Students sitting professional exams fail for many reasons. I can’t be 100% sure of any specific students reason for not being successful, it’s usually a combination of reasons; however, during my six and a half years at BPP I have noticed a trend.
I’ve always been interested in statistics, so over time I’ve picked up quite a few useful ones relating to failure.
1. Back in 2006 one of the professional bodies published a pass rate of 18%. This rate was the percentage of students who had scored a pass mark within Section B of the previously named paper P1- Management Accounting Performance Evaluation of the CIMA syllabus.
2. In 2008 I personally produced some statistics that showed that for BPP’s top clients, students who sat and passed both course exams on average had a 92% chance of passing the exam. This was versus a 75% chance for those that didn’t hand them in or failed both.
3. BPP regularly compare our pass rates for students who take a taught course, versus those that take both taught and revision; the findings are that the latter gives people around a 20%-25% better chance of success.
4. Anecdotally, I have heard from a much greater volume of students who are shocked at their marks when they get their results of the so called ‘wordy’ papers, versus those who sat the so called ‘technical’ papers.
5. This sitting the examiner for one of the professional bodies has actually stated that students were more successful where they started with Section B of an exam rather than Section A. The exam was 100 marks; 50 marks for A and 50 marks for B.
So is there something we can draw from these to explain why students fail?
While I was at school in a home economics class the teacher leaned over a friend of mines’ shoulder and said that his cake mixture needed a bit more elbow grease. The teacher returned five minutes later to find Andy frantically searching through the cupboards…
So, overall there is no substitute, for the masses, to a bit of good old ‘elbow grease’, oh and a little common sense! However, there are many students out there who fail having worked incredibly hard; what about the 8% who pass both course exams and then go onto fail! So there must be more to it.
Firstly, let’s look at the first stat. So what was Section B? Was it a particularly tough section that contained awkward questions? No, in fact in my eyes the questions were very straight forward. The key was in the verb!
When faced with questions the vast majority of students look for, what they believe are the key words. In their mind the key words are those that reference the area of the syllabus the question relates to. While these are key, the verb in the question is as much, if not more important and is often the reason, if missed, that a student delivers a poor answer.
Section B that sitting had several questions that contained the verb ‘Explain’. There was a very short case about X Plc that students should have read and their answers should have related to. I would always say that when given a company, name them in your answer and think ‘what is it about this company that impacts the answer’.
The question asked students to explain why rolling budgets would be suitable for X Plc
e.g. answers should have read something like:
A rolling budget is where an initial budget is set but as time passes and factors in a company’s environment change the budget is updated to reflect this, with new assumptions built in. This is suitable for X Plc as it operates in a fast moving industry where the environment, such as technological innovation by competitors, changes often.
Most students write the first sentence or even write two or three sentences describing the ‘key term’ but don’t then relate the point they are making to the specifics of the company in the question. In a sense, they make their points, but don’t explain or relate them.
So what about the other stats? When students hand in course exams at BPP they receive some feedback. They get an initial feel as to whether what they are writing is scoring marks. Often the marker will give 1 mark for a long winded paragraph, or ½ to 1 marks for a point made without explanation or relation to the company in the question.
If you get these sorts of marks, you should review your script, have you ‘Explained’ ‘Discussed’ ‘Evaluated’ ‘Recommended’ or have you just ‘Stated’ your points.
On top of this, these students do a few hours of work completing the exam and also reviewing the marked script – it’s that elbow grease again!
20% more for a practice & revision course! Well this isn’t such a surprise to most of us teaching as our tutor base will regularly say that it’s not until the practice & revision course that you get the chance to actually tell people how to pass the exam.
You have to go through the pain of learning the knowledge before you can practice, but once you have, tutors can focus on the verbs, the skills in the exam hall, the time management and analysis of the requirements.
The guidance at the practice and revision stage focuses heavily on the skills mentioned above. It is not just about the volume of question practice that a student performs, but the quality of that practice. If you don’t take the time to perfect the exam skills you will just be practising bad habits.
The anecdotal evidence that Wordy papers have much greater chance of a much worse mark than expected follows on from this. Having written for 3 hours students think there is no way they can have failed. Feedback from official professional body markers suggests that if students re-read what they have written they’d probably get a big surprise.
Once again, when reviewed students often don’t answer the question set when faced with discursive questions.
Finally, the fact about Section A versus Section B. This point highlights a common issue when students tackle exams. They don’t have a strategy. When faced with an exam, always do an easier question first. Unless the rules state otherwise (you’ll seldom see rules that do) you are at liberty to choose the questions you’d like to answer first and even within the question answer the requirements in whatever order suits you.
Straight from an official professional body exam marker ‘all we want is for each question/requirement to be started on a fresh page and to be clearly labelled so that we know which requirement we’re marking’.
So in summary, as a general population students sitting an accounting profession aren’t that good with words. You have a few choices, where words aren’t your strong point leave these questions until later in your exam. Where there isn’t a choice as the whole exam is a discursive one, you really need to start practicing; oh and by the way I know a great supplier of elbow grease.