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Part 2 Teaching approach

2.1 The role of a tutor

By David McDade

Tutor, formally also called an academic tutor, is the term that is used to define the majority of staff that teach students at The Open University (OU). You may see the title Associate Lecturer sometimes referred to as AL or Tutor. Tutors are vital in the contribution that they make to the quality of teaching and learning as well as the support that they provide to students.

Students that come to study at the OU have a wide range of different backgrounds, as well as wanting to study with the OU for a variety of different reasons. For example, students may be working full-time, so studying with the OU provides flexibility. Other students may have various disabilities and they recognise that the OU provides a more suitable environment for study.

We consider the important aspects of the tutor role include the following:

  • Welcoming students to the university
  • Identifying the needs of students
  • Providing correspondence tuition to students
  • Providing academic as well as non-academic support
  • Providing pro-active support
  • Developing study skills
  • Monitoring the progress of students
  • Providing study advice and academic guidance
  • Providing feedback to students
  • Working online and using OU systems
  • Developing good working relationships with OU colleagues.
Described image

There are many other facets to the tutor role, for example, possessing good personal attributes. This includes being approachable, being a good listener, being empathetic, non-judgemental, being open and honest, and respecting the values of other people. We examine the skills and attributes of a tutor in more detail in the coming sections, as well as how the tutor role fits into the wider life of the OU, and how this role interacts with other teams, for example, student support, staff tutors and module teams.

Most of the work a tutor carries out involves working online at distance. Important aspects of this include being a good facilitator and having the ability to develop independent learning in students, which we also look at in this section of the course. Additionally, we examine the more detailed personal aspects of the role such as the nature of the OU contract, the support a tutor receives and developmental opportunities that are available.

In this video, Charly, Prince, Joan, Colin and Tammy talk about what they consider their role as an OU tutor is.

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Activity 1

Think about the ‘traditional’ role of a face-to-face teacher. In what ways do you think working as a tutor would differ from this role?

Post your thoughts to the discussion forum and comment on some other posts. Do you agree with the other posters?


Your response depends on your individual situation and context, as well as the extent to which you already have experience of teaching, so these are model answers for you to consider.

There is reduced face-to-face contact and so there is the danger of students feeling isolated – tutors use facilities such as email, forums and telephone to engage with students.

Identifying the needs of students is not as clear-cut as in a classroom and, therefore, early discussions with students are very important.

Assessments are submitted electronically, so this means that marking and feedback play an important role in facilitating the student's learning.

2.2 Teaching materials

Tutors at the OU mainly teach with online teaching materials that are already available through the OU Virtual Learning Environment, and on the websites for the module(s) on which they teach. The aim of the OU is to be open and accessible to all, so online teaching materials come in a variety of formats, which are designed to suit the variety of learners that study with us.

Materials are mainly available in the formats shown in the diagram below.

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There may also be occasions where printed materials are used, for example, a book that students have to refer to as they progress through their course. In this case, printed materials are supplied by the OU (not the tutor) and are delivered to the home address of the student.

Module websites also provide additional resources for students, to aid them on their journey, for example:

  • A study planner, which guides students through the learning materials and acts as a study calendar, showing assignment cut-off dates and other module-related dates
  • Forums to communicate with other students on the module, as well as the academics involved in teaching it
  • Resources that are specific to that module, for example, third-party software for students to download.

The image below displays a typical OU module website, along with some important features highlighted.

Described image

Not all the materials that a tutor uses are supplied by the OU. There are occasions when delivering online tutorials that tutors choose to develop their own presentations, tutorial notes and tasks. You learn more about the OU website and online tutoring later in the course.

2.3 Teaching as facilitation

The primary role of a tutor is to teach – or tutor – online groups. Another important aspect of that is the role of facilitator for an online group. We can think of teaching as ‘leading’ a cohort of students, where the cohort is learning new skills, whilst gaining knowledge and understanding.

However, the facilitator aspect in this is to create an environment in which it is easy for students to learn as a group as well as achieving something together as a group, learning together as a community. Study materials, which are provided either online or in print by the OU, contain the content that students are expected to learn – the role of the tutor is to facilitate that learning.

Click or hover over the diagram below to reveal the definitions.

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Top tips for facilitating learning

Some top tips for facilitating learning include the following:

  • Maintaining positivity among the group
  • Providing support and encouragement
  • Prompting students to develop their own abilities
  • Building community spirit by encouraging groupwork
  • Engaging in clear and constructive dialogue
  • Providing prompt and constructive feedback.

2.4 Staff tutors and module teams

The Open University is a large organisation, operating centrally from Walton Hall in Milton Keynes, and with offices and support facilities spread throughout other locations across the UK as well as Northern Ireland. As you would expect, there are a lot of staff working for the university, all operating at these sites and with some working from home as well.

The tutor encounters, and at times is required to work with, a variety of staff across the UK, for example, other tutors, staff tutors/regional academics, central academics, and the Student Support Team (SST) who offer educational information, advice and guidance for OU students. 

Tutors are assigned a Line Manager when starting out in their new career. The line manager is normally an experienced staff tutor. New tutors are also assigned mentors that are experienced tutors who guide them in their new role.

Staff tutors

Staff tutors play a vital role for the tutor in that they are normally the first point of contact as the immediate line manager. Tutors normally contact staff tutors when needing advice about specific situations to do with students. Whilst working with the staff tutor, they get to know the tutor as well as their own developmental needs. Staff tutors are also the first point of contact for any personal difficulties that arise and if support was needed in a particular situation, and also if a tutor needed to take leave of absence.

Staff tutors work in a regional academic role, which means that quite often they are home-based. Some staff tutors however, do still work from offices in locations throughout the UK. As well as line managing their tutors, staff tutors have a variety of other duties, for example, timetabling tutorials and interviewing prospective tutors. Staff tutors also engage with module teams, where again they can have a variety of roles such as being a member of the module team, chairing modules, writing teaching materials and engaging in scholarly activity.

Module teams

Module teams are mainly responsible for the development and maintenance of courses and programmes at the OU. Each module team is led by a Module Chair who is responsible for overseeing the development, maintenance and day-to-day running of a module. Module teams also include central academics and a Curriculum Manager. However, as mentioned, module teams can also include staff tutors.

Tutors are expected to work with each of these aforementioned teams and individuals. Some examples include:

  • The staff tutor requires the tutor to fulfil timetabling duties and determine dates for online tutorials.
  • A tutor is an active member on a course forum, where they can provide information to module teams (and forum moderators) about the particular aspects of a module.
  • A tutor is required to work with Student Support Teams if a student is having difficulties.

Later, in section 2.11, more detail is provided on the support available to tutors at the OU.

The word cloud below highlights several terms that a tutor is likely to come across:

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2.5 Skills and attributes of an Associate Lecturer

Many different types of people work as tutors and, as mentioned previously, many different types of students come to study at the OU. The skills and attributes of a tutor play a very important part in the effectiveness of the role.

The skills and the attributes of a tutor tend to fall into two broad areas, that again relates to section 2.3, where we discussed teaching and facilitation:

  • Academic tutor support – working with and developing the cognitive needs of students – teaching students.
  • Non-academic and pastoral support – working with the emotional and organisational skills of students and how they impact the overall learning process.

However, in practice, these areas are not always distinct. Tutors have to be prepared to deal with many different situations and/or circumstances that may affect their students' ability to make progress in their studies. For example, technology difficulties; requests for tutor-marked assignments (TMA) extensions; queries about TMA grades, personal situations of students (that impinge on their studies); domineering students (e.g., in tutorials); making adjustments to teaching (to take account of student disability for example); having to meet deadlines for marking; and students having difficulties understanding particular areas covered by the module. Bearing this in mind, it is safe to say that the job of a tutor at the OU, whilst being a rewarding one, is rather different from that of a ‘traditional’ lecturer.

As the first point of contact for a group, tutors need to be able to respond to a variety of situations, not forgetting that there is plenty of support available, should it be needed.

Activity 2

A tutor ideally should be:

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. Approachable

  2. Constructive listener

  3. Open and accepting

  4. Honest

  5. Non-judgemental

  6. Empathic

  • a.Being true to themselves about what they can and can’t do, as well as being prepared, in order to build trust in students.

  • b.Understanding how students from different backgrounds feel about being learners.

  • c.Respecting the values of others and not jumping to conclusions.

  • d.Helping students to clarify their concerns without forcing the tutor's own solutions on them. Being reflective and using open-ended questions.

  • e.Being warm and friendly when approached and when contacting students. Placing themselves ‘on a level playing field’ when working alongside students.

  • f.Expressing their views without being directly critical of students.

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = e
  • 2 = d
  • 3 = c
  • 4 = a
  • 5 = f
  • 6 = b

Activity 3

A student has emailed asking for an extension to a TMA. What factors would you take into consideration when deciding your approach?

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Firstly, it is important to find out the reasons for the student wanting to have an extension. This requires tutors to be good listeners and be non-judgemental of the situation, as well as being supportive of the students whilst taking into consideration the plight of the student. Tutors may also have to make a judgement call and turn down a student's request if they feel the reasons for wanting an extension are unwarranted.

2.6 The ethos of correspondence tuition

Leading on from earlier discussions on tuition and the skills and attributes required to be an effective tutor, The Open University highly values the relationship between tutors and their students, and the vital role correspondence tuition plays in that relationship.

At the OU, there are two aspects to the tutor role in correspondence tuition, the first of which is assessment. This is an essential and integral part of the process of learning. The second is the individual tuition and personal encouragement, or feedback that is provided to students.

If we were to examine this in more detail, correspondence tuition is the personal learning support given by OU tutors concerning their students’ work on tutor-marked assignments (TMAs). This entails supporting students in their preparation in advance of a TMA and responding (in written, spoken or electronic form) to the TMA itself. It also includes following up afterwards to support further learning needs, through clarification or discussion.

At the OU, correspondence tuition serves many different purposes, for example:

  • Encouraging students
  • Teaching students
  • Facilitating the development of skills
  • Helping students attain learning outcomes
  • Individualising the learning experience and making it personal
  • Being flexible and responsive to the needs of students
  • Evaluating strengths and weaknesses in students
  • Encouraging reflective practice in the student
  • Identifying the next steps in learning
  • Feeding forward and determining the mid to long-term goals of the student
  • Encouraging independent learning.

Activity 4

Case study

A tutor has recently taken on a cohort of 20 students for a particular module. Most of the students in the cohort have studied with the OU. However, there are a few students that whilst having not studied for a number of years, they have also never studied with the OU. After a recent online tutorial combined with poor TMA results, the tutor has become concerned that these students are starting to disengage with their module.

Using the bullet points above, what two steps do you think the tutor can take to get the students back on track with their studies? Also briefly describe one or two other methods that can perhaps be used in combination with the chosen steps.

Post your thoughts to the discussion forum  and comment on some other posts. Do you agree with the other posters?


You may have selected other steps from the list. Below is a model answer:

Encouraging students – further individual engagement with the students through email or perhaps by phone to discuss any difficulties and provide encouragement and a way forward. If problems are more serious, then perhaps refer the issue to student support.

Feeding forward and determining mid to long-term goals – this could perhaps be carried out through feedback in the TMAs and, in particular, through summary feedback that is returned with each marked TMA, as well as through individual conversation.

2.7 Developing independent learning

An important job of the tutor is to develop and encourage independent learning in students. In doing so, tutors can enhance the motivation of students as well as overcome barriers and obstacles that are associated with learning. Tutors are in an ideal position to help students take ownership of their learning to become more independent.

When starting with a group of students at the beginning of a module, the tutor should actively encourage students to seek out answers for themselves by browsing information available from StudentHome as well as module websites. Some examples being, library and academic resources/study guides, module guides and TMA submission dates. Other strategies that can be used for promoting independent learning may include:


Most educational literature agrees that a student’s motivation to learn is the key factor in their progress. Research has shown that study-skills training that doesn’t consider motivation is unlikely to result in much skill improvement. The key to a student’s success, particularly in distance learning, may be in their motivation to learn. 

When adult learners are developing new skills, a balance of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is vital in order to succeed. However, when working online, adult learners succeed better in a supportive environment.

Motivation provides the driving force for students to tackle the difficulties and challenges that are associated with learning, particularly when students have other demands on their time. A student is motivated if they have a clear vision of their personal goal. Motivation is also influenced by the student’s self-perception and by belief in his or her own learning ability.

The following important factors should be taken into consideration for the motivation of students:

  • Students have control over their own learning and are involved in assessment of that learning.
  • Students have an opportunity to engage with what is important for themselves as an individual, for the qualification and for potential employers.
  • Course content is seen to have relevance, is interesting and engaging, is fun, and presents a challenge.
  • Clear deadlines are given for task completion and regular timely feedback is provided.

Peer Support

Talking to other students on the module can be very reassuring for students feeling generally overwhelmed; they often have good tips for dealing with specific problems too. Online forum discussions can help them see that many fellow students have very similar difficulties, as such, it is important for the tutor to promote the use of forums among a group.

Encouragement should also be given to students to set up or join a study group to keep in touch with other students, discuss ideas and be supportive and supported.

Sharing their ideas with others also provides students with an opportunity to practise their critical thinking skills. They can debate the alternative explanations and claims that other students have made, and defend their own standpoint.

2.8 Fostering group identity

As we touched on previously in section 2.3, the primary role of a tutor is to teach – or tutor – online groups. At The Open University, learning in groups is supported by tutors in mainly online tutorials and through group work planned as part of a tutorial. Tutorials can also sometimes be face-to-face.

Fostering group identity among students is a key aspect to achieving success with a group of learners. When we discussed facilitating online learning, we also mentioned the importance of maintaining positivity among the group. This is one strategy, among many, that can be used to foster group identity.

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Many activities that a tutor carries out are online, are likely to form a considerable part of the course, and how the tutor interacts with their group. Participation remains a central theme when working with others online. Therefore, fostering identity within the group is vital in making sure that the right levels of engagement are maintained by the group members. Non-participation by even one member of a group can have an impact on others.

If students are required to work together as a group to complete a common task, there is a range of skills that can be employed in order to help the students achieve their goals, which in turn can be used to foster the identity of the group. For example, team working, group decision-making, task management, and negotiation.

Other factors that have to be taken into consideration are the cohesion of the group and the confidence of the students, which may be affected by factors shown in the diagram below.

Described image

When collaborative online groupwork is assessed, the boundaries between tuition and assessment become blurred. This is useful for students working in groups, in that they may be empowered to take more control of their own learning and assessment, and subsequently learn skills in peer assessment and self-assessment.

When tutoring on a module, tutors encounter formal aspects of group tuition through the delivery of timetabled, online tutorials. These tutorials happen at periodic points throughout the duration of a module, where tutors use the Adobe Connect system that provides a host of tools that enable them to work effectively with groups online. Part 3 of the course looks in more detail at teaching online.

Activity 5


We have touched upon the more formal aspects of group working with online tutorials. However, take a moment to think about the ways that you can work informally with groups. What kind of tasks could you undertake and what technologies could you use? What impact do you think this would have on your group?

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One answer could include more asynchronous aspects such as posting activities and seeding discussions in the group forum. Engaging through social media may be another method, for example, a Facebook group (ideally, private and moderated by the tutor) or a WhatsApp group. Interacting with the group informally leads to a more relaxed environment where students are able to bond more easily among each other and with the tutor.

Learn more about the Open University Group Tuition Policy.

2.9 Students with additional needs

In section 2.2, we briefly mentioned the variety of teaching materials that tutors use in order to cater for the variety of students that come to study at the OU. Tutors also need to be capable of identifying the needs of students, which means that support needs to be provided to academically vulnerable students. Tutors also contribute to the evaluation of the needs of academically vulnerable students and refer them on to the Student Support Team (SST) as appropriate.

Some examples of this are as follows:

  • Following up borderline or just failed students, by phone or electronically, in order to establish or maintain a dialogue
  • Recognising indicators of students' needs, whenever the tutor is in contact with them
  • Assessing whether it is possible and appropriate to provide the help required and referring students to their SST where necessary
  • Providing additional academic and learning support, where appropriate and separately funded
  • Providing different activities for students with particular needs
  • Taking advice about any previously undisclosed disability without breaching data protection and confidentiality.

A good starting point for this is to examine the profile for a tutor group. You find that some students have a descriptive marker, which appears against their name under the Special Circumstances column. This helps you identify students who might need more support than others might. The diagram below lists the keys for these markers.

Described image

The OU provides detailed advice as well as guidelines on specific disabilities and the further resources that are available. Specific disabilities that can affect students that come to the OU are among the following: physical disabilities such as hearing, visual and mobility impairments, as well as mental health difficulties, autism, and specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Accessibility also plays a critical role in how students with additional needs are supported, as there are occasions when there is a need to cater for students that require course materials in alternative formats.

For example, a student may have difficulty reading from a screen and requires a printed format with a large font size, or else may require the use of a screen reader. Therefore, the OU ensures that all online materials are capable of being interpreted (or accessible) by screen reader software.

Activity 6

By signing in and enrolling on this course you can view and complete all activities within the course, track your progress in My OpenLearn Create. and when you have completed a course, you can download and print a free Statement of Participation - which you can use to demonstrate your learning.

Part 2

Take a moment to browse through some accessibility guidelines on the computing help centre:

2.10 The tutor contract

The Statement of Service outlines the services that are available to support tutors at the OU. Tutor Services are available to support the tutor role and provides:

  • Information
  • A tutor website (like the resources highlighted in section 2.1)
  • Advice and guidance
  • Staff development.

Under the current contract, each appointment letter raised for a tutor specifies the length of the appointment and the period of months that the module is presented. Tutors may be contracted to teach on every presentation, a single presentation or an alternate presentation basis. A definition of the three types of appointment patterns is given in section 2.11.

The New AL Contract

The tutor contract is currently undergoing a process of change with the ‘new AL contract’.

The current contract dates back to 2002, and the initial negotiations to reform the contract began in 2008. In 2014/15, the Vision for a new permanent contract was agreed.

This was reviewed in 2017 and it was agreed that negotiations would resume, building on the previously agreed principles and Vision. Since January 2018, negotiations to date have remained on track.

A new AL contract will represent a significant change to how the University engages and organises its Associate Lecturer/Tutor workforce and is central to the OU Strategic Plan to 2021-22. Approved by the University’s Council in March 2019, the strategy emphasises that ensuring student success continues to be the main strategic objective and outlines the specific aim of implementing the new tutor contract to ensure greater integration of ALs in order to meet this objective.

The AL contract is a key enabler to sustain and improve tuition, assessment and student support. It is central to delivering student success through excellent teaching and scholarship.

Implementation of the new contract will take place over 2020/21. The OU is working to ensure a transition that meets the agreed principles of the new contract and are negotiating how ALs will transfer from their current contract to the new one.

2.11 Tutor support

Tutors that are employed to tutor on a module are supported by an Associate Lecturer Services team, who are aligned to the faculty's Student Support Team (SST). As discussed previously, each AL has a line manager, referred to as a Lead Line Manager (LLM), who is normally a staff tutor.

The SST and the OU's academic and administrative staff play an important role in providing students with professional advice and guidance and dealing with issues and queries such as study strategies, career planning, financial help and additional needs.

Support is also on hand from faculty and school staff together with OU Library Services, Academic Services and other departments that are based in Milton Keynes.

At The Open University, tutors are surrounded by a support structure that helps to support the ALs and students, as well as helping to develop professional skills.

The diagram below illustrates the main interactions that tutors can expect to have in their new role.

Click or hover over each circle to reveal the definition.

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2.12 Teaching hours per module

The number of teaching hours for a module can vary depending on the level of the module. For example, level 1, 2, or 3 and onto Postgraduate modules (and beyond that), being at a high level, require a bigger time commitment on the part of the tutor. Tutors working at the OU can work under flexible conditions throughout the delivery of a module, meaning that there is no ‘set time’ whilst teaching a module.

However, there are occasions when time is allocated specifically against certain activities, for example, online and face-to-face tutorials. Dates for tutorials are normally agreed in advance with a staff tutor that is responsible for managing tutors within a cluster for a particular module, as highlighted back in section 2.4.

Online tutorials are quite often allocated on weeknights; however, face-to-face tutorials usually take place at weekends (mainly on a Saturday). When working with the staff tutor and timetabling dates, there is a degree of flexibility as tutors are able to choose their own dates. These dates are normally within a ‘window’ depending on the topic being delivered and at which point on the course the tutorial is to take place.

As mentioned in section 2.10, tutors may be contracted to teach on an every presentation, a single presentation or an alternate presentation basis:

Every presentation – most tutors are offered an appointment to teach on a module for the duration of its lifetime.

Single presentation – this is used for one-off occasions, and during particular circumstances, for example, having to cover for another tutor that has had to go on leave.

Alternate presentation – used when, for example, a tutor has to alternate between presentations for a particular module

New tutors are required to serve a probation period of two years and start on scale point 1 of the Associate Lecturer salary scale. Salary then increments on a yearly basis on the 1st October (provided the tutor have been in employment on or before the 1st April of that year).

You can read more details on the aspects of employment and teaching roles at Teaching roles at the OU.

2.13 Skills development

The Open University has a strong commitment to providing appropriate professional development and training to tutors.

All continuing tutors are expected to undertake skills development that covers areas of learning and teaching that are wider than the teaching and conduct of a specific module. Payment for this pedagogical skills development is included within the salary.

A professional development framework has been developed at the OU with the aim of providing quality development to tutors, making it easier for tutors to access resources, to promote clarity about training and development and to facilitate easier observation when undergoing staff review.

This framework is mapped against the tutor job description, roles and contracts, person specification, current and future resources and courses, the UK Professional Standards Framework (AdvanceHE, 2019) and the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE, 2018).

The framework contains:

  • Becoming a tutor on a module: looking at areas such as: the essential skills you need as a tutor, the OU computing guide, marking assessments online (using the eTMA system), tutoring online and associated tools (such as Adobe Connect), and mechanisms for tutor peer support.
  • Developing expertise as a tutor: resources that are available to existing tutors who wish to develop in their core role: Higher Education Academy (HEA) recognition, supporting students with specific needs, correspondence tuition, face-to-face tuition, eTMA training, and using the OU Library.
  • Extending beyond core tutor expertise: additional opportunities exist for tutors through TMA monitoring (monitoring the quality of marked scripts), peer mentoring (facilitating cooperation between colleagues, sharing practice and ideas), and non-core tutor roles such as marking exam scripts.

There are also opportunities to develop additional skills whilst working with apprentices and associated employers in the role of practice tutor. Practice tutors have a particular responsibility for practice issues, e.g. for facilitating practice learning meetings in a student's workplace and for monitoring the overall progress of their group of apprentices, whilst working alongside module tutors.

2.14 Summary

In Part 2 of the course, you have had a broad view of what is involved in the tutoring aspects when working at the OU as an Associate Lecturer – or tutor. You have examined the tutor role itself, and the important skills, attributes and values associated with being a tutor, and how that is supported among different groups at the OU.

You have looked at the resources that are available to tutors, as well as what it means to work with learners online, and the differences between tutoring and facilitating online groups, and how the OU caters for the additional needs of students.

Finally, you have looked at employment related aspects of the tutor role and the developmental opportunities that are available to tutors.

Go to Part 3 of the course, Teaching methods and technologies, where you learn in more detail about the tuition-based aspects of the STEM tutor role.


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The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this free course:

Acknowledgements for Part 2

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