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Guidance in Preparing eTMAs


This guide has been updated following experience gained from 12 years of marking of eTMAs and now includes tips from other tutors, information on viewing the returned TMAs and some notes on how to avoid problems in submission. We are currently updating the matching Guide for Tutors. The system worked well for me with all my students participating. There are however a number of potential problems which can be avoided and the process smoothed by taking care in the way the TMA is presented.

The point to remember is that the purpose and outcome of the eTMA exercise is not a perfectly presented work of art by the student but an adequate marked script from the tutor which includes all the valuable feedback and marking information as well as the original input. It must be in a legible form which can be read by the student and the monitor checking selected scripts. The output is a document with two authors – it is the result of a partnership.

This actually makes your job as the student easier as you can concentrate on content without any fine tuning of the layout, which will change – some tutors may write as much text into the document as the student in a key area. A table of contents is, for example, pointless in an eTMA and please forget about custom styles; both cause far more problems than they are worth. When preparing an eTMA you must expect extra paragraphs to be added as well as in-line text, ticks and marks – you should anticipate these and leave 'landing pads'. Tutors will be using the standard mark-up tools of modern word processors such as Microsoft Word and Open/Star Office so their inputs will be easy to identify.

A particular problem during the early years was conversions between file formats which can make major changes in layout and further changes can occur when marking in different versions of Office software. The current versions of the marking tool are largely independent of the software used for marking which is a great improvement over the early days. There is a opportunity to submit a dummy TMA early in the process which is important if you have not used the eTMA system before.

The file conversion problem returned in the last few years because of the incompatibility of Microsoft Word 2007's default file format and fonts with almost everything including other earlier versions of Word and now we have another Microsoft version which will no doubt bring another set of incompatibilities.

Advice on Layout to aid marking and feedback

It has become clear that for electronic marking to work well and provide well presented feedback that some anticipation is required in laying out the TMA. A beautifully presented and polished TMA can have the whOIE layout destroyed by a single line being inserted! Anticipating the additions your tutor will make to your text and allowing for them will make it much easier to view. The additions which will be made include:

Most of these take up additional space and need a suitable location. Our advice is to:

Office 2007 and Office 2010

Office 2007 and Office 2010 file formats - .docx

The file conversion problem has once more raised it's ugly head because of the incompatibility of Microsoft Word 2007's default file format and fonts with almost everything including other versions of Word. Office 2010 has added more problems as it has a number of additional features to Word 2010 and the .docx file format which means that it is not backward compatible to Word 2007 - the advice from Microsoft is that if you are sharing documents with people who only have earlier versions of Word is that you should work in a compatibility mode so that they see your document exactly as you intend it to be seen. The OU instructions to students that it is mandatory to convert to the 'usual' .doc format which has been around since Office 97 still remains - it is now described as Word Format in the Save As dialogs in Office 2007.

File conversion can also be a problem with OIE (Object Linking and Embedding) which was designed to link to files created by other applications to allow you to display and edit the object using its native program - your tutor or monitor may not have a compatible program installed, some for example will have bought machines a while ago with Microsoft Works Suite installed which has Word but not any other Office programs. If you use Office 2007 and embed an Excel spread sheet into a .doc file the spread sheet should also be saved in an Office 2003 compatible format otherwise the embedded object may not be accessible or be changed on a machine running Office 2003 or Star/OpenOffice. The simple solution is to avoid embedding.

Office 2007 Fonts:

File Formats are unfortunately only part of the problem as Office 2007 also installs a number of new fonts including Calibri, Candara, Consolas, Cambria, Constantia, and Corbel. We understand that Calibri is used as the default font in Word 2007 and 2010 and also Powerpoint, Excel and Outlook. Even if you convert in Word 2007 to the old .doc format you are still using a font which is not available on every machine. An agreement with your tutor is not sufficient as a significant percentage of scripts are double marked and you will never know who the monitor is. There is a Wikipedia Article on Calibri if you are interested.

The consequences of font substitution can be very significant. The tutor or monitor will see the document differently as a font on their machine will be substituted and that will be machine dependent. A change of font will change the size and spacing of the text so the layout will be changed which may be acceptable. The worst problems occur with drawings and mixed drawings and text and we have one example where equations have used some drawings overlaid and the meaning has been completely changed due to text slippage under brackets - that was obvious although the cause was not initially. Worse still text boxes may no longer be large enough to contain the text and the ends of text strings can be lost again changing the meaning completely in several cases we have seen. Combined with a double conversion from .docx to .doc and to Open/Star Office which is used by many tutors, including ourselves, for marking one is no longer sure what one is seeing. This is not a satisfactory situation and the effects are not going to be limited to the OU, one can just imagine the effects in complex technical commercial documents and agreements even if everybody is using Windows - thank you Bill.

The advice to students using Office 2007/10 must now be:

Most of the above has always been in our advice on eTMA preparation which also formed the basis of the OU Etma advice, an early piece of contract work we carried out. The font issue is new and does not seem to have been recognised, nor have issues over OIE objects - this makes the other advice even more important.

Obtaining the Office 2007 fonts

This is for reference as there is no way you can be sure that a monitor will have them even if a Tutor can be persuaded to add them.

There is also a good write up on obtaining the new fonts for Open Office under Windows XP and Linux in the OpenOffice Ninja Article on Installing Free Office 2007 Fonts for XP and Linux. We have also written up the use of Open Source Software for Open University Teaching on machines running Ubuntu Linux .

Freezing Output from Drawing Tools and OIE objects into Pictures

Microsoft Windows and Word: Most students will have a graphics package with good screen grabbing facilities which they will be familiar with but there are some basic facilities which are good enough built into Windows XP and above which mean you can freeze a drawing in under a minute with practice.

Star/Open Office has similar facilities regardless of the operating system in use.

It is best to keep the complex drawings in a different file and not embed objects so you can change them and then repeat the above if required.

Styles and inclusion of OU TMA text

The OU TMA questions and answers make use of a number of advanced features of the Word Processor they use. They also use a number of Fonts which are not available in Word on most PCs. There is an increasing tendency to provide them as PDF files but when they are available as document (.doc) files you must take care when pasting in text from the TMA questions or using their documents as an outline for your answer. In Word the "style" of a paragraph is usually displayed in a little window on the left of toolbar for the paragraph containing the cursor. If this is "normal" then all is fine. It may also reflect any indenting/numbering. The "style" information will also migrate into paragraphs you add below a paragraph with a "style" - use the drop down menu next to the display of the "style" to reset to "normal". The same applies to fonts but that is much more obvious and easy to understand and change.

There are often problems with screen captures that either don't end up in the right place, or on top of one another when pasted in when complex styles are used. A reasonable form of presentation can be created in this case if:

(Thanks to Tony Corbett for identifying these problems and a solution)

Tips on using the ETMA System

You must have Cookies and Java enabled to use the ETMA Web sites - Browsers rarely inform you if a Cookie is refused so you may never know. (Tip thanks to Gill Harrison)

It is best to use the web submission as you get better feedback and it is quicker. If you use the email submission route it is best to do so from the normal FirstClass software. If you use a different email package then it should be set to send plain text - the fancy rich text (HTML) available on Outlook Express, Outlook, Netscape and Thunderbird often ends up send text which is partitioned and looks like an extra attachment and thus will not be recognised by the e-TMA system and you will get messages back saying you have sent too many attachments.


The views here are entirely our own and are not endorsed in any way by the Open University. What is written on these pages is our own experiences and is not intended to replace in any way the documentation supplied with any of the Open University software. Always Backup before installing any Software and on a regular basis. Do a proper cost Benefit and Risk Analysis taking into account your circumstances and knowledge base before making any changes. Past performance is no indication of the future returns.

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Fonts revised: 29th April, 2021