), explanations from students, script feedback, whether additional support has been arranged for a student.  An important point was made that students always have the right to appeal.

One of the (very obvious) points that I've noted is that there is no one 'gold standard' in terms of detecting academic conduct issues (there are also different ways of dealing with the issue).  The role of the associate lecturer (AL) or tutor is just as important as automated tools such as TurnItIn (website) and Copycatch. 

Technology, of course, isn't perfect, but technology can be used to highlight issues before they may become significant.

Fuzzy Lines: Determining between good and bad academic practice

The third and final workshop of the day was facilitated by Arlene Hunter and Lynda Cook.  When faced with a report from a plagiarism detection system (such as TurnitIn) it's important to ask the question of 'what has happened here?'  Very often, things are not at all clear cut.  The reports that we are presented with can be, without a doubt, very ambiguous.

During this session I was introduced to some different ways to characterise or to think about evidence that relates to academic practice.  Examples include poor paraphrasing and shadow writing, excessive use of quotations, and the use of homework sites and social networking tools.  (I now understand shadow writing to be where a writer might use different words but uses almost the same structure of another document or source).  I also remember that were was some discussion that related to the university social networking policy.   

In many (it not most) situations there is no distinct line between poor study skills and plagiarism.  A point was: if in doubt, pass it onto the academic conduct office.  On the other hand, it is an imperative to help tutors to help students to focus on developing academic writing and literacy skills.

Plenary

The final session of the day was a short plenary session which highlighted many of the issues that were brought to the fore.  These included the tension between policing academic standards whilst at the same time helping students to develop good academic practices.  There was also some debate that related to the use of tools.  The university makes use of plagiarism detection tools at the module team level and there was some debate as to whether it might also be useful to provide access to detection software to associate lecturers, since they are arguably closer to the students. 

Another challenge is that of transparency, i.e. how easy it is to get information about the policies and procedures that are used by the university.  It was also mentioned that it is important to embed the values of good academic practice within modules and that the university should continue, and ideally do more, to support its associate lecturers when it comes to instilling good academic practice amongst its students.  An unresolved question that I had which related to supporting of students whose English is a second language was touched on during the second day.

All in all, it was a useful day.  Of the two days, this first day was the one that was more closely aligned to the challenges that are faced by the tutors.  What I took away from it was  a more rigorous understanding and appreciation of the processes that have been created to both support students but also to maintain academic integrity.

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