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  1. Study at the OU
  2. Undergraduate
  3. Distance learning explained

Distance learning explained

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The Open University’s unique, style of distance learning is called supported ‘Open Learning’. This means that you study on your own, either at home or wherever suits you – reading, watching or listening to material supplied, doing activities and assignments with regular support from your tutor.

  • Open learning means that you will be learning in your own time by reading study material, working on activities, writing assignments.
  • Supported means support from a tutor and from other OU staff based at national or regional centres.

You’ll also get the opportunity to interact with other students through the OU’s online conferencing system, tutorials and informal study groups, and through events and clubs organised by the OU’s Student Union.

Supporting you to succeed

woman accessing support over the phone while working on a laptop

The level of support is fantastic and the materials are brilliant. It’s such a wonderful learning experience.

Beverly Hooper, OU student

You can get help at any stage throughout your studies online, by phone or by email. We understand that fitting study around life and work isn’t always easy, so we offer plenty of options to provide help when you need it.

Our online induction programme will help get you off to a great start before your study begins. You can work through the programme in your own time, helping you to:

  • familiarise yourself with distance learning and your chosen subject
  • understand how to get the best out of your time studying with the OU.

For every module you study, you’ll have a tutor, who will give you guidance, offer advice, and provide comprehensive feedback on your coursework.

They will also be your first point of contact for help with any module-related or study issues.

Your tutor can be contacted by email or phone, and will lead group tutorials and seminars.

Hear about the OU’s first class support from other students:

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1 minute 12 seconds

Kafula (Student): My tutor was obviously interested in me doing well. She was available for me. I would go back and ask questions and ask clarifications for things that I was, you know, not sure about and she would give me examples and make comments that would help me to understand the difficulties that I was experiencing. In Zambia, it was very different. I think, you know, there was very little in terms of support. You were given a piece of work and you had to go and find out yourself the meaning. You had to use your own resources - ask friends, family or just find ways of finding answers and present that.

Anna (Student): The tutors always were encouraging, even when they marked some a bit lower than I might have expected. There was always encouraging words at the end and before that they explained what was wrong so I could improve that in next essay and progress from there.

Kafula (Student): You didn't feel embarrassed about not knowing things because then the tutor would give you comments at the level that you are, to help you understand.

Anna (Student): At first, I was really afraid to ask for help but a friend who is actually OU tutor was saying that he's not always happy with his students because they don't ask him for anything and he's there to help them so then, you know, first time, second time when I had a problem, I did call or ask on the tutorial for help.

Mongrou (Student): I think it's quite nice if you can get in touch with some of the student because you can always go to them.

When I have question that I found it difficult to understand or specially some of the jargon word, I often send it, send an email to them and ask them for explanation or to see if they can help me in one way or another. They try to find out, try to find the answer for you, try to help you in any way that they can.

Alexa (Student): During the last course I did at the Open University which was Exploring the English Language I connected with a fellow student who was Scottish. We called each other a lot.

I was getting quite a lot out of it, when it comes to vocabulary, when it comes to syntax, you know, English sentence-making. Towards the preparation of the exam, we actually revised together and that was really, really helpful.

Kafula (Student): I worked with a friend of mine who's from Zimbabwe, who was doing the same course as I was, experiencing the same problems with language and explanations to the new words that we were facing in our course.

He had a better understanding of the questions and you know, so he helped me to understand the context or the meaning of the question and I think I was much better in structuring the essays, so we fed off each other, so whereas he helped me understand the question, I helped him putting his essay together.

Anna (Student): Other students were helpful in the way that they expressed their ideas in the tutorials. Sometimes you don't know much about the subjects, for example in the first course there was a part which involved 60s and writing an essay about the 60s. I wasn't even born then, so getting the older students to talk about their experiences you could put that in the essay and enrich your work so that was helpful.

Agron (Student): The more interaction you have, the more confident you are at the end of it in answering your questions and you can also see that in tutor group forums which are part of the OU webpage where, you know, people write to each other. It's been a help to me, so I guess it's been a help to other people as well.

Aneta (Student): There is a group dedicated to ‘Exploring Psychology’ course on the Facebook. The brilliant part about it is that everyone can go there. Everyone can ask any questions regarding the assignment or the exam or anything really they want to talk about regarding the course.

The good thing about it is that, if there are any questions regarding any particular topic, people answering them, they're fellow students so they what they do, they actually reply to you using their own language, the very colloquial language, which is actually extremely helpful because suddenly someone is describing to you something you don't understand in a book, in a way that you will understand.

There are also tutors who actually revealed their their identity and saying ‘Yes, we are tutors we actually represent the OU side of it’. Which is also great because, in a sense, you don't only rely on your own tutor which is assigned to every person, but then you have other tutors' point of view presented there.

You’ll get help when you need it.

You can access a huge range of online information and advice, so you needn’t worry if it’s late at night and you have an urgent question. Most of your questions will already have been asked and answered, and you’ll find them online.

Once you’ve applied for your place at the OU you’ll have access to help topics including:

  • study skills
  • careers planning
  • services for disabled students
  • computing help

And if you can wait until our offices are open, our advisers will be on hand to answer your queries and help you plan your studies. If you need help to get started contact us on 0845 366 0480.

If in Wales you can contact us in Welsh or English. Gallech gysylltu â ni yn Gymraeg neu Saesneg.

We have a thriving OU community.

You’ll automatically become a member of the OU Students Association (OUSA). OUSA represents your views (both within and outside the OU) through elected officers and representatives who are all students. There are OUSA branches across the UK, a busy calendar of social events, and an annual conference.

You’ll also join your own study community where there are active module and qualification forums. And there are many other optional ways to stay in touch with the OU and other students through social media websites, or our vibrant virtual campus.

Wherever you are, you’ll never be on your own.

Studying with the OU

What are the study materials like ?

You will be taught through printed study materials, audio CDs, video DVDs, and online resources which students work through on a week-by-week basis and locally-based learning support and tutorials provide face-to-face contact for many students.

The study materials we provide are of the highest quality, and they may include:

  • specially written textbooks or workbooks
  • online teaching materials
  • audio CDs, DVDs and computer software

When your module starts, you'll receive study materials by post. The materials we provide are yours to keep and to refer to whenever you wish.

You will also get access to a module website where additional resources will be available. Sometime there will be books you have to buy yourself or borrow from a local library.

You'll get a study timetable that will help you plan your reading, activities and assignments, and you'll get information about how and when your tutorials will take place and for most modules when your examination will occur.

You'll get the most benefit if you study actively, so it is good practice to treat printed study materials as workbooks: write notes on them, highlight sections, underline key points, make notes on the pages, add comments, or stick bits in.

Will I need a computer ?

You'll need regular and reliable access to the internet and a computer so that you can take full advantage of our online services, including online forums and our vast library, and get access to support from your tutor and fellow students.

All our modules have a website that will help you plan and organise your study and allow you to get involved with the University's learning community - the largest in the world!

For most modules you will be expected to spend at least a couple of sessions a week working on a computer-based activities and some of this work may be assessed. We'll also ask you to provide an email address so that we can send you important information relevant to your studies. If you don't have an email account of your own we can provide one for you.

Tutorials or residential school

Many modules also include tutorials or day schools; a few have a residential school.

Tutorials are organised by your national or regional centre. They may be at the centre, or at a school or some other location. Tutorials give you a chance to meet your tutor and some fellow students, but they aren't usually compulsory. Some modules also have online tutorials.

A few science, language and management modules include residential schools. These are mostly in the UK, but some offer the option of travel to Europe. If a module with a residential school is part of your degree pathway, you will find that there is always an alternative learning experience (non-residential) available for people who are completely unable to attend a residential school.

Assessment and exams

You'll be asked to complete pieces of work that will contribute towards the completion of your module. Your study timetable will include the dates by which you need to submit assignments or sit examinations.


An assignment is a piece of written work, covering material from your module. Completing assignments helps you to consolidate and use what you have learned. Most assignments go to your tutor for comments ("tutor-marked assignments" or TMAs). Some may be marked by computer ("computer-marked assignments" or CMAs).

Some modules include other types of written assignments, such as project work or dissertations.


Most OU modules end with an examination on a scheduled date. You will be given the address of the examination centre (and the examination date) when your module starts.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.

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