MST210 – Exam and modelling exercise reflections

Revision day essentials – revising in 1 day is not recommended

This week was the exam for my level 2 OU module MST210 on methods, models and modelling.  This was a compulsory module, but had it not been I would have never chosen it.  The module has been mostly applied maths, which has been really interesting, but what’s been a problem for me has been the mandatory team work modelling exercise, which makes up 16% of the continuous assessment.  So much so, that I lost motivation to do the final TMA or revise for the exam as much as I wanted to.  I thought it would be worth a short reflection on why I disliked this aspect so much (especially as it led to a repeat of last year when it came to revision…).

Mathematical modelling is important, really important.  If you’re going to use maths in any real world application, you really need to understand how to create, test and revise models.  This is a given.  However, I was uncomfortable with how this is enforced for MST210.

One of the problems with the OU compared to traditional universities is that you don’t have the sense of community with your classmates.  There are face to face tutorials, but they’re not mandatory and, if you wish, you could do the entire course without ever speaking to anyone else.  With other (non-maths) courses there are residential schools and group exercises and even part of your module score for being active on the forums, and it appeared that there was a need to include group work into the maths modules.

While I’m not the most extroverted person in the world, I don’t consider myself socially awkward, but when it comes to academic attainment, I have a very strong sense of wanting to be measured on my work and not wanting to affect or be affected by anyone else.  As a result I admit I had a pre-conceived reticence against the process.

An earlier TMA had two questions where we had to mark fake reports using a tutors mark scheme. The results from this exercise also contributed to our overall score.  While tutors get considerable feedback on marking1 we had one go.  Unlike normal mathematics where marks are awarded for result and correct method, marking modelling reports is subjective, “did the student state the problem clearly?”.  I did not choose to study maths for subjectivity, and it’s why I regretted taking DB123 as my “spare” level 1 module.

With the uncomfortable feeling of subjective exercises in a TMA fresh in my mind we were assigned groups by the tutors.  I’m not sure how these groups were allocated, but there was no concept of geographical closeness.  I was told I was in a group of 5, one of which couldn’t contribute to the forums for valid reasons, meaning that there would be four of us making the model2.  We had a private forum and wiki.  Myself and one other introduced ourselves.  Of the remaining two, they didn’t even bother saying hi so I can only assume they’ve either dropped out or decided that the marks for contributing weren’t worth the effort.  My hackles were again raised by the thought of individuals taking my work and passing it off as their own without being part of the process.  This made me reticent to post too much.  I heard about other groups having calls, screen shares and even in person meets.  For my group there was nothing.  After a week, I found I was talking to myself – even the other person had stopped posting and I discovered that I was posting all my ideas for no net gain.

Like most people doing OU courses, I’m pretty busy, so the motivation to write up thoughts and take the time to post them for the benefit of the group when I was getting nothing in return just wasn’t there.  I spoke to my tutor about it and then team members were “nudged” to no avail.

The actual maths of the model we had to create were pretty easy, which may have been the cause for the lack of engagement.  however as a group we could have done far more varied experiments to test our model and even each worked on different revisions.  This would have made all our reports much richer.

Since attendance at tutorials is not mandatory, the OU has no way to enforce collaboration without changing the distribution of marks for the TMA.  This would then start to detract from the maths itself.  I’m not sure how to fix this.

The point of the group task is to show teamwork and collaboration for future employers.  As an employer, I can get this during the interview stage in other ways and would never assume from a line with a degree on their CV that individuals had this sort of experience  – it’s usually clear elsewhere.  Maybe this could be an elective TMA which does not count to your over all classification but shows the skills.  This way, those who were engaged enough to collaborate would get the most out of it.  Similarly, I would never ask my team to all do the same thing – as a manager I assign tasks based on skills and/or aspiration and then combine the results, so the actual task itself is not a good representation of how things work in business.

Doing the depth of model that I wanted on my own took a long time, so I was behind on the study of the last three modules and the final TMA, with a real lack of motivation for it.  I was pretty annoyed and burned out.  I did the final assignment with two sessions at a soft play centre while my daughter played, but didn’t read the chapters other than to find relevant examples.

Surprisingly, I got a decent mark on both the modelling assignment and the final TMA, so much so that I felt somewhat motivated for the exam with less than a week to go.  Really not enough.  I know that had the modelling report mark been low enough to drop down my overall assessment mark (which directly contributes to the overall result3) then I’d’ve not bothered much with the exam.  Where’s the motivation to do your best when it doesn’t make a difference?  However, with my new found motivation I was in the same situation as last year – a looming exam for which I’d done no preparation.

I managed the MST209 past papers untimed on my commute (when I got a seat) and did the handbook annotations as necessary, and then the day before the exam I did two past papers under exam conditions, and the practise quizzes.  Finally, the morning before the exam I did the specimen paper4.

Really not a good approach, but the exam itself seemed to go okay and I’m feeling pretty confident.  Results are out in the middle of July.  I’m also looking forward to being able to start level 3, which is where the really interesting modules are and I’ve not chosen which ones yet…

MST210 – Lack of routine has consequences

After the lack of focus I’d had studying for M208, I was adamant that with MST210 I’d get into a routine and stay on top of the work regardless of what else life through at me.  This worked pretty well in October and November.  I did the work during my commutes, approximately 3-4 hours a day, even if I had to sit on the floor of a train carriage or find a dusty corner of Paddington while waiting for a delayed train.  All was going well.  At the end of November I began the process of changing jobs and, because of the nature of my work, was put on garden leave for three months.  Suddenly I wasn’t confined on trains for about one seventh of every weekday.  This is where my whole routine broke down. Continue reading MST210 – Lack of routine has consequences

Diagrams with LaTeX – easier than you might think

Diagrams like this are easy to do in LaTeX

I’ve written before about the power of literate programming, using \LaTeX to create reports when code runs.  It’s fairly simple to combine this with the graphical drawing packages to create impressive graphs and figures on the fly.  A lot of academics I’ve spoken to have shied away from using \LaTeX for drawing, despite being very proficient with the textual layout.  Similarly, a lot of students on the OU Mathematics degree write up all of their assignments in \LaTeX but drop in hand drawn graphs and diagrams.  Just like anything else in \LaTeX, once you get your head around how it works, it’s actually not that difficult to create very complex structures. Continue reading Diagrams with LaTeX – easier than you might think

Using OneNote for Open University TMAs

Image from

I get a lot of attention when using my surface for note taking at work, studying on the tube or train and during OU tutorials, making full use of multiple notebooks, tabs and pages in OneNote.  I’ve written before about using the surface but following a discussion after my most recent tutorial I realised I hadn’t covered the way I use it along side the OU’s electronic TMA submission process1.  A lot of people on the same maths course as I am tend to use \LaTeX and typeset their marked assignments.  While I am a great fan of \LaTeX and appreciate how clear this is for the tutors to mark, I have always preferred to hand write assignments.  While there is some aspect of writing by hand helping to cement ideas more than those typewritten, the main reason I prefer to handwrite is that the exam is handwritten.  If I don’t force myself into regular, neat mathematical writing then it’s easy to make mistakes in the time pressure of the exam.  Simple things like forgetting to underline vector or matrix definitions can cost marks and if the examiner can’t distinguish a 0 from a 6 then you’re going to be in trouble! Continue reading Using OneNote for Open University TMAs

MST210 Study focus and time management

Not an exciting image - just the view sat on the floor of a train
Sometimes, you just have to sit on the floor to get stuff done…

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll know that I start off with good intentions for my OU modules and then finding myself rushing TMAs, skipping a lot of the text and generally revising the day before the exam. While I’ve got away with this so far, it is getting harder to get the scores I want and I knew going into MST210 that my focus and time management would need to improve to take this seriously.

One of the things I took into account when doing this module was the amount of time I spend commuting. Working in London I have a train journey of between 30 mins and 1 hour 15 (depending on whether I travel in rush hour or not) and a tube journey of 27 minutes (fortunately on a single line) in each direction, so at a minimum I have 2 hours on public transport in four good half hour blocks. That’s 10 hours study time a week, which should be sufficient1.

I’m getting a head start on MST210 as with previous modules I’ve fallen behind due to work commitments and I don’t want to impact my family time playing catch up as I did last year. I’ve done one full week and completed book A unit 1. This is on par with the pace that the study calendar sets2 and I have made notes on all the examples and done every single exercise in the unit.

Keeping focus has been really hard. It’s really easy when you’re on a train at 6.30am to sip coffee and stare out of the window as you wake up gradually. It’s so easy when you get on a train or tube and have to stand to just leave my surface and book in my rucksac and play Peak on my phone. It takes no effort after a day at work to grab a gin and tonic and read my Kindle. What is hard is having that focus and discipline to make every minute count – every minute I spend geting ahead now is a minute I can spend having fun with my family rather than having to isolate myself to rush that TMA. It seems like a no-brainer, but humans do tend to make short-term decisions at the expense of long-term success . One of the best things we can do to overcome how our brains work is have a routine and stick to it3.

This is what I’ve been doing – every morning and evening, I’ve forced myself to get my MST210 books out, not only when I’m actually on the train/tube, but also while waiting for them – I keep them in my hands while changing trains; if I don’t put them away, then there isn’t the effort to get them out again. If I need to sit on the floor of a train so I can write, then that’s what I do. This focus has taken a lot of effort and I’m not sure how long it will be before it’s automatic, nor indeed what will happen when my routine changes due to business travel.

However, backed by the science that our brains are dumb enough to make bad short term decisions even if we are aware of the long term consequences, I know that the focus I need is entirely in my own control and if I stick to the routine long enough, it will become the go-to task for my selfish limbic system.

MST210 – mathematical modelling – registered

MST210 - mathematical modelling is fun )
MST210 – mathematical modelling is fun )

Today, after a lot of pondering I finally signed up for MST210 to start in October.  This is the second 60 point module and, just like M208, is mandatory on the BSc Maths pathway.  I’d been holding back for a number of reasons and reviewing my post from last year, I realised that nothing had changed.  If anything my job is now more mathematically demanding as I dig deeper into the bleeding edge internals of machine learning.  My 3D printer is nearly finished and my daily commute is now 3 hours a day, giving me 2 hours a day sitting on trains.  That time is currently occupied with getting through a ridiculous amount of books1.  What I really want to avoid with MST210 is some of the rushing that I did for M208 – I want to enjoy this module. Continue reading MST210 – mathematical modelling – registered