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Writing a TMA: one approach

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This year I’m studying A230 Reading and Studying Literature from the OU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. I’ve recently submitted my first TMA for A230. I quite enjoyed the process. I have no idea how I’ve done, but I’m hoping I’ll get a pass. 

This blog is a short summary of the approach that I took to write my first TMA. Without realising, I’ve adopted quite a structure approach which seemed to work for me. 

In some respects, this blog follows on from an earlier blog that reflects on my studying of an arts module: Unpacking a TMA question: tips from A111.

Part 1: The journey to the TMA

I began by a bit of productive procrastination. What I mean is that I began by sorting out all my study notes.

I have a A230 folder (a physical one) which is broadly organised in terms of time and weeks of study. I have a copy of the materials which I have ordered through the OU print on demand service. I like to have materials to look through, so I can take materials to a café without having to take my laptop and worry about internet connectivity. Plus, it’s easier to underline points with different colours of pen if I need to. 

At this point, I’ve read through the materials once; the weekly guides, the chapters in the blocks (the books that were sent to us), and the sections of the set text that we’ve been asked to read. In the case of A230, we’ve also been asked to read a copy of Othello, published by Oxford World Classics.

I create a fresh copy of the TMA question, by copy-pasting the TMA text from the assessment guide into a new Word document, and printing the whole document. I now have something I can annotate.

It’s time to create my word processing files.

On my laptop file store (which is backed up to the cloud), I have a folder called ‘modules’, and then a folder for each module that I’m studying. Within my A230 folder, I have one folder for each TMA. I also use this folder to save materials that have been sent to me by my tutor, so I have everything in one place. I create a blank TMA document, following the “submitting arts TMAs” guidance, making sure I have the right header, font size, and line spacing.

With my paper notes all sorted and an electronic submission file ready to go, it’s nearly time to get properly prepared to answer the TMA question. Before I do this, I have a sit down, have a read of the TMA (along with the set text), and make a whole set of pencil notes.

Part 2: Getting prepared

With my new TMA document open, following guidance from my tutor, I add a title and a references section, and make a note of the word count at the end of the document. Doing these things first ensures that I don’t forget the obvious.

My next step is to split the submission document into some temporary sections, even though the essay will be submitted as one main section (with an additional references section). These sections represent the three parts of the TMA question that I’m answering. I also made a note of the word budget for each of these sections, so I can get a feel for if I’m writing too much or too little.

I quickly re-read the module materials, playing particular attention to key headings, topics, and activities. The module activities there to help us to prepare for the forthcoming TMA. Although we can skip to the answers, it is a good idea to try to do them. I add some keywords that are used within the activities into the body of my solution document, just so I don’t forget about them.

My tutor has sent his tutor group a couple of useful documents that highlight some of the topics featured within the module materials. I copy these documents into my solution document, and edit them aggressively, distilling them so I have a summary of themes that may be useful to remember (or need to address) when writing my TMA. 

There are reasons why tutors run activities and talk about certain concepts during tutorials; they’re sometimes trying to give us a helpful steer. When attending tutorials, I tend to make loads of notes, most of which end up being unreadable. I look through these, and pick out the ones that look to be the most important, adding these next to the other points I have added to the TMA document.

I’ve done all this to pull a set of notes into one place; this way I don’t have to go looking for them when I start writing. I have three key headings, topics from the module materials, and heavily edited notes from tutorials, and a TMA covered with pencil scribble. To help to navigate my way through the Word document using the document navigator tool, I use the Word inbuilt headings.

My next step is to sort my references out. I add a set of references at the end of my TMA, getting the structure of each resource right by looking at the CiteThemRight website. It’s okay if I don’t use everything; I can always delete any references I don’t use or need. Besides, it’s good practice putting everything in the Harvard format.

Finally, I make a copy of my combined TMA submission document and notes document, so I can refer back to them later on if I need to.

Part 3: Writing the TMA

It’s time to start moulding the TMA. My tutor has given me some clear instructions. For the first TMA, it isn’t necessary to provide an introduction or a conclusion, but I might need to provide these with later TMAs.

I remember a bit of feedback from my A112 EMA, which was to make use of the PEEL technique for writing essays. 

PEEL is an abbreviation for Point, Evidence, Explanation and Linking sentence. I remember my EE811 tutor offered a similar bit of guidance about academic writing. Given the nature of their first assignment I’m writing, I don’t think I can (yet) make use of this specific approach, but if I were, I would be sketching out a set of points within my draft TMA document.

I refer back to the module materials, look through the set text again, and refer to some video materials that my tutor mentioned. I make sure that I reference everything carefully within the body of the TMA.

When I address a point that finds its way into the TMA, I delete my accompanying notes.

After quite a few cups of tea, and a bit of grocery shopping (a walk can help to put my thoughts in order), I think I’m done. I have three headings (one for each bit of the question), no remaining notes, and a TMA answer. I remove the three headings, leaving the ‘references’ section heading.

Part 4: Reviewing and submitting

After a couple of days have passed, I get a double spaced printout of my TMA (which is the format that the arts faculty suggest we adopt when we submit our TMA). I settle down at my desk, with another cup of tea, and a set of my favourite coloured pens and read everything back.

I correct a whole load of sentences that don’t make grammatical sense, scribbling on the paper, whilst resisting the temptation to rewrite everything.

When I’m done, I go to the word processed version and enact all the changes that I’ve noted. I make a note of the word count, save the document and then upload it to the eTMA system a couple of days before the TMA cut-off date.

The reason I submit it a few days before the cut off date is to take account of the potential of Sod’s law, which is: whatever could go wrong, will go wrong. 

Reflections

One thing I have done, but haven’t spent a lot of time on is the learning outcomes. Sometimes they are mentioned within a TMA in addition to being found within a module block. It’s important to revisit these too. Connection between the module learning outcomes and what the TMAs are assessing should be pretty clear. 

If I were doing a larger piece of writing, there would probably be a whole other section about structuring of my TMA (or EMA). With bigger bits of writing, I would have to find a way to structure my notes and to find quotes. I would also more vigorously apply the PEEL methodology. I might even give mind mapping a go, but that is not an approach I tend to gravitate to: I tend to prefer lists rather than spider diagrams. It all comes down to whatever works best!

Resources

There’s a whole host of resources about assignments, writing and study which can be found on the OU website. Here are some useful links.

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