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Flexibility is key to new regime

Exams on demand have proved to be a big success, says Steve Flatman

January 2016

Accountants have a long history with computers. The first computerised spreadsheet appeared in the early 1960s. By the 1980s, Lotus 123 was IBM’s ‘killer app’, generating $53m of sales in its first year, against a target of just $1m. According to tech website The Register, “the software that really sold the business community on personal computing was spreadsheets”.
As a result, accountants abandoned paper and pen for keyboard and mouse years ago. Which is why CIMA felt it was logical for our exams to do the same.
At the end of 2014, CIMA exams – like those of most other accountancy bodies today – took place two or four times a year, depending on where you lived. We had a wide range of assessment centres, but some students still had to travel a long distance to reach them. And those exams were filled out in traditional fashion – on a sheet of A4 paper.
In January 2015, after a long period of planning, development and testing, CIMA became the first accountancy body to computerise all of its core examinations. It has been a huge change – and like all big upheavals, there have been some bumps along the way. But looking back a year after the move, we are proud of the new system, because it makes it easier for students to take, and to pass, their professional qualification.

Two main benefits:
Besides better reflecting the work environment, the computer-based system has two main benefits: students can sit exams whenever they want, and in a much greater variety of locations.
We feel flexible timing is crucial. Students can now progress through the qualification at their own pace, taking exams when they feel that they are ready. It’s now possible, theoretically, for an extremely determined student to sit all 12 exams in just eight months – a feat which, to our slight shock, one person has already achieved.
However, most students have the opposite problem – because of work or home pressures, they want the option to go slower as well as faster. Now students preparing for objective tests can wait until they feel ready before scheduling their exam, at short notice, for whenever they want. Equally, a student struggling to get time off work can schedule their exam for the weekend.
As a result of flexible timing, pass rates have increased. Across all objective tests, the minimum number of students passing an exam is 62% – a number we expect to rise further in 2016.
The second big change is accessibility. CIMA exams can now be taken almost anywhere. Some CIMA students appear to find themselves taking exams in the remotest corners of the world; from just outside the Arctic circle in Canada, Ulaanbaatur in Monglia, to warmer climes – Fiji, the Maldives and across the Caribbean. Since the new system was put in place, CIMA students have sat exams in 1895 different locations – an increase of over 700% compared with 2014.
This reduces a hidden cost of qualifying – the price of getting to the exam centre. Previously, all Australian students had to fly to Sydney to sit their exams. This year Aussie students have sat exams in 43 exams centres, located in 22 towns and cities across the country. Likewise, students in Germany used to have just two exam centres to choose from. In 2015, German CIMA students have sat exams in 39 different centres.
Even in the UK, students have taken new-style exams in 329 centres spread across 177 towns and cities – from Elgin in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall making it easier to take an exam closer to their home or place of work.
The system also opens up the slightly dispiriting option of taking an exam while on holiday, something one UK CIMA student choose to do during his vacation to Goa, India.
We feel that the changes that we made to the examination delivery approach has hugely benefited our students in the first year of its introduction. We’re hugely grateful to the students who have sat the exams so far, and wish you all the best of luck with your studies in 2016.
• Steve Flatman is Director of Examinations at CIMA

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