Thinking of studying with the OU? What you need to know…

It’s been seven years of studying while working full time (and in some cases nearly double full time hours!) and I’ve now finished the degree I started for “fun” because I wasn’t being intellectually challenged in the job I had at that time. I was sceptical of all aspects of the Open University but thought I’d give it a go, knowing that without a cost to me and an exam, I would never make the time to study. While I’ve been blogging about individual modules over the years I’ve had quite a few conversations with many of you reading this blog about the pros and cons of study with the OU and one of the comments on my last post was from Korgan, who suggested I do a post about this and I’ve combined their questions with all of the others I’ve had.

Having studied at both the OU and traditional universities (Oxford and Sussex), I feel I can comment on the differences between the two different types of study so you know what you are signing up to. There’s a week left to confirm your modules if you want to start with the OU.

Application

Unlike traditional unis, there are no formal entry requirements. If you didn’t do as well as you hoped at school or college, or it’s been a while since you studied then this is no problem. The OU will strongly recommend that you are at a certain level, with modules stating any pre-requisites that are assumed. Some modules have quizzes so you can assess whether you’re ready, but at the end of the day, it is up to you. I would strongly recommend that you read through their “Am I ready?” section. If you feel that you’re not quite there yet, have a go at one of their many free courses (some of which are extracts from some of the main modules) so you can get a feel for the level of the subject. There are also no limits on the number of students doing any particular course, so you’re not competing to apply against anyone.

  • No entry requirements
  • No competition for entry

Cost

This close to the start date you will need to pay your fees in full upfront. For a UK student studying “full-time” you can expect to pay Β£6192 per year for 3 years. Most will study part time and so pay half that each year for 6 years but the total cost for the degree will be about the same. Costs are creeping up year on year – my first modules were Β£2400 for part time (60 points per year, equivalent to Β£4800 full time) Compare this to to the “up to” Β£9250 that traditional universities charge for UK student fees1. You can get loans and grants but you need to apply well in advance for these and with the modular nature of the course each module needs its own application. I don’t know how this works if you are eligible for funding for your course.

Included in your tuition fee are the study materials you need – these are mostly printed books and DVDs although as modules are being updated the DVDs are being replaced with online videos and the books with PDFs. If you’re the sort of person who needs a physical book for study you might want to check this on a module by module basis. For the maths courses, everything you needed was provided. For some of the other courses there are extra books you will need to read and sourcing these could be an issue or extra cost. There is a scheme where you can access the library of your nearest physical university but this is not an option for many for a whole host of practical reasons.

Some modules also have mandatory residential schools. None of these were needed for the modules I took, but if you are looking at some of the science courses then this is something that you will have to consider for both time and money. Residential courses allow you to undertake practical activities for your course that cannot be taught or assessed online, and the cost of this is not part of your course fees.

You will also need to consider travel costs and time for face to face tutorials. These are not mandatory but can be very useful. Sadly, the location of these will depend on the geographical distribution of students compared to the tutors and this won’t be known at the time you sign up.

  • Cheaper than most UK universities
  • Funding and loans not as straightforward as for normal UK university applications
  • Books included
  • May need to pay extra for travel/group activities
  • May need to pay extra for additional books
  • Cost of getting to tutorials can vary dramatically

Studying

This is the biggest difference for me. When you are studying you are alone. In traditional universities there is the buzz of other students, study groups in rooms, conversations after lectures, discussions about assignments. With your OU study you can feel disconnected. There are groups on facebook, whatsApp etc, each module will have its own forum for discussion, your tutor will be available to answer questions, and there will be tutorials (either on line or face to face). This is not the same as the immersion in a university full time. Depending on your personality you may find this fine, or a struggle.

There are fewer tutorials at higher levels. For example, my first few modules I had a 3 hour tutorial face to face 30 minutes from my home about every six weeks. By level three this had dropped to only three tutorials, and for my last module there were no face to face tutorials at all. This is partially down to the number of students and their locations not making in person tutorials feasible, but if you’re the sort of person who needs to bounce ideas around to help get a subject to stick then be aware you will need to be very active in the forums and social media groups and possibly have to start your own study groups. The quality of tutorials will also vary greatly with the tutors. I left some of mine feeling inspired and exciting about the subject and others practically the opposite. This is down to the presentation style of the tutor and you do get a similar problem in traditional universities!

Many people choose the OU to fit around their existing lives and it is perfect for that, but you need to be determined and stubborn. The OU expects 6-10 hours study a week for a 30 point module. If you are working full time and have a family, you will need to find a way to make the time work for you. I did it mostly while commuting and when my daughter was at soft play, so that when I was home I didn’t have to make time for study. This didn’t always work. There were times that I had to spend the weekends catching up. I made sure that every time I was away from home I crammed in as much study as I could rather than socialising at conferences or enjoying the location I was in. Recognise that something in your current life will have to go to make way for study. You need to be honest with yourself where you will make the time and can you dedicate yourself to that for the next three to six years.

Nobody will be pushing you to study except yourself. At a traditional uni, the other students and your tutors are there – they will pick up if you are falling behind and help you. With the OU, you need to raise your hand and ask for help. Many assignments can be delayed (usually all except the last) as long as you give your tutor notice. Modules can be deferred if necessary. But you need to ask. If your assignment isn’t in on time or you don’t turn up to the exam then you will fail unless you can provide a very good reason quickly. If you are the sort of person who needs constant encouragement and pushing to study then the OU is not for you2.

Conversely, as soon as you have your books you can get started and get ahead (I never managed this!) and plenty of people are on the hunt for second hand books straight after their exams so they can start their next module before they receive the new materials in September. You won’t be able to access the assignments until the module starts in early October, but nothing is stopping you from doing all the study before the course starts, particularly if you know you have a busy year ahead.

  • Can feel isolating studying remotely
  • You won’t be pushed into study
  • You won’t be held back if you want to get ahead
  • Tutorials are variable in quality and quantity
  • Fewer tutorials at higher levels
  • Need to be honest with yourself about what time you can commit

Assessment

Modules have a combination of tutor marked assignments (TMAs), computer marked assignments (CMAs), extended assignments (EMAs) and exams.

TMAs are most common. You can expect 3-4 for a 30 point module and 4-6 for a 60 point module. These are submitted as PDFs online through the OU student home website3. Your tutor will mark and return to you with comments. For the maths modules you can expect one TMA per book and a question on each chapter. Tutorials are usually scheduled a week before the TMA due date and the tutor usually will go through similar problems. TMAs can take anything from a few hours to days depending on how quickly you write and how well you understand the questions. I’d always recommend hand writing TMAs so you practise your layout for the exam. Getting your results varies by tutor and can be anything from next day to weeks after you submit.

CMAs are online quizzes with multiple options for each question. You do not have to do these in a single session and can go back and change your answers as often as you like until you submit. Some of these you can do more than once and subsequent attempts will give different questions. These are a great way to check your understanding with immediate feedback. I’d recommend saving any feedback as once you’ve exited the CMA it’s difficult to get the feedback screen again.

EMAs are rare in maths but some modules do have them. These are basically longer versions of TMAs or CMAs and can be double or even more. They are usually part of the final assessment. During 2020, the remote exams were submitted as EMAs for the modules.

Depending on the module, the results from the assignments may or may not impact your overall grade. I have seen the following combinations across the modules for the BSc Mathematics:

  • Assignments have no impact on your score and are solely to help you gauge your progress and understanding
  • Assignments have no impact on your module score but you have to complete a minimum number of assignments and achieve a passing score to be eligible to enter the exam
  • Assignments contribute a percentage of your overall module score
  • The lower score from your exam or assignments is taken as your module score

Which of these is in play is not always clear from the module selection page and can change, between years. I’d always recommend treating assignments as if they count and do them all.

  • Assignments are regularly spaced throughout the course and related to where you should be in your study
  • Questions are not always worded in a similar way to the study materials
  • Feedback on TMAs is variable in both time and quality depending on your tutor
  • Impact of TMAs varies between modules – if you are short on time, prioritise the ones that count toward your final score

Revision and Exams

Exams are usually scheduled for the first two weeks in June for modules that start in October. The exact date will be confirmed in January, so keep these weeks free before you commit. If you do get a clash then you can defer but you must contact the OU straight away and have a good reason.

Modules will generally give you two revision weeks before the exam so it’s easy to lose this time if you fall behind with study. You will need to find your own way of revising. I’m definitely not the right person to give advice here as I usually find myself cramming before each exam due to work commitments! Exam papers can differ from the course materials and TMAs so be prepared for this and do as many past papers as you can as part of your revision. You can get past papers for free from the OU shop. The answers to past papers are usually posted on the module forums a couple of months before the exam. I would recommend making sure you can do as many past papers in exam conditions as possible. I used the local library and coffee shops4 as I found doing this in the house was too distracting. Mark yourself, harshly. Anything you got wrong, write out the answer and re do some similar problems and then tackle the next past paper. You’ll get a specimen paper and answers with your course materials as well. Different modules may allow you a calculator or the handbook so check during revision so you’re prepared!

If you’ve not sat an exam in a long time, it can be difficult to know what to expect. It’s exactly like school πŸ˜‰ Single desks, exam papers and silence. You can take food and drink but please nothing noisy! There will be invigilators walking around and giving you time checks and extra answer booklets. They will also check your ID so you can’t send someone else to sit the exam for you πŸ˜‰

Because of COVID, this year’s exams were sat remotely. For my last one we had a 24 hour window to access the paper and complete the computer marked part (presented as a CMA) and the hand written part (presented as an EMA) and submit both. Other students are now saying that the window has been dropped to 4 hours, 3 for the exam and one for the submission (although you can use submission time to finish off). This may change again in future.

If you fail an exam then you can take a resit but you will be awarded a maximum of a grade 4 pass (the lowest) which may impact your overall degree result. If you want to take it again then you will have to pay to retake the entire module. Talk to your tutor early about your options if you don’t think you will pass.

After the exams, you usually get a report of how you did on each question and how the rest of the students did on each questions. While the precise marks are not exposed you get which percentage groups had which number of students. From memory, there are always pretty much a bell curve as you would expect for a few hundred students of mixed abilities, but there were no fixed amount in any one grade. This makes me feel that there is not standardisation occurring across the board. However, should a question turn out to have a misprint or be judged unfair then I would expect some measure of results change to be applied5. Every year you will get people happy with the exam and people unhappy with the exam, even before the results come out. People who are unhappy with an exam paper or their results tend to be the most vocal and a common complaint is the difference to the TMAs or books – it’s critical you do past papers before the exam or you will get surprised.. I’ve certainly not seen any results that had been forced into a standard distribution or experienced questions that I thought were not representative of previous exams on the modules I took.

  • Not enough revision time is allocated
  • Most modules do not have revision tutorials
  • Limited support for revision and exams
  • Items allowed for an exam vary considerably by module
  • Answers to previous exams are student submitted and may be wrong
  • You can resit an exam, but you won’t get more than the lowest mark

Is it viable?

Before I started this degree I was sceptical of the quality – how could the OU provide something that could match the attainment of Oxford or Sussex? I’m pleased to say that I am now one of the biggest advocates for the OU and life long learning.

Somebody with an OU degree immediately shows me that they have resilience and commitment to a goal. I like to hire people with these skills!

There have been changes in the OU in recent years and with new leadership comes new ideas. One of the negatives I’ve seen is the decrease in tutorials – these were essential for providing support to many students and it’s something I’d love to see brought back. I’ve not noticed any other changes.

The OU modules count for credit transfer if you want to switch to a full time course and similarly if you feel you can’t continue full time you can get credit transfer to skip modules within the OU.

If you don’t want to do a full degree then you can convert modules to graduate diplomas, and many people do the “Open degree” where there is (nearly) complete freedom to choose modules from the full range available without being forced into a smaller set for a specific degree.

  • Decrease in tutorials recently
  • No major impact on students due to leadership change
  • Recognised qualifications and quality
  • Flexibility to study what you want

Summary

The OU works really well if you are self-motivated and determined and need light support. It’s cheaper than other options, no barriers to entry and you are in complete control of when and where you study.

On the negatives, the support you will get and the feedback from your tutor can vary enormously and has dropped noticeably in recent years. You may have to seek out additional support if you cannot learn from the materials (although this is completely possible).

If you have any other questions please do comment and I’ll answer based on my experiences!

  1. Unless you are lucky enough to be in Scotland or are otherwise subsidised πŸ˜‰
  2. Unless of course you live with someone who can fulfil that role for you!
  3. You can submit by post in some circumstances but then the TMA has to arrive by the due date giving you two less days to complete it
  4. Buy plenty of coffee and don’t do this on busy days!
  5. This is generally what happens with exams should anything slip through the reviews that happen well in advance of the students seeing the paper.
janet
Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University.

During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.

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janet

Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.

4 thoughts on “Thinking of studying with the OU? What you need to know…”

  1. Thanks for answering all of my questions πŸ™‚

    I need to come up with a solution for social support if I choose to enroll. I prefer to work on my own, but it’s a huge advantage to have people to bounce ideas off or find gaps in knowledge that I didn’t realise I had, but nobody I know has any interest whatsoever in math. There’s only so much rubber duck debugging I can take.

    (Btw, when I did my first module 16 years ago, I was living in Scotland and it was free. Pretty jarring stuff.)

    Maybe 5-6 years from now, I’ll be writing a blog post about what it’s like to study with the OU in the US.

    Are you planning further studies?

    Thanks again.

    1. Glad I answered everything πŸ™‚

      I’m not sure if public lectures at universities are a thing in the US but that could be an easy way to a support network of people who like to talk about maths, and can be a mix of interested members of the public and students. You may get lucky with a group of fellow students who are super active with the forums and are open to online study groups but you can’t guarantee that for any of the modules.

      If you do sign up I would recommend blogging about it – I’ve found lots of people to talk through about maths because of this blog and I’m sure there would be a lot of people interested in the perspective of someone outside of the UK… and let me know πŸ™‚

      I still haven’t decided if I’m going to study anything else this year or take a break… Every year I have considered a break I always find myself signing up for another module just before the deadline!

      Janet

  2. Wonderful post, Janet.

    One thing I would like to add (for others’ read) though, is this: If you are a very very hard working person, and have always done well in academics, etc., and/or have a very sensitive nature to “results” (i.e. scores and grades), please know well ahead, that getting a First class degree or in any individual modules in OU is extremely hard – i.e. you will need at least 85% score.
    If you got, say, 84.4%, you will be given a Grade 2 pass only.

    Grade 2 pass runs from 70% to 84.5% score.
    Given that, I think, pragmatically speaking, OU does not give you enough motivation in that sense to let students work really hard to attain first class, since you are going to get only grade 2 pass regardless of whether you get 70% or 84.4% (I mean 84.4% border score requires extraordinary work to achieve anyway). So one might think – why bother with all that extra work? You see what I mean.
    So, be sure you are capable of digesting this fact and very high thresholds to get distinctions in modules / degree.

    I mean imagine missing the distinction by 0.1% and being classed as Grade 2, for a second (whilst one other student who did 70% also gets the same grade πŸ™‚ as you who got 84.4%).

    I have personally scored very well, so I am not really ranting against the score system in OU :), but all I am saying is if YOU do take results and scores very sensitively (like I do, I love academics and scores , I count every potential mark to gain, etc… and work very hard to earn that… I am that kind of a person, considering I am not even doing this degree to please my employer… since I am my employer :))… so please be aware that you need very high score (vis-a-vis Brick Uni’s) – I mean, 85% to get a First…. Please OU! πŸ™‚
    They might as well make it 100% if you ask me for a First grade :), and we can all play lotteries after doing all the hard work.

    Just wanted to add my 2 pence, Janet., for others’ benefit, so they know what they are getting into.

    Other than that, I love OU and what they do! They need big round of claps for their offerings.

    Thanks for allowing my comments, Janet (hoping you allowed it during your review of my post :)). .. Ha ha!

    1. That’s a great addition and you’re absolutely right – I am very results oriented and struggled with this on the TMAs particularly in the level one modules. That grading cut off is clear is clear and it can be painful to be a single mark below the boundary. At least in maths there is (usually) no subjectivity in marking so you can assess your potential score pretty well with the past papers to find the areas where you drop marks. It’s also important to remember that you’re awesome for doing a course with the OU while dealing with work/life so focus on the results you want (or need) and not what the other students are talking about – comparing yourself to others with different backgrounds in the subject and different demands on their lives is not healthy.

      It’s worth noting that because the degrees are modular, your overall class (for BSc Mathematics) is weighted based on the pass level and points value of the level 2 and 3 modules with a modification based on your level three modules. So you can get a 60 pt level 2 or a 30pt level 3 pass and still get a first as long as all your other modules are level 1, but this is not clear. If your module results are a little more varied then it can be really hard to work out – something to discuss with your tutor!

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