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!

Maths degree for fun? Done!

Seven years ago I was in work bored and desperate for a new challenge. My daughter had recently been born and I had decided to stop playing World of Warcraft. Needing a new challenge, I had toyed with an MBA but really wanted to do something for me. So I signed up for a BSc in Mathematics with the Open University, which I knew would take about 6 years part time while working. This week, I got the results for my final module and it was confirmed I had earned a first class honours degree. But why didn’t I do maths the first time round?

Screenshot from my OU account confirming I was eligible for a First in Mathematics
Confirmation of the results of my hard work
Continue reading Maths degree for fun? Done!

My first remote exam experience

This week I was due to be sat in a large hall with about 200 other Open University students taking my exam for module M347, the last of the modules for the BSc in Mathematics I started for “fun1. As with students in traditional universities, March 2020 gave a lot of uncertainty2. While some modules were switched to be coursework based assessment, mine was confirmed to be a remote exam with the originally planned exam paper. The paper would be accessible as a PDF on the day of the exam and then submitted in two parts: a multiple choice computer marked section and then a human marked second section. We would not be time limited (other than by the 24 hours in the day!) So how did I feel about this and how did it go?

Continue reading My first remote exam experience

M347 – 33% through and reflections

I’ve recently submitted the first tutor marked assignment of M347, my final course in the BSc Mathematics I’ve been studying with the Open University.  The third unit of this course was long and quite a slog to go through.  While I’ve been using many of these equations over the past few years, diving deep into the theory and derivation has been fascinating, although frustrating due to the lack of practical application.  If you’ve read my other posts then you may recall how frustrated I was with group theory and the early parts of complex analysis, while the quantum world was far more engaging from the start1.  As with all my maths studies, this exercise of filling in the gaps has revealed that there are far more things I didn’t know I didn’t know than things I knew I needed to know.

Continue reading M347 – 33% through and reflections

OU Mathematics – final module choice

I started this degree not long after my daughter was born, a choice between an MBA and a degree for “fun” (learning for me rather than for career reasons) and it’s strange that I’m so close to the end of it. I have one level 3 module left to take. 30 points (or a quarter of a full time degree) to fit in around work and family1. I wrote a post a couple of years ago on my choices for level 3 and looking back at it now, I’m not sure I feel the same way.

Complex numbers (M337) was far more interesting and practically useful that I thought it was going to be. While it was a little drudgey at the start, towards the end everything came together beautifully. Deterministic and stochastic dynamics (MS327) was dull, it was essential mathematics and really useful, but there was nothing to excite me. Maybe this was a product of trying to study alongside long hours at work at the time. I wish I started with M303, the pure mathematics course, and then done complex numbers and the quantum world (my favourite module so far). However, I now have a choice again and I’m finding it tricky.

Continue reading OU Mathematics – final module choice

Quantum Journey – coming to the end of SM358

This week I finished the last of the books in SM358 – the quantum world and am now starting two and a half weeks of intense revision to prepare for the exam. This has been by far the most enjoyable module to study in my Open University mathematics journey so far, even if it was also the first one without face to face tutorials.

While I am very happy at studying on my own, one of the aspects I have really enjoyed in previous modules was spending a few hours every month with fellow students. Not so much to solve problems (as I am always well behind where everyone else is!) but to be inspired. When work and family commitments get overwhelming, study is easy to put to one side, having a checkpoint in the diary helps prioritise and I always left tutorials feeling motivated. I’m not sure whether SM358 didn’t have face to face tutorials because it is a physics module or if it’s just a module that has never been successful with these. Online tutorials are just not the same. Partially because I don’t get home early enough to attend them, but also after a day at work, trying to switch to student mode and find a quiet corner of the house just isn’t possible.

Continue reading Quantum Journey – coming to the end of SM358

SM358 The Quantum World 25% in…

When I was looking at the level three maths modules for my Open University degree, one of the ones that really drew my eye was SM358, the quantum world.  I decided to only do a single module this year as I’d committed to a lot of speaking engagements in October and, in addition to my day job, I’ve been spending time on another project that I’m really excited about for the start of 2019.  From past experience, if you fall behind on OU modules at the beginning, it can be very hard to catch up.  This was really noticeable with the complex analysis and stochastic dynamics modules I started in 2017.  Rather than taking on too much, I decided on just one level 3 module.  Given my progress so far I’m only about a week behind and I’m pretty happy with that. Continue reading SM358 The Quantum World 25% in…

2 out of 3 ain’t bad: back to back TMAs

MS327 progress – not where it needs to be to do well on TMAs

It’s been a crazy month.  From the lead up to the product launch at work to know it seems like I’ve been doing nothing but back to back assignments for my Open University maths degree.  So much so in fact that I’ve not had time to study, but only focus on the assignments themselves.  It all started back with the second TMA for M337 (Complex analysis), which was a rush job and I got a much lower score on that than I would have liked.

I then had two weeks until a computer marked assignment for MS327 and was going into this without having looked at any of the material in the book.  As usual, I spent my commute trying to get through it, but barely made it a quarter of the way through  before I realised I’d have to start working through the questions for the assignment.  Computer marked assignments are very different from the tutor marked ones.  You either select an answer from a choice of 4-6 potential results1 or by typing a numerical result.  Therefore your answers are either correct or incorrect.  There are no marks for method.

If you find yourself in this position, my best advice is always to do the unit quizzes.  These are usually in a similar format and will get your brain in the right place for the assignment itself.  In combination with the handbook and text books you should be able to follow how to get the answers from the questions, although please make time to go back and fill in the gaps as soon as you can.

Noise levels at the local soft play centre. Earplugs don’t really help – it’s so high pitched you feel it through your teeth more than your ears 😉

With the iCMA out of the way, I then had a week for the third TMA of MS327. Fortunately on the same topics as the iCMA, but much more involved questions.  This was a lot trickier to pick up.  With the usual standing room only on the commute, I’ve had to spend a lot of evenings trying to do this around family time and study in the excessive noise of soft-play centres… not a great environment for thought!

 

So I’ve just submitted the MS327 TMA online and I’m pretty happy with it.  Now I have two weeks to get the M337 TMA3 done and I’m a little more nervous about that.  There isn’t time to go through the study materials and answer the questions, so I’ve given myself a week to get as far as I can and then I’ll dive into the TMA and see how far I can get…

On the plus side, the OU offers substitution on your assignments, so it’s okay to have a bad one and you’ll be allocated a score that’s the average of the other three.  So I can still pull up my average for M337, as long as I do well on this TMA.

This level of progress isn’t looking good at the moment…

I’m really hoping that I can get time to get these to 100% before the exams in June!

Can I do calculus in my sleep?

Breaking discipline with my Open University studies is never a good thing.  Once you’re behind, it’s so difficult to catch up, especially with a full time job and a young child.  It’s been a crazy few weeks at work too, we’ve had a major launch event and lots of projects with looming deadlines.

It was in the days leading up to this launch that I had a TMA due for one of my level 3 OU modules, M337 Complex Analysis.

With all the other deadlines I’d only done half of the study necessary for the TMA. This is never a comfortable position. I got away with it at level 1 and mostly got away with it at level 2 but you really can’t do this at level 3. Especially when the focus is calculus of complex functions. I made a start in good time, but without the time to really get my head into the topics, it was always going to be an uphill struggle to make the intuitive leaps necessary at this level to determine the correct method.

Not a particularly healthy sleep profile…

In the days leading up to that TMA my sleep profile was pretty awful.  I can’t remember what caused it, but I had so many nights in a row where I got very little quality rest.  This isn’t great.  It impairs judgement at the best of times.   I could have asked for an extension in good time, but that would just compound the problem with the MS327 assignments in a few weeks1.

this is what maths looks like when you’re slowly losing consciousness!

When you’re sleepy, it’s easy for “i” to look like “1” and “z” to look like “2” particularly in equations where there are other terms with these numbers.  One of those days I found myself working on problems from the wrong module (MS327) and just looking at my notes it’s pretty obvious that I nodded off in the middle of writing these2.  Maybe it isn’t that obvious, but trust me that this level of spider scrawl is not representative of the handwritten work I normally submit!

The results of my assignment are back and it turns out I can’t do calculus in my sleep, let alone path integrals of complex functions.  I really do need to up my game and attribute more time to this degree3.

On a side note, I’m really pleased that my presentation at the launch event was recorded – I was a little light-headed after giving blood on top of poor sleep. I presented for 5 minutes and couldn’t remember a thing I said immediately afterwards.  I got some great feedback, so there’s definitely a learning there for being relaxed, not overthinking what you’re saying and also speaking about what you know!  I’ve only heard the audio so far, but will post the video when I have it.

 

 

M337: Group theory becomes relevant

My M337 books are starting to look a little dog-eared after a few weeks of commuting!

One of the things I’ve enjoyed least about my OU Maths journey so far has been group theory.  I ploughed through whole swathes of M208 applying the techniques and not really seeing the relevance1  I found group theory and the proofs related to it tedious.  Mainly because I was proving something that was “obvious”.  However, I’ve always had a healthy acceptance of partial learnings – knowing that if I was being taught a technique then there was a reason for it. Two years later and that reason finally hit me. Continue reading M337: Group theory becomes relevant