How to Survive an OU residential

March 17, 2000

WHAT Tutors are expected to guide students through huge chunks of course material at Open University schools

WHY Tutors, like students, need to have confidence in their academic and social abilities, says David Shepherd


As I climbed through the window to join the tutors' meeting, I noted that things had changed since my last residential at Beaumont Conference Centre in Old Windsor. My ability to recall the way to the tutors' office had let me down: would past experience and native wit be sufficient to survive the coming five days and four nights?

Open University Business School residentials have a pattern about them and engender a feeling of nostalgia in most students. In this residential for MBA students, there were nine tutors, a course director, an academic assistant (essential), a PC (desirable) and 80 students. Each tutor has a set of notes, each student has another set.

The tutors meet to get to know each other and talk through any concerns. Some know the ropes, others are new to residential school, which is an integral part of most OU courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Tutors are informed of their "teaching" rooms, which are already arranged for the job, in my case I rearrange them.

The students, meanwhile, are arriving and being signed in and allocated to their tutor groups and accommodation - on this occasion double bedrooms with en-suite facilities and mod cons.

Everyone has dinner, then gathers together for the opening plenary session. From this point on, the timetable and course notes - agonised over by the course team, modified by the occasional typing error and argued over by tutors - take over.

First tip Understand (and on no account lose) the timetable and course notes.

Understanding presents a problem of its own. The OU is a distance-learning organisation, and over the years it has learnt that putting things down on paper helps to answer most of the questions that anyone is likely to ask, essential when tutoring at a distance. Consequently, any documentation is fulsome.

As time progresses more questions of detail are asked and answered through the medium of the course notes. For tutors who like depth, this is important; for those who prefer everything on a single side of A4 paper, they are a bind.

Second tip Boil down the course notes into as small a space as possible, that is, the level of the outline made by the course team when it started to design the course.

Third tip Experience of previous residentials on the same topic helps, but do not assume that the notes are the same as last time. Reading 100 per cent to find the 2 per cent change can be galling, so find a friendly tutor (they all are in the OU) to ask. This will not necessarily identify the changes (they may not have read it either), but at least you won't be alone.

Fourth tip Have someone on the tutor team you can talk to. They do not have to listen, give advice or do anything other than make it OK for you to talk - doing this by yourself leads to not being reappointed.

The OU is particularly good for talking - I have met many tutors who have a good sense of humour and can talk about most things intelligently. At this one, we had an interesting discussion on the merits of knowing when you would die.

We were also blessed in that there was no one who wanted to completely redesign the course - although there were bits we felt could be done better. Our messages will be relayed to the course team via the course director - one of her tasks; the other is to be a good listener - she was.

There are two more key areas to get right - the relationship with the venue and finally, and of greatest importance, the relationship with the students.

Fifth tip Find out where everything is on the site. If you cannot fathom the geography always walk purposefully (a tip I picked up from a nurse friend who claims it creates a feeling of confidence in the patients). It gives a good impression to the students, who seem to equate purposeful walking with intellectual ability.

Do not worry if you cannot sleep. Being away from the rhythms of normal daily life disrupts my metabolism and my sleeping pattern, and I have not fully resolved this yet. I have tried staying up late, going to bed early, over-eating and under-eating. Now I have given up and accepted this as something outside my control. Residential schools are tiring - you can be on the go from 8am (when at breakfast) until 11pm (when the bar closes).

Sixth tip However easy it might be to survive the course notes, the timetable, your colleagues, sleeping and eating, you still have to survive the time with the students. This is the bit I truly enjoy. They have such a variety of experiences, stories and personalities and come from many backgrounds, cultures and countries. I find it hard not to be delighted at being in their company.

In return for this it is only right and proper to discover and continually aim to meet the needs of both your own students and those of the students you give special topic sessions to. Ask the students what they need, and monitor this (subtly) over the period. That is your job. The more their needs are met, the happier they will be.

They are there to learn, you are there to respond to their questions and maintain a cheerful atmosphere while they learn. And if their needs are met you will survive.

Oh, and as a postscript, over the years I have collected things that come in useful at tutorials. I keep these in a box and take them to residentials and tutorials.

It is quite helpful to have a box that includes an abacus, a Sooty puppet, a ball of string, scented felt-tip pens, notes on managing performance, a camera, several books, a mobile phone, old Blu-Tack and other assorted stuff. You never know when you might need these things. And finally, as Chris Tarrant says in the quiz programme, if you are not sure how on earth you will survive, you can always phone a friend.

David Shepherd is an associate lecturer with the Open University Business School and was a tutor at an MBA first-year residential school held at Beaumont Conference Centre, Old Windsor earlier this year.

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