MSc occupational psychology modules review

Last night I submitted the final module assignment for my MSc occupational psychology qualification at the University of Leicester – hurrah!

It’s now just the small matter of restarting the dissertation process (which I’m ashamed to admit that I almost entirely neglected during February), working out the questions I need to ask my participants when I interview them, having them approved by my supervisor before I start to ask them and then, well, getting on with it I suppose. September 15th seems very close all of a sudden.

But before I finally knuckle down, I thought I’d look back at a blog post that I wrote in August 2013, just before I started the course and see how each of the six modules has lived up (or not!) to my expectations.

Research Methods: This looks like a sensible start to the course and I hope it’s going to be relatively straightforward. I doubt if there are any statistical techniques it will throw at me that I won’t be able to get my head around having wrestled with the “fish” book and SPSS on the OU psychology degree. There’s also coverage of qualitative methods – I wonder if Q will get a mention?

It was a good start to the course. Q doesn’t get a mention, the stats weren’t any more difficult than those I was already used to and there was a qualitative method – interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) that I hadn’t used before. There was also an ‘early assignment’ of 1,000 words that we had to submit within a few (I think it was 4) weeks of starting, which was good for blowing the academic cobwebs away after taking a couple of years out after finishing my BSc.

Personnel Selection and Assessment: I’ve been involved in this aspect of work, on and off, for about the last 20 years. I’d like to think that I’m a better interviewer and selector than most, but who knows. Psychometrics rears its ugly little head in this module, so I’m looking forward to unleashing some critical arguments from DD307(*)!

All kinds of selection techniques were covered, including some that I hadn’t come across (for example, situational judgement tests). Psychometrics do rear their head and while I’m still far from convinced of their utility, I at least now understand why other people are.

Ergonomics: Looks interesting. I wonder whether the vogue for open plan offices and hot desks is more to do with the desire to exert power over subordinates by senior management than as a way of ensuring a productive workforce or reducing overhead costs?

Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, the words that I wrote in August 2013 were more or less how I concluded the second module assignment (but with a cost-benefit analysis accompanying it to demonstrate my point). The first module assignment was great fun and involved me spending a Sunday morning taking photographs (like the one below) inside my car. This was probably the module that I’ve enjoyed the most.

Ergonomics assignment - inside my car!

The Psychology of Organising: I really hope this isn’t going to be an attempt to fit most of an MBA into 12 weeks – but the description of the module makes it potentially seem like the most interesting of the course. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one.

It wasn’t an MBA in 12 weeks (thank goodness!), but it was interesting. The two module assignments were interesting too – one broadly covering the area of change management & resistance to change (very useful in providing me with material that I now use to support my ‘proper’ job) with the other introducing me to the positive psychology concept of authentic leadership, which I greatly enjoyed critiquing!

Psychology of Occupational Training and Learning: I’m definitely not sure about this module. It sounds a little dull to be honest.

Definitely not my favourite module, but not dull either. It does what it says on the tin!

The Individual at Work: The module description makes it sound all lovely and fluffy (work-life balance, diversity, workplace counselling and the like) – but I have this nagging feeling that it’s aimed squarely at HR professionals who want to know how far they can push people before they start to fight back. I’m hoping that the module hasn’t been written by Catbert – but if it is, at least I should end up with a better understanding of what motivates people to become HR managers.

The module description is correct, rather than my paranoid interpretation of it from August 2013. It’s too close to me having finished it for me to review it entirely dispassionately, but I struggled with the assignment and, all in all, found it to be the least interesting of the six modules. However, I suspect that this might be because I came to view it as an annoyance – something that was standing in the way of me getting on with my dissertation.

Talking of which, I guess I have no more excuses left not to get on with it. Now, where did I put my copy of Seale’s “The Quality of Qualitative Research” again … ?



(*) DD307 was the Open University’s critical social psychology module (now discontinued), which gave me nightmares at the time, but made far more of a lasting impact on the way I think about psychological issues than any other module I took at undergraduate level.

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd March 2016.

My 2016 target: one word every two minutes

It’s been a busy month – probably the busiest of the course so far. The deadline for the penultimate module, on Training and Development, came and went on 12th November, with the deadline for the dissertation proposal following just 4 weeks later on 10th December. I’m glad to report that I made both deadlines, but I do feel like I’ve barely moved outside of my study at weekends for the last 3 months. Looking at the weather outside this afternoon and listening to reports about the centre of Derby being overrun with festive shoppers, I guess that may not be a bad thing. A bah humbug to you all.

The final module (excluding the dissertation) – The Individual at Work – is now underway. It has an assignment focussed on psychological stress and I suspect that most of us on the course feel that we’re fairly well acquainted with the concept after the last few weeks. Stress is one of those areas of psychology where there seems to be lots of research and also widely varying opinions – even about something as fundamental as its definition. I think I’m going to need a lot of A3 paper to help me map out the debates and approaches to the subject if I’m going to successfully figure out how best to tackle the assignment, which consists of a 1,600 word consultancy report and a related 1,600 word academic essay.

Perhaps bizarrely, knowing how long it takes me to write assignments and how many drafts I usually create before I’m happy with them (8 seems to be my average), it’s the word count figures that are keeping me motivated at the moment. I only have to find another 12,200 perfectly crafted words to finish the course now. My course calendar suggests that I have 510 hours of study left to complete, so that’s only 24 words an hour – less than one every 2 minutes. How hard can that be?!

So for the next few months, that’s what I’ll be thinking about. I’ll be quietly telling myself that I can definitely come up with one good word every two minutes, even if most of them really get written in the last few hours …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 13th December 2015.

The three laws of study

I’m pleased to report that I’ve just submitted my training and development assignment. It’s a relief, as today was the last day that I had available for study before Thursday’s deadline. It’s also somewhat frustrating, as my plan called for it to have been completed three weeks ago, to leave me ample time to comfortably finish off my dissertation proposal which is due in early December.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

I’ve particularly enjoyed hitting the ‘submit’ button on this assignment, as it’s the first I’ve completed since my unexpected year out due to ill-health. But it’s taken so long to get it finished!

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

While I’ve enjoyed the process of researching the content that’s gone into it, my academic writing skills feel decidedly rusty. This assignment has taken me 11 complete revisions (plus drafts of the various parts of it) before I felt that I could do no more. When I was properly into the swing of the course, I reckoned on around 5 or so as being sufficient.

Newell & Rosenblom’s Power Law of Practice: The logarithm of the reaction time for a particular task decreases linearly with the logarithm of the number of practice trials taken.

But with these three laws of study lined up against me, I guess I should be grateful that I managed to get it done at all!

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th November 2015.

Why distance learning is like a spider building a web

I’m currently working through the fifth of my modules on the occupational psychology masters – on training and development. It therefore seems appropriate to write about the way I’m thinking about my own development. If you’re not keen on spiders you may not want to read the final paragraph …

For me one of the most important things I do at the start of a module is work out the time that I have available between it opening and the date for assignment submission, once I’ve accounted for everything else. The course is meant to take around 15 hours study per week, but that’s an average. Some weeks I’m able to do more, other weeks far less. I work backwards from the end of module date to make sure that I’m leaving enough time to complete the module assignment (for example, this one requires a 3,000 word essay split into 4 related parts) and to undertake the research required to answer the question(s). I seem to need around 4 or 5 full weekends (or their equivalent) to write an assignment of this length. The rest of the time is therefore what I have available to read the module material and the associated readings, as well as following the leads to other books and papers that these signpost.

It’s following these leads and searching through the journals available in the online library that I find to be the most absorbing part of the learning process as it’s where the surprises come from. For example, during this module I’ve come across a fascinating paper on the place of storytelling in adult learning (*). I’ve enjoyed reading this paper as my day job involves me helping salespeople communicate the value of our company’s products and services to potential customers. One of the most effective ways of doing this has always seemed to me to be through telling stories about what other organisations have achieved with our help. Often, that’s all some customers want to hear, instead of going through deck after deck of expensively crafted powerpoint slides from the marketing department. It’s always nice to read something from the world of academia that backs up 20+ years of gut feel!

So to help you understand the distance learning process, here’s a story.

Picture yourself as a spider. Working through each module is rather like building a web. The radials and the centre of the web come from reading and working with the module units, associated readings and the recommended course books. This part is spun first. Around the outer reaches of the web is the material found in journals, along with the threads that link the current module to earlier ones, the knowledge gained from earlier study and your experience of life. Completing the module assignment is you, the spider, pulling all of these threads together in a particular direction to enable the question to be answered.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 20th September 2015.

(*) Caminotti, E & Gray, J (2012). The effectiveness of storytelling on adult learning, Journal of Workplace Learning, 24(6), 430-438.

Word count woes

One of the reasons I’ve been a little quieter on here than usual is because I’ve been devoting most of my efforts to the first Ergonomics module assignment. The deadline passed a little earlier on today and I did manage to submit it several hours beforehand, but it was a very, very long weekend making sure that I had something to hand in.

From my perspective, a large proportion of the effort I needed to put in seemed to be spent on getting the assignment under the word count limit. I knew I was in trouble when half of the assignment had taken all of the allowance, but my first completed draft weighed in at a massive 3,500 words – a *mere* 1,000 over the limit.

Chatting online, it seemed that fellow students also found the word limit challenging, so here’s some of our collective wisdom about tackling this problem.

  • Go back and read the question again once the first draft is finished. This should help to eliminate whole paragraphs that are not going to score as highly as other things and better still, eliminate things that aren’t going to score any marks at all. I think I probably managed to remove around 600 words of flab from the assignment that way.
  • Revise paragraph and sentence construction to make them as simple as possible. On first drafts I never seem to use one word when I can use ten! Finding better ways to write things, by shortening long, rambling sentences with too many ‘ands’, ‘buts’ and ‘alsos’ helped me to remove another 250 words.
  • Eliminate duplicate arguments. For example, I’d written in two different places about the utility of having warning tones combined with visual cues. Slightly re-wording and re-ordering my argument saved me another 50 words.

Which left me a seemingly intractable 100 words over the limit. These were finally culled by a number of techniques:

  • If you can argue a point using a single in-text reference rather than two or three, then that’s a few more words saved. However, I always like to make sure that if I do cull a multiple reference I’m still using the same source somewhere else. After all, there are marks to be had for demonstrating wide reading.
  • Using acronyms (provided you’ve already defined them) can also help. For example, Autonomous Cruise Control shortened very nicely to ACC and saved me two words every time I used it!

The result of all of this effort? Success!! I somehow managed to scrape in two words under the limit!

But of course, all of the effort spent in trimming down this assignment will be of little use if I’ve not interpreted the question correctly. I’m not feeling as confident as usual about this assignment if I’m being honest. However, there’s no time to dwell on what might have been as the second module assignment is due on 16th June.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how to stay within the word count – and I’m sure my fellow distance learners would too! There’s a nice big comment box below these ramblings waiting for your wisdom …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 12th May 2014.

Coming up for air

The problem with writing a blog, particularly when it concerns your study plans and ambitions, is that it creates hostages to fortune. For example, in December I wrote the following words:

As an experienced distance learner, I’ve always found it absolutely essential to use this time of year to get ahead of the schedule, so that the inevitable issues that crop up in my working and home life don’t totally derail the study effort.

Well, that didn’t work out terribly well. I’m currently less than 48 hours away from my module assignment deadline with the smallest of the two parts completed (500 words) and suffering a complete crisis of confidence about what I’ve written for the first part of it (2,500 words). I also remember writing this in January:

I’m now working my way through the second module of the Occupational Psychology MSc – Personnel Selection and Assessment. I also appear to be on track as far as my own personal schedule is concerned …

How long ago that seems! I’ll be back here again when I’ve finally stopped procrastinating and either finished off the assignment … or possibly, when it’s finished *me* off.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th February 2014. I survived the experience. But only just …

There’s gold in them thar hills

As I wrote just before Christmas, I’m now working my way through the second module of the Occupational Psychology MSc – Personnel Selection and Assessment. I also appear to be on track as far as my own personal schedule is concerned, having read through and made copious notes on the module materials, suggested readings and the relevant chapters in the course textbook (Work Psychology, by John Arnold and Ray Randall plus a cast of thousands*).

There are two module assignments to complete – the first is due to be submitted early February and the second mid-March. I’m therefore at my favourite stage of assignment writing – carrying out the work necessary to track down the additional papers I need from the online library to support the arguments I’ll be making. It’s my favourite stage of assignment writing as … there’s no writing involved … just lots of activity that, to me, is just as exciting and frustrating as digging for gold must have been for those involved in the 19th century gold rushes. I suppose I might not make my fortune from the information that I find, but at least I don’t stand any risk of being challenged to a shootout at the OK Corral by my fellow students once I have found something. At least, I hope that won’t happen …

It’s frustrating, as sometimes I can diligently search for hours without turning anything up of direct use. That was my experience last Saturday. Sunday was different – I managed to find half a dozen really useful papers in the space of about half an hour’s work. The best parts of these papers really do look like gold nuggets now too – my bright yellow highlighter has been working overtime.

At some point over the next week I’m going to have to turn my notes and highlights into a coherent structure from which to write the first assignment from. For me, that’s rather less fun than scrambling around the foothills of the PsychInfo database wearing my cowboy hat and carrying my six-shooter filled with unlikely search terms.

But I do know that everyone approaches writing assignments in different ways. So if you’d like to share your tips on how you go about discovering and refining the research gold you need for your assignments, the comment box is open for your contribution now, partner.

(*) I’m exaggerating of course, but it seems like thousands when writing the in-text reference for the book …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 6th January 2013.

One term down, five to go

My first few weeks as a distance learner at Leicester have flown by, so with one term down and five to go, I feel that ought to let you know how I’ve been getting on.

In hindsight, the first two weeks of the course were probably the most stressful. As well as having to find my way around an unfamiliar virtual learning environment (VLE), we had a two week deadline to submit a 1,000 word essay for our early assignment. As I’ve observed elsewhere, 1,000 word essays are far more difficult for me to write than 2,000 word essays.

However, perhaps the most confusing (all right, downright irritating) of all the new things to get to grips with was the requirement to submit assignments twice, once to Turnitin and once by email, using identical file names but without the references section and header page for the Turnitin submission. The process (for which there are no less than 10 pages of documentation in the course manual) feels like an accident waiting to happen. Even though I was incredibly careful working my way through it, I still made a small error that was commented on in my tutor feedback form. Grrr. Helping organisations to sort out broken business processes is part of my day job, so I’d be happy to sort this one out for the university for a small fee …

Last weekend I finished my second assignment for the Research Methods Module. Completing it has definitely helped to blow away the remaining academic cobwebs. While I was very pleased with my mark on the early assignment, this one (broken into four parts covering quantitative and qualitative research methods) has been a whole order of magnitude more difficult and time-consuming. Everyone in my family, including Archie the house-rabbit, are probably as relieved as I am that it’s been safely submitted.

Archie - Alpha Bunny So with the next assignment not due until 10th February, I bet you might think that I’ll be taking it easy over the Christmas break. Unfortunately not! As an experienced distance learner, I’ve always found it absolutely essential to use this time of year to get ahead of the schedule, so that the inevitable issues that crop up in my working and home life don’t totally derail the study effort. For me, it’s the Personnel Selection and Assessment Module up next. I’m also trying to put some serious thought into what I will be choosing to do for my dissertation in 2014/15.

On the whole though, it’s been so far so good. I’m enjoying the course and I’m getting what I expected to get out of it – and more. But if you would like more information about the joys and woes of distance learning, fellow Leicester student Chris has also made some excellent observations about the marketing hype vs the reality of distance learning, so I’d encourage you to read his thoughts too.

Onwards and upwards!

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 11th December 2013.

The Imposter

Progress with my MSc trundles on. I’m currently working on my second module assignment which to my great relief isn’t another essay. Instead, it consists of a number of short answer questions related to research methods .

Last weekend I managed to finish off around a quarter of the work and I’m hoping to make similar progress this weekend. Depending on how I feel when I’ve finished writing this, it may either involve me dusting off my copy of SPSS and crunching some numbers, or doing a piece of thematic analysis on an interview (and transcript) that we’ve been given. At the moment, I think that the stats questions seem slightly more appealing.

I’ve also made my debut on the university’s student blogging site this week. First posts are always incredibly difficult to write, but at least that’s one hurdle out of the way and I can concentrate on more interesting topics. (Yes, I know, not much hope of that is there …) For example, like why I changed the spelling of ‘realize’ to ‘realise’ on my first article a few hours after I’d hit the publish button – even though the OED tells me that I’m right and everyone else is wrong! Those of you who hounded me mercilessly until I made the change know who you are 🙂

Since I wrote my first post, I’ve had the result back for my early assignment. It’s worth all of 1/90th of the overall mark for the qualification, so in the big scheme of things it’s not particularly significant, but I’m pleased with my start.

I feel a little less like an imposter now.

MITx 6.002x week 10: (sine) waving but not yet drowning

This week’s lectures have been about the response of networks to a sinusoidal drive and how to analyse them. First of all, this involved using an incredibly difficult method based on solving differential equations (so difficult that the attempt terminates part way through after much baffling mathematics), a “sneaky” approach based on complex algebra and finally a “super sneaky” approach based on the impedance model.

This final method turns all of the steady state sinusoidal circuit analysis problems which seemed pretty difficult using the first two methods into problems which can be rather more simply solved by the application of Ohm’s Law, along, of course, with all of the usual circuit analysis techniques based on the node method, Thevenin, Kirchoff et al.

I think if we hadn’t been warned that the conclusion of the week was going to be relatively straightforward I might have been tempted to cut my losses and plough straight on into week 11 – but I’m glad that I didn’t. In the end, the lab and homework problems seemed to be fairly tractable once I’d thought about them properly – and been guided by the odd hint or seven from the discussion forum of course!

I now have the magic 59% mark showing up on my profile page – which, even if I complete the next two weeks homework and labs, I won’t be able to improve on until the final exam. Despite many pleas from students to the course team on the discussion forum, they still appear to be keeping silent about the form the final exam will take, when it will appear, how long we’ll have to complete it in and so on.

Not knowing when the final exam will appear is pretty frustrating, as one of the “joys” of being a part-time distance learner is that the rest of life tends to get in the way of study, in exactly the way it doesn’t when you’re full-time at a brick university.

One of the lessons therefore that the MITx/edX team ought to take from this first run of 6.002x is that certainty over the time windows for assessments at or very near the start of the course is essential. Without such certainty, it’s difficult to see how edX would ever get future students to pay for assessment, even if the delivery of course content remains free.