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 £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 £2400 for part time (60 points per year, equivalent to £4800 full time) Compare this to to the “up to” £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 😉 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 😉

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!

M208 – revising in 2 days

Cover sheets of two past papers - you're not missing anything by not loading this image
Two of the 5 M208 past papers I did…

Last week I took the exam for the level 2 Open University module M208 (Pure Mathematics).  Just like last year with MS221, I’d not studied as much as I wanted, and had given myself two clear days before the exam to “cram” as much as possible and hope for the best.  I want to make it very clear that this is a really poor strategy for any student wanting to revise and please with you not to copy this method! Continue reading M208 – revising in 2 days

Preparation for MS221

So – I’m approaching the end of my third OU module, MS2211, and the exam is in a few days.  I missed all the local revision tutorials through being away with work2 and, despite some good intentions, I am woefully behind.  Consider this a crammer’s guide for learning university level mathematics in 3 and a half days 😉3.

MS221 consists of four blocks: block A covering sequences, conics and geometry; block B covering iteration and matrices; block C covering more complex4 integration and differentiation and Taylor Polynomials; and block D covering complex numbers, number theory, groups and logic and reasoning5.  The exam allows an annotated handbook and so it is fairly easy to prepare given a few days of dedicated effort, which (if you’re reading this in time, may help6. Continue reading Preparation for MS221