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When the unplanned disturbs your plan ...

As Open University students, we become masters of juggling the many facets of our lives. Jobs, children, sick and/or elderly parents, friends, housework... I could go on! And that is before I have even mentioned TMAs!

But we manage to find that pattern that works for us. OK, the kids may be watching one (or 5!) too many episodes of the latest Disney channel offering than you would like. Or you decide that you can get away without ironing the majority of the clean laundry pile.

But it works. The finely tuned machine that constitutes the life of an Open University student just about ticks along. The kids, the dog and the other half are fed. You are not upsetting your boss too much, so you still have a salary coming in. You've submitted your assignments on time.

Then something unexpected comes up...

In January this year, my mum passed away. She was 58 years old, and still had my two youngest brothers living at home. She initially got taken into hospital six days before I was due to sit an exam for my master's degree. She came out of hospital the next day, stable but still critically ill. Then, on the day of my exam she got rushed in again. She passed away 48 hours later.

As anyone who has had a close relative pass away will know, the next couple of months were turned on their head. All the while I still had classes to attend, assignments to complete, and a research project to begin, along with all the normal responsibilities of life.

For me, my mum passing away was quite a major event. The thing that jeopardizes that fine balance you have in your life as an OU student, however, can come in all shapes and whether fairly small or a major life event, both have the potential to disrupt your progress with your studies.

So how do you manage your studies when an unexpected event occurs?

My very first suggestion would be to close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths. This will slow your heart rate down and hopefully stop the panic so that you can think a bit more clearly about what to do next. The next - and most important - thing to do is to contact your tutor.

Contact your tutor as soon as possible

This is the advice the OU give on every one of their possible life event scenarios on the OU website. If you find you cannot contact your tutor, contact the Student Support team. It is important to do this as soon as possible, and before any deadlines or exams.

Your tutor will be able to advise on what to focus on to get through the next few weeks, and to get the next assignment finished. They too may have been through a similar situation, and may be able to offer some suggestions on how to manage your studies and your other commitments. When my mum initially became ill during my final OU module, my tutor had been through a similar situation. Her understanding of the situation made me feel immediately calmer.

Your tutor will also be able to advise on extending deadlines or even omitting assignments (it is important to refer to individual module guidelines regarding omitting deadlines as these vary between modules and do not apply to all TMAs). Whilst immediately helpful, however, there are things to consider.

Extending your deadline can be a huge help. It relieves the stress when trying to think, for example, how to visit if your partner is rushed into hospital and deal with all the childcare and finish that assignment that is due in in 3 days' time. However, you need to be aware that you will have shorter time to complete the next assignment, and will need to put a strategy in place to catch up once your life has calmed down.

With regards to missing out an assignment, this removes the initial panic of meeting the deadline, and the pressure of catching up. Great! Why does everyone not take this option?!

Firstly, not all assignments can be omitted, so it is important to check the details on this. However, as you will have a mark of zero for this assignment, you should consider how this impacts your final continuous assessment scores. Sometimes, you may find it better to submit an essay plan.

Or submit what you have written so far, finished with bullet points for the rest of the assignment. Even a score of 20 will have a positive effect on your final score.

Unfortunately, in some circumstances, whatever it is that has disrupted you from finishing the latest assignment does not ease up. If you feel this is the case, you may find that a better solution for you is to postpone your studies for a short period. You may be able to bank the marks you have already achieved until the next running of the module, when hopefully life will have calmed down for you. This means you should not have to redo assignments you have already completed. Student Support will be able to discuss this option with you.

Away from the help your tutor and student services may be able to provide, there are other things you can do to help you through a challenging time as a distance learning student.

Ask for help. From friends, family and employers. Maybe a friend can have the kids for a play date for a morning so you can catch up on reading. Or your employer will allow you to be flexible in your hours while you catch up.

As well as asking for help, be happy to accept help when it is offered. The person offering would not be doing so if they did not want to help, and they obviously realise how important your studies are to you. Often, you will find that just a few hours can be all you need to focus your thoughts, catch up on a key chapter, or to edit your assignment.

If you have tutorials but cannot make the next one, it can be a great help to ask your fellow students if they are willing to share their notes with you. Or maybe arrange a coffee morning with one or two students to talk through what you are currently working on - this will be beneficial not only to you but also to your fellow students.

Falling behind can be overwhelming. This is often because all we can see is this big mammoth task that we need to complete. To make catching up seem less of a mission, break it down into smaller tasks. Break a chapter down into either sub sections, or 4-5 page chunks. When you have a 30 minute window to study, you then only have to achieve that small task. Knowing you have accomplished a whole task will make it feel you are achieving much more than if you sit down just to work on everything you need to achieve.

Before I finish I would like you to consider something my tutor said to me when my mum passed away. Sometimes, keeping going can be helpful. It can be good to have something to have a break from the stresses of life. Over the years I have heard great stories of how people have used their OU studies to help them through challenging situations. And because OU studying is so portable, it makes it so much easier to dip in and out of it anywhere!

The nature of being an Open University student and a mature student does mean that we are constantly trying to keep multiple plates spinning. It also means that at some point on our journey we are likely to meet something that was unplanned and unexpected. But that does not mean disaster for your academic progress. If anything, you will acquire new skills such as learning how to adapt and manage unforeseen problems. This can be a great asset for the future, and also gives you something to talk about when you are asked that dreaded interview question 'Can you tell me about a situation where you overcame a difficult situation'.

The last thing that I leave you with hopefully helps should you ever find yourself up against something unplanned...

Despite an awful start to 2017, I finished all those assignments and that research project, and I graduate with a Master's degree this November.

Michelle Newman is London Region Secretary


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