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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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