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CIMA exams Ė a roundtable discussion
We spoke to CIMAís experts about how students should best approach the case studies
Q: The challenge for many CIMA case study sitters is that there is no real syllabus. What is the best way to approach Ďstudyingí for the case study?
Becky: Think about the topics you found difficult, didnít like or didnít really understand from the OT subjects. Look for clues in the pre-seen; for example, if a company uses absorption costing, ABC could come up. Be very careful though! Five variants makes topic picking dangerous. The examiners are brilliant at moving the organisations forward rapidly. In OCS November í15, Flores Rosa had no technology but the examiner managed to bring in big data to variant 2. Practising questions and getting feedback is a great way to find out where you need to put in the extra work.
Sue: The level of technical detail that you need to demonstrate differs depending on the level you are attempting (more required at operational level), so itís a good idea to review past variants to get a feel for how topics are tested. Then review the OT paper syllabuses to identify areas you need to work on. While the pre-seen can suggest some issues, across five variants CIMA can examine a wide range of content and so you need to be prepared for as much as possible Ė not all of it is predictable as CIMA can introduce new issues in the exam.
Stuart: One of the reasons for the case study is to try to get students to think more broadly across all of the subjects, hence there being no syllabus. This gives you a clue as to how you should approach the case, especially at the strategic level. Yes, you need know the technical content but itís more about application Ė just think about the industry and what you would do if this was a work problem. Be practical.
Helen: It is essential that when you are reviewing the technical papers you are constantly thinking about how a particular topic would apply to the particular pre-seen you are studying. There is no point trying to learn something in great detail if you arenít thinking about how you would discuss it in the exam. So for each topic think about how it relates to the pre-seen. For particular techniques and strategies that are not currently utilised by the company in question, it is worth thinking about the potential benefits and problems if they were to be implemented.
Peter: When reviewing the topics from the E, F and P subjects it would be useful to review how the syllabus topics were tested in the old syllabus when there were longer questions, many of which assessed application as well as the calculations. The case study exams will not re-test any areas of calculation but you will be expected to explain the consequences of calculations and syllabus knowledge being applied. Itís also useful to review the past case study exams to see how the E, F and P topics can interact.
Q: Do students need to approach the case studies at the various levels differently?
Becky: Operational level is the most technical with 64% of the marks for technical knowledge. It is much more important at this level to make sure you know the accounting standards and pros and cons of various techniques than you do as you progress to the higher levels. At all levels knowledge of the pre-seen, so you can apply your answers to the organisation, is essential.
Sue: I would say so. Operational requires the most technical knowledge, whereas at the managerial and strategic levels itís not so much about the detail but about how you would apply your knowledge to practical situations. Certainly at managerial level (which I teach) a common sense approach can go a long way, particularly with E related tasks. I would say this is more important than being able to quote theoretical models, which alone would be unlikely to answer the requirement adequately.
Helen: Absolutely. You are taking on a different role in the organisation. The response expected by a finance assistant will be very different to that of a senior manager and your answers should reflect this. This is something to be particularly careful of when topics cross over into different levels. So a student studying strategic management at the strategic level will be expected to approach a question in a different way to how they dealt with it at management level.
Peter: Absolutely. Although there are many common features (appreciating the pre-seen; communicating clearly, etc.) the case studies simulate different job roles at the three different levels. At Strategic youíre communicating with your senior leadership team; at the operational levels youíre dealing with peers and business managers. Itís important that you Ďget in characterí for the persona described in the syllabus document.
Stuart: Yes, you are communicating with people at different levels within the organisation. At strategic you are a senior manager so what you are asked is slightly different, and the way you need to answer far more commercial and less technical. As I said, this is not a test of what you know but what you can do, often to solve the problem or offer advice.
Q: How should students use the pre-seen (which is published seven weeks prior to the exam) so they are ready for what happens on exam day?
Becky: Know it inside out and back to front. Although you donít need to remember every fact and figure you should know where to find the important facts in the pre-seen. In the exam there is no time for students to spend re-reading chunks of the pre-seen. Make sure you know who the people are and what their roles are. You are meant to be working for this organisation, so referring to people by name demonstrates more application to the pre-seen than Ďthe HR managerí. After all, you wouldnít do that at work.
Sue: You can use the pre-seen to identify potential issues (threats facing the company, potential opportunities that they may want to pursue, relevant accounting standards/treatments) and think about the type of tasks you may get as a result of these. However, as previously mentioned, it is important not to focus too much on what you identify here as previous sittings have included issues that werenít particularly predictable. Make sure you have a good understanding of the company and industry so you can reflect this in your answers.
Stuart: Reading on its own is not a particularly good way of absorbing the information in the case that you can manipulate it when required to do so on the day of the exam. I would recommend students produce a summary document, taking each paragraph and highlighting what is important. Then at the end summarise it using a SWOT. Not only will you learn from this, but you will end up with a great set of notes from which to revise.
Helen: The important thing is to get into character as this will make your responses more natural and focused. It is often helpful to try to narrow down the pre-seen into a list of key things the company needs to consider (opportunities and problems). Imagine you are doing a brief presentation on the company Ė what key points would you be making? Becoming familiar with this list will help to ensure all your answers are applied to the scenario.
Peter: I sometimes think of the case study as similar to a job interview. The pre-seen is the research pack I would create ahead of the interview. The case study is not testing my knowledge of the pre-seen, but the exam should not introduce information about the organisation that comes as a surprise to me. I might have to flick the pre-seen open during the exam just to make sure I remember one or two specific facts correctly but Iíll do a lot better if I have all the key issues (products, competitors, opportunities, threats, strengths, weaknesses, etc) at my fingertips.
Q: Is there a problem for students who have been exempt earlier papers? How do students ensure they have no knowledge gaps?
Becky: I have seen this in some of the groups I have taught. Students need to be proactive in ensuring they have no knowledge gaps from exemptions. This could be as simple as reviewing the syllabus for the subjects where they have been awarded an exemption, although some students may benefit from sitting the underpinning course. Ask your tutor for help and guidance. Thatís what we are here for!
Sue: In a word yes! Iíve experienced this at managerial level with students entering the qualification via the Gateway route and they find it incredibly challenging. We run specific Gateway courses, providing students with resources for the three underpinning papers so that they can identify their knowledge gaps and prepare accordingly. The one advantage that these candidates often do have is plenty of practical business experience, which can really help in answering some tasks.
Stuart: At strategic itís normally not so much a problem. That is probably for two reasons: there are not many exceptions that get you directly to the strategic level, and the more application based nature of the questions means itís more about how you say something rather than what you know.
Helen: The main problem is not so much gaps in knowledge but the point at which students begin to address these gaps. If a student mentions to me two weeks before the exam that they had two exemptions at the level there is a lot less time to cover these gaps. It sounds so obvious but it is a common occurrence! Knowledge gaps are never insurmountable as there are plenty of resources available, but give yourself plenty of time to fill the gaps.
Peter: Both for exemptions and for students transferring from the previous syllabus. The case study tasks often refer to very specific syllabus content. I advise all students to review the syllabus documents for all three subjects and make sure that you could come up with some explanation of the topic, its application, its benefits and any drawbacks.
Q: There has been lots of chatter about integration marks and real-life business examples. What is your advice on these areas?
Becky: Donít worry about them. All the communications we have had with CIMA suggest that there are no specific marks for real-life examples. The integration marks are built into the questions, so if you answer the question that has been set the integration marks will look after themselves.
Sue: Itís not possible to identify specifically what the integration marks are for in a particular task, so the best thing to do is not worry about them. CIMAís guidance is that if you are answering the specific requirement that has been set in an appropriate manner then you should be automatically picking these marks up.
Helen: There are no direct marks for real-life business examples and so it is a waste of time trying to rote learn any. Having said that, having an awareness of how real companies react to certain industry problems can help you get into character so would not be a waste of time Ė just donít get obsessed with industry research. As with all sections of the marking guide integration is important, but a sensible student who addresses all parts of the requirement using appropriate knowledge from across all the syllabus should achieve good marks here. Just answer the question!
Stuart: I agree with my colleagues Ė if you think in a practical way about what you have been asked, know the pre seen and can explain what you mean, you will get these automatically
Peter: Candidates should not be looking for specific marks for any of the five areas being assessed (four competencies plus integration) when theyíre doing the exam. Weíve highlighted Ďintegrationí as an important feature to encourage students to think broadly and deeply when providing a response. So instead of thinking ďthis is X topic from F2Ē you want to provide a clear response that helps the reader make a decision or plan some action. It may bring in ideas from other subjects; it may bring in topics from elsewhere in that subject.
Q: Time management is a key on the day, as the exam tries to simulate a working day. What advice can you give students that would give them an edge?
Becky: Donít think about the exam as being three hours long but as individual questions 30-60 minutes in length (depending on the level). As you canít jump forward and backwards between tasks it is how you plan your time per question that is key. Make sure you split your time across the whole question so you donít leave yourself short of time to finish Ė if the final part of a task all comes from one competency you could find yourself in position where you Ďfailí a competency and therefore fail the exam.
Sue: Time management should be straightforward. In each task, look at how many requirements there are and allocate your time evenly between each requirement. The marking guides to date demonstrate that requirements within a task will be reasonably evenly weighted. It is very important that you dedicate sufficient time to each sub-requirement as it will be linked to a particular skill. Failing to demonstrate minimum competence in one skill means failure in the exam, regardless of how well you do in the others.
Stuart: Comparing this with the previous T4 case, it is so much better from a time management perspective. At strategic, you will usually be faced by three 60-minute sessions and that helps. Within the 60 minutes there are often two tasks so divide your time equally; this may not be how itís marked, but unless there is a clue in the question itís the simplest thing to do.
Helen: My advice about time management is not to get so panicked about writing enough that you donít do sufficient preparation. A well-thought-through, concise answer is likely to score better than a long, rambling stream of consciousness. Good planning is essential and will take most students between 20-30% of the time available. I suggest for a 45-minute task 10 minutes is about right. You can then allocate about 1.4 minutes per mark to writing up your answer, which should be plenty if you know what you are going to say.
Peter: I would advise that around 25% of the allowed time for each task is used for thorough planning. You should jot down your ideas in the answering space (not the scratch pad), making sure that you have something to address each of the issues raised in the task. By using the answer space you can then cut and paste your plan into your main answer. Start typing the answer above your plan, perhaps leaving a bold heading saying ĎANSWER PLANí so that markers donít think that your jottings are an attempt at an integrated answer.
MEET THE PANEL
Stuart Pedley-Smith is Kaplanís Head of Learning and a former PQ magazine Tutor of the Year. He writes a regular blog on examinations and learning. Stuart is the author of books on exam skills and writing business reports, and he specialises in financial strategy and the strategic case.
Becky Evans is Kaplanís Head of ACCA and CIMA. She joined Kaplan as a tutor in 2006, having trained and worked as a management accountant in the car industry. In the past 10 years she has taught a range of subjects across the ACCA, CIMA and ICAEW qualifications and now specialises in business strategy and case study papers. She was appointed Head of ACCA and CIMA in 2014.
Sue Thistlethwaite is CIMA Course Manager in the Kaplan Live Online team and is based in Leeds. She joined Kaplan as a tutor in 2005, specialising in financial and corporate reporting and teaches across the CIMA, ACCA and ICAEW qualifications. Within the CIMA syllabus, she teaches F2 advanced financial reporting and managerial level case study.
Helen Crofts is Kaplanís Social Learning Manager. Helen has spent the past 15 years working in accountancy education, and for the last 10 has specialised in business strategy, with a particular focus on case study style papers. She recently completed a two-year secondment to Kaplan Publishing where, working alongside the CIMA examining team, she had responsibility for designing and writing the official CIMA textbook for the management case study and designing the official CIMA textbook for strategic case study.
Peter Stewart has been the Director of Learning at CIMA since 2013. He is responsible for the successful progression of CIMA students through the exams, including working closely with learning partners such as Kaplan. He is also responsible for ensuring CIMA members have access to professional development learning. Peter has spent over 25 years working in roles to support students through their prof
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