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The benefits of seeing the bigger picture

Exam books and a pen

I often start a case study class by asking students what is most important to them, family, friends, work, hobbies or their dog? Most think it’s odd that someone would ever consider their dog the most important. Until you suggest that the individual might be blind and need their dog to help live a normal life. Such is the importance of context.

One of the problems with objective tests is that it is very easy to see the subject as little more than a series of independent small questions. The major downside of thinking like this is it makes the subject difficult to learn.

Learning works best when you can appreciate why you're learning something; you need to see some purpose or value. Wanting to pass the exam may well be a powerful long term motivator, but is not that effective in the short run.

Knowledge is best in context

Context is the background and circumstances that surround an event and is important to develop an understanding of a topic or subject.

Take a look at these two questions and ask which one do you find easiest to answer.

  • Question 1 – Can you list three problems that might result from a company making an error in its financial statements?

  • Question 2 – Imagine the situation; you are sat in the boardroom of a major UK retailer. Share price has been falling in the last few months and the CEO has only been in the job a matter of weeks. The news has just come through that your forecast to the city of your financial position for the first six months of the year has been overstated by £250m.
    Can you list three problems that might result following this news?


Being aware of the context in which a problem exists not only ignites the imagination, which will improve retention but also helps you appreciate why learning this fact or process is important. In addition, context setting significantly expands your understanding enabling you to manipulate information in your own mind. This may result in you asking questions around the subject, even coming up with answers of your own.

Teaching to objective tests

This means that when teaching subjects examined by objective tests, the need to put content in a context is important. This might take the form of a real world example or an example made up to illustrate the point. Where computational subjects are taught, showing the whole process, e.g. preparing a cash flow to illustrate how it is done, will help you appreciate why a cash flow is important and gives a strong visual that can be easily recalled in the exam hall.

Remember objective test questions can require you to drag and drop numbers into an existing format or ask you to find missing information. Having the ability to visualise how a cash flow is prepared and what it looks like when complete is essential to being able to answer these types of questions.

Hopefully that explains why taking this "illustration approach" is necessary even though the objective test may never require you to prepare the full cash flow.

Kaplan 2015

As part of Kaplan’s new CIMA 2015 approach, we have developed materials where knowledge is set in context to help you learn and develop a deep understanding such that you will be able to answer any question.

We won’t simply throw objective test questions and answers at you expecting you to remember them. This won’t work as there are far too many questions and answers to memorise. Yes, question practice is important but it must sit as part of an overall programme to ensure long-term exam and career success.


Stuart Pedley-Smith is Head of Learning for Kaplan Financial. Involved with training and educating finance professionals for over 20 years, he is especially interested in the process of learning and the exam skills and techniques that contribute towards success in the classroom and in life. Stuart has written two books – The E word – Kaplan’s Guide to Passing Exams and A student’s guide to writing Business Reports.