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Student and tutor module reviews

Science project course: geosciences

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  • Points: 30
  • Code: SXG390
  • Level: 3
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Student reviews

This was my last module leading up to my honours but was also my least favourite. Outcomes were defined but marking extremely obscure. Comments were far too subjective. Lessons learnt by the module team have not been adhered to judging by past comments with similar issues look to have arisen. It's a real pity this was a mandatory module. I thought I would get a lot more out of it than I did.

Richard Kirkham

Course starting: February 2018

Review posted: November 2018

Faculty response

The module is designed to be the final capstone of a degree, with independent study on a topic directed by the student, guided by their tutor and a set of clear learning outcomes on which the work is assessed. While challenging, this is intended to allow students the freedom and flexibility to pursue their interests in the subject while meeting the remit of the module and demonstrating their achievement of the learning outcomes and skills development. Many students find the format of the module different to their previous study. In response to student feedback we have moved to a new, more fine grained, system of end-of-module assessment (EMA) marking with the criteria published on the module forum. Unfortunately, because the EMA is counted as an examinable component, we’re limited in the extent of feedback we can provide, but appropriate feedback in the tutor-marked assignments is designed to aid progression of the project

At the end of my degree I was apprehensive about registering for SXG390, but I was so pleased that I did.

The module works towards final write-up of a literature review, critically analysing conflicting research of a student-chosen geohazard, guided by online forums and personal tutor advice.

To anyone unused to science research techniques and writing protocol the guidelines are clear and prescriptive and (I found) set a good framework for independent study. Students are also required to write and update a Log, Skills Audit and Project Plan. These become valuable reference sources and a way of keeping the self-driven project to schedule.

Tutor support for this course is outstanding and advice is always available should you need it. I found assignment feedback prompt, consistent and constructive.

SXG390 is different to other courses, but there is immense satisfaction to be gained from an open-minded approach. Of course, there were frustrations; I found the requirement for self-reflection strange for instance, but it's hard to beat the sense of satisfaction from seeing it through and finally producing a good quality report.

Overall my experience of SXG390 was a positive one; it was the module I enjoyed most, I gained skills to undertake independent literature based project work and have a newfound interest for research. I would whole-heartedly recommend this module to other students nearing the end of their degree.

Course starting: February 2011

Review posted: November 2012

The assignments, including the End-of-Module Assessment (EMA), were badly defined. The assignment definitions were spread across a wide range of documents and computer files, and were often contradictory. The precise requirements for the EMA were a particular problem, because what should have been the assessment definition document contained only a list of section word-counts. The confusion was confounded by tutors on the module website who obviously had private agendas to pursue; contradictory advice was not uncommon.

This is not a project about a geohazard. The research for SXG390 is about peer-reviewed literature, rather than about the geology.

The EMA requires the student to write a critical review of the academic literature about a particular geohazard, and to comment extensively on the way this literature research was carried out. It is necessary to find a topic that has ambiguities in the hazard, the effects of the hazard and/or the mitigation. Critical appraisal of the ambiguity in the published literature is essential. Only academic literature from peer-reviewed journals can be used.

I enjoyed using RefWorks for recording my research findings, although the Open University (Havard) style needed some modification for it to fit with the module requirements. The OU Library staff were always very helpful, both in relation to RefWorks and also more generally with searches and accessing difficult references. The tutors who posted on the module forums did not show any appreciation of the power and usefulness of referencing systems such as RefWorks, a surprise for this type of module.

My own tutor guided me helpfully through the frustrations of what I perceived to be a poorly designed and poorly implemented module, and gave me good feedback on my progress. (Remember that the Learning Outcomes are important, and one of those relates to using feedback from the tutor, so a good tutor is likely to give critical feedback which can be entered into the module log with comments about how that feedback was used.)

This module was a disappointing end, after a generally good set of modules/courses taken during my time as an OU student.

Course starting: February 2011

Review posted: January 2012

Faculty response

The module team regrets that this student's experience on SXG390 was disappointing.

This module is really focused on the process of conducting project work. For the majority of students, it would not be possible to conduct original research and so the emphasis is indeed on reviewing and critically evaluating the literature on a chosen topic. There is also a lot of attention paid to keeping records, referencing sources and developing research skills. For students with experience of doing primary research who are expecting something more like a 'dissertation' experience, there can be frustrations that this is more about process than product.

The S390 suite of modules has evolved over a number of years and it is true that a mixture of documents, websites and computer files are used - however, the suite is currently being updated so that all materials will be available in a more coherent format and we will strive to ensure that no contradictory advice is given.

For many students the experience of independent study acquired through taking SXG390 represents a high point of their Open University studies and a number are inspired to go on and undertake postgraduate study where there is the opportunity to apply the skills learned in SXG390 to primary research with more focus on the product than the process.

Sam Smidt
Associate Dean, Learning and Teaching
Faculty of Science

This was one of my concluding courses of my second OU degree so I was looking forward to it. It is also a necessary component of an honours degree so students have to complete it.

I scored my lowest grade ever over a thirty year student career on this course, a pass grade 4! Far too much time was wasted compiling a log and timetable which I did not find at all helpful, but a constant source of irritation. They appeared to be purely academic exercises required to fulfill the learning outcomes; and even had to be completed in a prescriptive way rather than in a format that I would have preferred. This took up so much time that there was very little left over for the actual research of the topic in hand, which I feel was the main reason for such a low grade.

I also felt as though I was groping around in the dark for the whole course, not really knowing what I should have been doing, (except for a timetable and log!). The three continuous assessment assignments were supposed to be advisory to help us to work on our project, but they composed 50% of the final grade. This meant that even if a student eventually completed a brillant assignment having learnt by trial and error what was required through the assessments, it was impossible for them to achieve a Grade 1 for the final project unless they had also achieved a Grade 1 while in the process of learning what to do.

The whole project was assessed by the use of learning outcomes, presumably so that the relevant boxes could be ticked.

I feel at this stage in their academic careers, students do not need such a prescriptive approach but should be left to work out their own methods of researching with advice limited to 'You may find it useful to keep a log or jot things down', and they certainly should not be penalised for working in a different way to the course teams formula. I was allowed to work on my own as a sixth former in the subjects that I was studying for the old level examinations without anyone dictating methods to me.

In conclusion, my children have recently studied for a PhD and a MSc and completed dissertations as part of their final years study at conventional universities and were simply left to get on with things by themselves, with staff on hand for advice if required. After all, if we can't be trusted to do this at the end of our academic careers, what has been the purpose of all those years of study in the first place? The quality of the final project should be all that is required to show whether the learning outcomes have been achieved or not.

This was such a disappointing conclusion of my OU career.

Course starting: February 2010

Review posted: January 2011

Faculty response

The Module Team regrets that the author of this feedback had such a disappointing experience studying SXG390. We will try to address the points raised.

These days, teaching and assessment against specified Learning Outcomes is the norm in UK higher education. It is not a question of ‘ticking boxes’, but of being explicit about assessment – rather than (say) offering an opinion that a piece of work ‘seems 2.2ish’. Clearly, in the context of SXG390 we cannot devise conventional detailed mark schemes since each student is working on their own topic.

Since SXG390 is a 30-credit module, at least 300 study hours should be devoted to it. We find it astonishing that more than a relatively small proportion of this time was devoted to record keeping, etc. rather than getting on with the research. Given that SXG390 has no unseen exam or viva, the log serves an important secondary function of helping to verify that the submitted project report represents the student’s own work.

On most Open University modules, students typically perform significantly better in continuous assessment than in the final exam. In this module, the performance of many students can be seen improving through the 3 TMAs to the end-of-module assessment (i.e. the final project report, etc.). Clearly, the Module Team and tutors have a shared responsibility to provide guidance to students from their initial project proposal to their final project report. In this respect the TMAs are developmental. We suspect that most students would resent having to submit TMAs for which any marks awarded did not count. While many project reports are of an impressively high standard, this is not always the case. The grades of some students would be lower if equal weight were not given to continuous assessment and the end-of-module assessment.

Feedback over the years shows that for many students the experience of independent study acquired through taking SXG390 represents a culmination of their Open University studies and often whets their appetite for postgraduate study.

A very different course from the normal OU science courses and sometimes difficult to keep on track with no formal study calendar. The almost limitless topic choice within the overall framework of the course caused some problems, not having a clear topic to begin with didn't help. Once a topic was decided on it became a very enjoyable course, though the reading material also triggered thoughts of, I wouldn't mind studying this or that further, but having to stick to the project plan bought things back on track. Now looking forward to trying SXP390, if it still exists by the time I am ready for it.

Mark Richard Gibson

Course starting: February 2008

Review posted: August 2009

This was one of the most enjoyable courses I've done with the OU - but it is certainly different from any other.

As others have said, this course isn't really about being able to choose your topic and get lost in it for a year - it is about how to 'do' research (well, the literature review part of research, at any rate) - how to plan it, undertake it, and write it up. And as such, the TMAs take you through that process, bit by bit.

Your tutor and the course team will guide you in topic choice, formulating your research question(s) and narrowing your focus - but the rest is up to you.

However, to get the best out of this course, it's essential that you choose a topic that you are really interested in - otherwise you will have trouble keeping the momentum going.

You should also recognise that in nine months and 5,000 words, you aren't going to change the world. But hopefully, you'll come out of it at the end of the day with a report you're proud of, and feeling like you've become a bit more of an 'expert' in a tiny bit of the vast world of geosciences.

Ruth Helen McArthur

Course starting: February 2008

Review posted: July 2009

The course was very interesting and enjoyable. However, contrary to the guidance and information given, the examinable component is not the culmination of the work undertaken in the previous TMAs. The scoring of the ECA was particularly vague and the marking schemes open to different interpretation by the different markers. Anyone taking this course is at their mercy and without any route for appeal. Although I enjoyed the course itself during the year, I came away with very little confidence in my abilities. I have been studying with the OU for 14 years and not had a bad experience until this one. If I had any advice to give to potential students, it would be, don't accept excellent as feedback in the TMAs, always query it - one tutor's excellence is another tutor's adequate!

Helga Ingrid Crick

Course starting: February 2008

Review posted: March 2009

I started this course thinking it would be the usual last course in a university degree where you can concentrate on a topic of your choice related to your specialism. Very far from reality. The course is about achieving objectives and how to write a review paper. Despite the documents sent with the course, it is never explained clearly what is expected in the TMAs, what is the aim of the course, what is the accepted way of writing etc.

The rigid prescriptive character of the course does not allow the students a minimum of freedom or creativity. Everything has to be done according to the "expert" tutors. Moreover, the mark schemes are vague and can be interpreted in different ways. It is up to the "experts" assessing the work to give or not give the corresponding marks. This is against the philosophy of a good mark scheme. The lack of scientific rigour is shocking. The whole experience is the worst I have ever had in my scientific career(28 years of scientific studies, 20 years of teaching experience in secondary and adult education).

Still, the excuse is that the course is "different". A course in astrology would also be different but would not be acceptable. Why is this one acceptable? It is unbelievable that without this course one cannot get the Geoscience degree, when in fact, the course guide states clearly that the course is not about knowledge but about achieving objectives. So one can have distinctions in all geosciences courses but still you don't have a degree in geosciences unless you have done this course, it is shameful.

I have always been proud of OU studies until I had this very bad experience. OU degrees would benefit immensely if this type of course disappears completely and it is substituted by a serious one.

Alexis Carlos Schwartz Mesa

Course starting: February 2008

Review posted: December 2008

Whatever your motivation may be for taking this course don't take it simply because you think it may be a doddle without a 3 hour exam at the end! Of the four Level 3 Earth Science courses I found this the most trying.

I felt a bit lost without the usual 'comforting' pile of text books and absence of paper TMAs and I struggled quite a bit with the IT side of things. On the plus side I was able to research the subject of my choice. My tutor usually reponded to queries within 24 hours and steered me along with an amalgam of criticism and constructive guidance. At the end of it all I passed grade 3 which pleasantly surprised me. Passing this course gave me the final 30 points for an Open Science Degree with Honours.

Michael Trevor Hinton

Course starting: February 2007

Review posted: January 2008

I found this course, was a fantastic opportunity to do some self driven research after years of slogging through taught courses. The secret of doing well is to continually keep sight of the course mantra: CAUSE, EFFECT and MITIGATION. Keeping these three words in your head and choosing a subject area where they can be readily applied will keep you focussed throughout your research and should lead to a successful outcome. My success on this course has now given me the confidence to apply to do an MSc research degree in volcanology.

Raymond Keeling

Course starting: February 2005

Review posted: April 2006

Having initially been concerned about how different this course was to any other I had studied with the OU, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It gave me the opportunity to choose my own area to specialise in within the confines of the course itself. The conference site was well supported with input and support from both students and tutors, and no matter how diverse our topics were, it seemed problems such as sticking to word counts, were shared by us all. 5000 words seemed far to many on day one and nowhere near enough towards the end, but rewarding when done. This course has given me confidence that I can write knowledgeably and concisley on a given topic and that I can plan the workload sensibly.

If I were to offer any advice it would be stick tightly to your objectives, keep pace with your project schedule (you are asked to make one for good reason) and choose a topic which interests you.

Coral Shirley Cons

Course starting: February 2005

Review posted: December 2005

Please note

Each of the views expressed above is an individual's very particular response, largely unedited, and should be viewed with that in mind. Since modules are subject to regular updating, some of the issues identified may have already been addressed. In some instances the faculty may have provided a response to a comment. If you have a query about a particular module, please contact your Regional Centre.

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