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The Open University, psychology and me

My journey with psychology started at sixteen. I had to decide which subjects to study at sixth form. I’d chosen Geography and English as these were my best at GCSE but I needed a third. My form teacher suggested psychology. He said I’d probably like it. He was wrong. I loved it! Learning why people behaved as they did was fascinating and the experiments were all really interesting. That was the beginning. That was twenty-two years ago.

At the end of my school career, I did what was expected and applied to university. My vocation aim was to be a primary school teacher, however to do this I needed to study a national curriculum subject at university. I didn’t want to endure English or Geography as I wanted to continue exploring my new found subject of psychology. So at that point in my life I gave up on my prospective teaching career and applied for psychology degrees, not really knowing where that might take me. As it was, at eighteen, I didn’t pass my A’ Levels (achieving an N for psychology). So, I accepted I wasn’t clever enough to study higher education and went into the real world of work to gain some life experience instead.

Even with my N grade years behind me, as an adult I still found myself thinking about psychological concepts. Day to day, I found myself taking an interest in people; why they do what they do. I’m also interested in counselling which has strong links with psychology and it was through completing a counselling course I decided to continue studying as an adult. A friend told me about the Open University and how I could apply for a degree and funding. I work in a secondary school as a Behaviour Mentor and therefore my annual income was just below the eligibility limit which meant I could apply for funding for course fees and a grant. I’m a single parent in receipt of working and child tax credits, which also meant I would get help with financial assistance. I instantly knew if I was going to study anything at higher education it would be psychology.

I applied with trepidation, thinking, ‘What if I’m not clever enough to do a degree? What if I fail again, like my A’ Levels? What if I’m wasting everyone’s time and money?’ Once I understood that each year was a separate module, I realised I could learn at my own pace, I could try it on for size. The first year’s module even offered a qualification in its own right. I didn’t tell anyone I was studying for a degree in that first year; I just said I was doing a course. It gave me an out. If I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t have to say I’d failed a degree, I could just say I’d done a course for a year, whatever the outcome.

The first module was called An Introduction to the social sciences: understanding social change (DD100). I was advised to do this for my level one module as a starter into psychology (and studying at this level). Attending the first tutorial was exciting and scary. There were a dozen people sitting with folders and pens and books. They all looked really intelligent and appeared to know what they were talking about. I was just getting to grips with it all and felt like I barely understood it enough to write an essay, not nearly enough to have a conversation. I just kept quiet and listened! As the year went on less people attended the tutorials. By the last one, there were three of us. One student, Robert (who is now a really good friend) was also beginning the psychology degree, so from then on, we did the modules together. He became my ‘study buddy’ (person to revise, stress out and cry with, but also drive to summer school and party with) throughout the rest of my OU journey! I passed the first module with an overall continuous assessment score of 75%. I was over the moon and it gave me the confidence to move on.

The next module Exploring psychology (DSE212) was great. I remembered studies I’d covered at A Level and revisiting them was wonderful. My tutor was excellent and thoroughly prepared. I always felt I was learning at her tutorials. The exam was terrifying. I hadn’t sat one since I was eighteen and all my insecurities about failing came back to haunt me. On the morning before the exam I sat in Roberts’s garden, discussing our options if we failed. ‘Could we possibly re-take it? Maybe they would let us if we’d done okay on the assignments?’ I shouldn’t have worried, the feeling after the exam was fantastic, a sense of absolute relief. I thought I’d answered all the short questions correctly and hoped I’d done okay on the essays. I actually got my result the day before summer school. A distinction! 81%! I didn’t know how I’d managed it; I just felt my luck was changing.

My result gave me a much needed confidence boost and helped me enjoy the Exploring Psychology project (DXR222) module at Bath University. My time at an actual, real university made me feel like a proper student; it gave me a connection to the often-talked about ‘brick universities’ that students and tutors frequently discuss. I was part of something that, from the age of eighteen, I thought I’d never do, something I believed I’d missed the boat on. It was liberating to not only be there studying real life psychology, conducting experiments and attending lectures in actual lecture halls, but also meeting people who were interested in the same subject as me. People from many walks of life, different countries and cultures, all wanting to study this amazing subject. (And many working in applied psychology, in one form or another).

Most people, when I talk about psychology, either think it’s psychobabble or get scared because they think I’m analysing them! This included the ‘engineering boys’, studying a completely different subject, mostly scared because they thought, as psychology students, we could read minds! So that was fun, too! Speaking with other students and tutors at summer school (hearing about their lives and their careers) was fascinating and they were interested in talking with me about what I do.

There was also the selfish aspect, a whole week of me time! I’m a single mum to a young son (who, by the way, absolutely loved a week’s holiday at his Nana’s while I was away and wasn’t at all worried about where I was or missed me!) So being in student accommodation for a week, where I didn’t have to cook, clean, wash up, or be responsible for anyone apart from me... was wonderful! It gave me the experience of being young again. I can imagine how the thrill of uni’ life takes over when you’re just entering adulthood. The tutors were incredible, too, so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I was in awe of most of them, hearing about their research and theories.

Summer school was emotional; all day working, attending lectures and tutorials, fitting in lunch and a quick chat with classmates, then evening lectures and listening to the tutors for another couple of hours, before the night life and spending the rest of the evening with your new-found best friends, drinking and

chatting into the night. It’s like Big Brother; you’re thrown into a university with strangers and get to know them quickly because you spend every waking moment together. Tiredness kicks in about halfway through the week (you’re running on adrenalin until then!) Then they give you an afternoon off to recharge before you’re back doing it all again the next day, but mostly everyone wants to escape for a few hours and explore the city, or drink!

The end of the week was sad; leaving my new friends I spent all week getting to know, possibly forever. On the way home there was a traffic jam. The main road out of Bath was closed; my satnav kept telling me to get on that road. I didn’t know how to get home and I didn’t have a road atlas. I was frustrated and so exhausted from my week away that I just sat in the car... and cried! I scored an acceptable grade 3 pass on my summer school module with 62%. I’d put so much work into it, but I gained much more than the score and credits for this module. I experienced something I never thought I would.

After summer school I needed to do a short course for fifteen credits. I chose Applying psychology (DSE232) as I loved the idea of reading about how psychology is applied in real life. This course was fascinating as I learned a lot of interesting things about autism, stress, telling lies and relationships (which apply to my job in school with students who have behavioural issues). I really enjoyed this module and I’m sure it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact there was no exam at the end! I was happy with my Grade 2 pass of 70% and really enjoyed the practice of writing professional letters and reports.

In the next module I started exploring that old grey matter known as Brian, or at least that’s what I typed a few times in my assignments! Biological psychology: exploring the brain (SD226) was one of the toughest modules of my degree. I chose to do this one before Child development because I expected it to be difficult (I’d read the reviews) and I’d have a module to look forward to afterwards. I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy it, but it was one of the best parts of the whole degree! The links between the brain (biology) and the mind (psychology) were really interesting. It took lots of reading, and was frustrating reading things over and not getting it. However, the feeling you get when suddenly it just clicks into place is amazing. Suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what they mean, I get it now!’ I had an outstanding tutor on this module who could explain terms and concepts really well, which helped, she really knew her subject! I was ecstatic with my result, a distinction with 86%.

On telling my son the next course was Child development (ED209), he responded it might be useful for him. I agreed it might and asked him, “Would it be okay to conduct psychological studies on you?” He answered, “Yes that’s fine Mummy as long as you don’t have to take my head off!” The module wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d thought, a lot of the studies were on babies (eye movements and such), however, I did learn quite a lot about my  tutors’ children that year! I wonder if they realise they’re her participants and the basis for several of her lesson plans?! I also enjoyed answering a SEEN question in the exam. I chose psychology and education, as it was very relevant to what I do in my job in school.

I also attended an OUPS revision weekend at Warwick. There was much to learn in this module and I thought a weekend away to study might be beneficial. I’d read on the OU forums about the OUPS and how there were a handful of funded places for people in my situation. I managed to get one and I had an amazing two days and met lovely people. Again, being at a real university, (if only for a weekend) made me feel like a real student. It was interesting to see a different university too and their stationary shop is incredible!! I even felt a bit like a celebrity spotter meeting the amazing Professor Frederick Toates, who until then I’d only known through his work! The revision weekend paid off, I gained a distinction on this module.

Stepping up to the level three module Social psychology: critical perspectives on self and others (DD307) was demanding. You know the saying don’t be fooled by first appearances? Well this is applicable to this module! When the course books arrived, I thought they seemed lovely. I’d grown to love the excitement of the delivery of new books. There were only two, ‘Would there be more delivered later? No just these two! Maybe they’re expecting us to read them twice’, I thought? Some experiments we had to critique I remembered from school and found them interesting, some of it was really hard to understand and get your head around the concepts. During this module I got to choose what I wanted to research and write my project on (I looked at positive aspects of becoming a mother and how this affects identity). This was the best part of the course. I loved the interviews and analysing the transcripts, I was researching something I had chosen rather than what I had been told to investigate!

About three weeks before the exam I sustained a knee injury playing netball and couldn’t walk for three weeks. I was signed off work and told to rest. I was hobbling with crutches and couldn’t drive. Mmm what to do, ‘Oh yes... revise!’ Although I did get some stick from students and colleagues saying that I’d faked a knee injury to get some extra revision time!

At the start of the exam I was desperate to turn the paper over to see if the chapters I’d chosen were there. The invigilator came over and, in a quiet and delicate voice, said, “I can see you’ve got a stick!” She then asked me if I wanted to be nearer the toilet. I politely declined, thinking ‘I don’t want any special treatment. I’m going nowhere until the exam is over!’ I was happy to get a grade 2 pass for this difficult module.

The final module Cognitive Psychology (DD303) I’d chosen to do last because I thought it would be demanding and it involved a compulsory summer school. I thought of it as a treat to end my degree as I had enjoyed the previous one.

I loved this second summer school as much as the first, if not more, because I knew what to expect. I wanted to appreciate it as much as I could and attend all the evening lectures, which I did. The tutors were incredible; mine was only in her twenties and was already a Doctor! At this level we could design and conduct our own research, analyse the results and write up our own projects. This was an amazing experience, so was taking part in other people’s research. Walking around the university grounds and reading signs for ‘Psychology Research Labs’ made the authentic student experience real. It made me feel like a proper student.

I suspect none of the other students knew how much it meant; to go away to university. It meant I’m not too thick, it meant I got to experience something all my mates did years earlier, something I thought was completely out of reach, something I would never get to do because if you don’t go to uni’ when you’re eighteen you’ve missed the boat. Well, the people I met at summer school proved to me I hadn’t missed the boat and I could still have that experience, even if only for a week (a week was enough, trust me!)

The run up to the final exam was the most stressful time of my life. I found myself crying on the way to work most mornings, just thinking about the end. It was a combination of worry about the amount of information I needed to remember and the stresses of thoughts like ‘This is my final exam and could determine my degree classification’. I didn’t want to mess it all up at the final hurdle. I had come such a long way and spent such a long time doing this. It had become such a huge part of my life and had taken up so much time and energy. I would bite people’s heads off if they kindly asked me, “How’s your revision going?” or, “When’s your exam?” I didn’t want to talk about it. In hindsight I was also a little sad (unconsciously of course) that it was all coming to an end and, once the exam was finished, I would have no more OU work, no more reading, no more TMAs.

The day of the final exam had arrived. I’d spent the last few months revising, reading, drawing mind maps and sticking them all over the walls in my house - applying the psychology I had learned along the journey, mnemonics and memory retrieval techniques. I embarked on the now familiar but uncomfortable drive to the examination centre with Robert. We tried to support and encourage each other but the stomach churning was overwhelming. My worry was there was so much to know I just might open the exam paper and not be able to answer all three questions. I had revised as much as my brain would possibly contain. Once inside there was the customary waiting around, check your name on the list and go to the toilet, until they let you into the examination hall. Finally they let us in. I found my seat and tried to get comfortable. The paper was there on the desk. I was desperate to open it and look; I just wanted to know if my chosen chapters were there.

“You may begin”. I opened the paper and read each question. ‘Yes! I could answer them!’ As I scanned through each section, I found a question I could answer. I had spotted a familiar name, phrase or word. The chapters I had revised had come up! Tears started rolling down my cheeks. ‘Get a grip’, I told myself. ‘You have three essays to write’. I composed myself and started scrawling. Two hours and thirty minutes later, the invigilator said, “You have thirty minutes left”. At this point I had a complete meltdown; it wasn’t just thirty minutes of the exam left, it was thirty minutes left of the last six years of my life. It was half an hour to finish off this essay and I had so much more to cram in. I panicked. My writing turned to scribble. It was like I suddenly realised this was the end. I rushed that last half an hour and was in tears when they said, “Time’s up, pen’s down”. The invigilators must have thought I’d done really badly. In retrospect it was the emotion of it all. They were happy tears, tears because I’d finished and had been able to answer all the questions. I could barely speak to anyone on the way out!

Since I started with the Open University, I haven’t looked back once! I’ve loved every single minute of studying psychology. It hasn’t been easy; I’ve had to fit it around my full-time job in a secondary school and my responsibilities as a parent. I’ve studied late into the night after a day at work and in the half term holidays; I’ve been seen sitting at the back of my son’s karate class or swimming lessons reading psychology books. When I’ve had an assignment due,I’ve put a DVD on for him so I can write it (I’ve learned to concentrate with Power Rangers on in the background!) Even though there have had to be sacrifices, my son has had weeks and weekends at his relatives (which he’s loved). I’d do it all again. Although I’ve spent a lot of time studying while my son was young (and trust me I’ve felt guilty about this) I believe I’ve given him a great work ethic. He sees me studying and sees how worthwhile it is and hopefully it will pay off when he’s older. He will go to university, I’ve told him that!

At the end of November 2013 I received a text from Robert telling me the results were out. I quickly logged onto my Open University homepage to get my result and degree classification. I was alone, at the computer. I felt sick logging in. I kept thinking, ‘Even to have got this far is an amazing achievement’. Six years ago I didn’t even think I could complete the first module never mind carry on and achieve a degree. Twenty-one years ago, that young woman who failed her A Levels told herself she wasn’t clever enough to go to university. Well, this was it, the culmination of six years; the chance to heal the eighteen year old young woman who had failed her A Levels. I typed my username and password. My hands were shaking. I scrolled with the mouse and hovered over module result. I had worked out (as I think everyone does when they get to a certain point) that if I achieved a distinction for my final module result, in combination with the previous module results, I would be awarded a First-class

Honours. I paused. This is it, prepare yourself. I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter what the result it is, as long as it’s a pass’. I clicked... There it was in red. Distinction! I was ecstatic! I’d got a first!

I will actually graduate in June 2014.

I will be 38! So I have a couple of months left until it’s really all over, but you never know, I hear the Open University are looking at a psychology masters over the next couple of years?! I will be eternally indebted to the Open University and the Open University Psychological Society for the funding which has enabled me to complete my degree and change my life forever. Plus now I have my degree I can pursue my original career aim of teaching. There are also so many people who have been supportive; family, friends and colleagues. I would like to thank them all for the love and support they’ve shown me over the last six years. I also want to tell all the people, who like me, think they can’t do it or they’re not clever enough... YOU ARE!

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