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How hard can objective tests be?

Students taking an exam

Having taught Accountancy courses for over 15 years, I have seen many institutes move their lower level papers to computer based, objective tests (OTs), mostly multiple choice with some fill-in-the-blanks.

In December 2013 I was sat in meetings discussing the change in CIMA's syllabus; although no details had been announced we knew the move was to computer exams for all levels and that the technical papers would move to OT's.

We were in very detailed discussions about the educational value of what we would deliver in the classroom.

How did we ensure that students were in the best position to take the exam?

Do we need to still do revision courses or is a more integrated course (often referred to as 'pass and go') likely to be better?

I was very much of the view that anything other than 'pass and go' was a waste of money for the students, after all, what value could be added from revision? Why couldn't a student just go home and hammer through the questions?

How little did I know!

Sitting an OT myself.

In March 2014, missing the buzz of a good bit of exam pressure and deciding to undertake some personal development, I walked into a PRINCE2 foundation class on a Monday morning. I had read the study manual and completed a bit of elearning and after 1.5 days of 'pass and go' topics followed by multiple choice questions I walked into an exam and, along with every other person in that room, walked out 60 minutes later having passed the foundation level.

For the hard core in the class we moved straight into the practitioner phase: a 3 day exam prep course.

We were joined by others who had failed on previous practitioner courses and I wondered what was so different about this exam? We were using the same text that I had just passed my foundation with, there was no more content to learn, in fact this exam was open book.

Although the exam still contained OT questions, the difference was the change in style of the questions; I was now being tested on my application skills rather than knowledge alone.

My confidence that the learning skills I have as a tutor could see me through any exam, started to diminish with the first set of questions I attempted: I got 3 out of 10.

To test the application of knowledge in an OT environment requires more subjective questions and therefore a different approach.

How tutor-lead revision helps

I eagerly listened to the tutor's advice on how to attempt the different types of OT questions that could appear in the exam. Guidance on techniques and starting points to approach a new style of question before tutor-led debriefs where the tutor broke down how he got to the answer added great value.

Being told key words to look out for in topics that would help you to dismiss certain answers and how to break up and read some particularly tricky questions really made a difference. As I carefully listened to my tutor before each batch of questions, I found myself mostly getting 100% every time.

From our icebreaker session earlier in the week, I knew how skilled and diverse the people in the room were. However, the one thing they had in common was a lack of experience in attempting higher level OT's with unfamiliar material. To start with they all struggled, as I had, but after listening to the guidance on techniques being given by our tutor, all were turning it around.

CIMA's objective tests.

The CIMA qualification is much more difficult than PRINCE2; the revised syllabus now tests 100% of each subject, and this knowledge needs to be retained for the case study and employability in the workplace. CIMA's OT's continue to test around the verb hierarchy which defines the depth of knowledge and application required on each learning outcome which means the OT's are not simply a test of knowledge recall. Oh – and the pass mark is now 70%.

These exams are going to be demanding!

From my experience of moving from a Foundation PRINCE2 exam to Practitioner, I could now see the importance with a higher level subject of spreading out the course to ensure knowledge is learnt and retained. That topic recaps and tutor guided question practice on OT's really would make a difference to someone's exam performance.

Watching how much the class valued the help and guidance and the difference it made to confidence and results has stuck with me. If in meetings with clients and colleagues someone asks what is the benefit of being guided by a tutor when practising OT questions, there is no one in the room who enthuses about it more than me.


Helen Clark – Kaplan tutor ACCA and CTA. Having worked in practice for 7 years Helen moved into training accountants in 15 years ago. She joined Kaplan in 2004. Helen teaches Tax and Business strategy. She teaches CIMA papers E1, E2 and E3.

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