MS221 – was Illidan right?

So, a few days ago I tweeted that I had this snippet from World of Warcraft going round my head where Illidan taunted that we weren’t prepared for what awaited us.  It was how I felt going into MS2211 and now that I’ve done the exam I wanted to reflect on why I’d ended up feeling unprepared for a test in a subject I am very enthusiastic about for a degree I’m doing for no direct gain other than for the fun of learning.

I started this degree back in 2013 because I was intellectually unstimulated in my job.  I was busy, spinning many plates and wasn’t bored, but there just wasn’t anything to do that really set my neurons firing.  I’d started the process of looking for another job for a whole host of reasons I won’t go into, but I could feel my brain getting “comfortable” at not having to think much beyond which of my team needed to do which task in what order in response to changing priorities.  So I signed up to do the maths degree I’d always wished I’d done.

Once I’d paid for the first module and got the study materials, I had great intentions of dedicating 5-10 hours a week2.  Like most people using the OU to get qualifications, working full time (sometimes 50+ hours a week) plus juggling the needs of family really condense time available.  It was easy to focus on the immediate needs rather than the long term goal.  As I’ve mentioned before, I can get away with it so it’s never been a problem.

Indeed, one of my friends even commented that anything above 85%3 is inefficient for effort to return.  While this is a valid point, Mathematics is binary – there’s no grey area in whether something is correct or not, so 100% is very achievable, which is why I’m frustrated when I don’t get the marks I should.

It’s at this point that I will be honest and disclose what, to some extent, I’ve kept hidden from my tutor group.  We’re all expressing frustrations at different levels – I know some of the people I speak to are working really hard and struggling to get 50% and are finding things tricky.  If they knew I was putting in virtually no effort and getting annoyed that I’ve only got 95% in the assignments then I doubt I would be a welcome part of the group. I don’t want to be that person.  However, all was ticking along nicely and I had a plan for the lead up to the exam for this module.

Then I changed jobs and, if you’ve been following my posts you’ll know, suddenly there was a whole lot more thinking required.  In the past 6 weeks I have had to get up to speed with new products and also a whole new area of bleeding edge computing research.  So rather than MS221, my brain has been full of Machine Learning algorithms.  I’ve been reading papers and putting together prototypes for my new secret project, while juggling the existing team and potential new candidates and, well as you’d expect, all thoughts of preparing for the exam evapourated.  As Illidan said – I was not prepared.

Despite a new plan for the past week, a combination of a non-sleeping toddler4  and some critical issues at work, I did very little until the day before the exam (about 4 hours revision).  On this penultimate day, I started with a past paper, which I sat timed, and after checking against the sample answers, I reckon I’d got 76%.  Not bad for practically cold, but I wasn’t all that happy with this.  My husband was decidedly unsympathetic as it was my own fault I hadn’t revised and the bad example I was setting to students everywhere5 and that 76% was actually a bloody good result considering the lack of work I’d done.  This left me with about 6 hours of time to raise my game by 24%.

Have I made it?  Well I’ll find out for sure in a few months.  The questions were fairly straightforward – nothing unexpected, but there was a lot of detail and it was easy to lose time looking up some of the equations that I really should just know, not to mention the blindness for minus signs that I get in matrix manipulation.

However, of the 14 questions, I’m fairly confident about 12, with the final two I know had a few issues… But I had no time to check my answers.  I’d like to say I’ll be happy as long as I get 85%, but I won’t be.  I’m not the sort of person that’s happy with doing just enough, and it will eat at me that I could have got 100% but didn’t – not through lack of understanding but lack of effort.

  1. My 3rd OU Maths degree module.
  2. As the OU recommend per module.
  3. The “first” boundary is at 85%.
  4. She was just super excited to have me home after a week in Boston, and has inherited my propensity to not want to miss anything by sleeping.
  5. This is a very valid point – I’m not a good role model for studying.

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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.