Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Tao of the Midnight Assignment

Time pressure has always been a problem for OU students (Who am I kidding? All students.) Perhaps it is becoming more prevalent as students try to maximise their investment, juggling work, family and one or more modules. I have known students work full time and do two modules, which is effectively full time study. “Foolhardy” is a word that springs to mind, but they do seem to survive, and even prosper. Inevitably there are times when there is no time, when a book has to be read, a forum digested, an online session devoured, and an assignment produced in the space of three days, or less. So this post is about the best way of approaching an assignment when you have limited time.

Using your time 
When you have time available, concentrate. Richard Nixon, famous for Watergate, did have some good qualities. One of them was an ability to focus. Like all managers he rarely got more than a few minutes for any one decision, but he had an immense ability to concentrate. He would be given a problem and he would focus fully on it for the few minutes he had, till he reached a decision. Then he would put that one out of his mind, and focus fully on the next one. This is an admirable trait for an OU student to copy. If you have only half an hour now, don't try to pack too much in to that half hour. Decide what you can do properly in that time, then focus fully on it. You may not cover as much ground, but what you do you will do well.

- go fast and slow. Something being urgent doesn't mean it has to be done as fast as possible. That may sound paradoxical, but let me explain. Some points in the genesis of an assignment are pivotal.

Reading the question

Planning the reading

Planning the assignment

Writing it

Submitting it

Each of these needs your concentration when you get to it, and you need to think about the thing you are doing rather than thinking about the time you don't have available.

Reading the question
Let's say you have an assignment due in four weeks time, and little study time available. At the beginning of the sequence of work, read the question that you will be answering in four weeks time. Do spend some time with it. Make sure you understand what the question wants. If it is short enough, print it out in very big type and stick it where you can easily see it. For OU students, read the guidance or student notes that come with the question. They usually point you to key parts of the module material. Then you know what you need to read. Don't start reading till you are sure you have grasped what the question is about.


Planning the reading
It still amazes me how many university students fail to read intelligently. They start at page 1 and work their way to the end of the chapter, then go on to the next chapter.....  If you're in time trouble you need to decide what to read - the stuff that you need for the assignment. So do some planning. Be realistic about the amount of time you will have available to read, and list the chapters and sections you need in order: essential, important, desirable. Before you start reading the essential stuff, look at the context. Take note of the chapter introduction, and its structure. This is important for understanding, and it will dictate how you read. It is different in different books. One module I teach on has aims at the start of each chapter, so I tell my students to spend some time with the aims so that they are clear about what they will be reading. Then when they have finished the chapter, they go back to the aims and determine how far the aims have been achieved. I recommend writing a reflective paragraph or two about that. On another module the chapters do not have an aims section at the beginning, but each section has an excellent summary at the end. So I recommend reading the book backwards. Read the section summary first, so that you know what the section is about, then read the section, then compare what you have read with what the summary says. Whatever the structure of the chapters is, there will be some natural method of appraising it, then reading it, then reflecting on it.

The point about doing this in a hurry is that you can't hurry learning too much. It is very important not to compromise this process - appraise, read, reflect - just because you have limited time. You will do better to read one section thoroughly and use it well in your assignment, than to read two sections hurriedly and make only shallow use of them. So that is the business about going fast and slow. You have a limited amount of time, so you will feel rushed. But do not rush. Whatever the time is that you have available, slow down when you reach it so that you make best use of it.


Planning the assignment
You have done the reading. You still need to plan the assignment. All the advice about planning still holds. Collect together your theories and your evidence. Figure out what the answer to the question is going to be, and then figure out how your argument gets you there. Like the other parts of the process, this needs time. You may have only half an hour for it, but you should still do it. And in that half hour you should focus utterly on what the question is and how the evidence bears on it. Let it take you off the topic if it will: that way learning occurs which will emerge in the assignment, even if you don't see it there.


Writing it
Everyone is different. Everyone has their own writing method. Some methods work better than others under time pressure. For what it's worth, if you have been staring at a blank sheet for five minutes, and can only think about the time ticking away, I suggest employing the fifteen minute method. You have done the plan, so you know what you're writing about. If you have a timer, set it for fifteen minutes. Start writing. It doesn't matter if it is not grammatical, logical or even coherent, just write. When the buzzer buzzes, stop writing, and set the timer again for ten minutes. Spend ten minutes editing what you have written.

If you are then part way through the assignment, give yourself a break then do more fifteen minute writing sessions and ten minute edits, until you finish or until you run out of time.


Submitting it
The submission process has its own importance. Submission includes things like spell check, proof read, add the references (in the correct format). Read through the question and make sure you have answered all the bits. On one module I teach, the students have to write around 50 words of reflection on two questions they are given with each assignment. They do not get marks for the quality of the reflection, but they lose five marks if the reflection is not there. It takes two minutes to write 50 words, but so many students forget to do it, and lose five marks. It is not that they don't want to, they do just forget. So, even when you're in a hurry - in fact especially when you're in a hurry - take a few minutes to read right through the question, every paragraph, every word of it, and make sure you have done everything you are required to do, before you press the submit button.

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