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The perils of practice

Jackie Durham explains why too much question practice can be counter-productive if you don’t know the syllabus you are studying in great detail

May 2017

For many years I have encouraged CIMA students to “practise, practise, practise” in order to get a good result in their exams. More recently, I have found myself advising caution about too much question practice…
Let’s be clear: it’s not that question practice isn’t valuable or needed, but too many candidates seem to be doing too much of it too soon.
The OT assessment methods lends itself to question practice as preparation, but question practice in itself isn’t preparation. To be successful in the OT exams you need to be confident in all aspects of the syllabus for the subject you are planning to sit, to be able to do the calculations, apply the models, recognise ethical issues, and so on. In effect, you have to have done the learning before you move on to the testing.
I speak from experience! If you read my blogs on CIMAconnect, you will know that I, too, am studying for a qualification. My course consists of a mixture of practical assessments and multiple-choice exams to test the underpinning theory. Although very different to your exams and at a different level, the principles behind how to prepare for them are exactly the same.
I nearly came unstuck on my most recent exam, all because I focused too much on practising questions and not enough on making sure I understood the breadth of the topic. My tutor is very helpful and puts together a set of questions on each module so that we can practise before the exam. The general revision tactic within our study group is to practise these questions again and again until we are totally comfortable with them. As one colleague observed: “I can tick the right boxes now without even reading the question, I know them so well!”
I felt a bit the same and as it was quite a complex and technical exam I decided to make sure I really did know my stuff. I found a different practice test with open ended questions and challenged myself to answer the questions in full.
Eek, with no answers to choose from this wasn’t easy! I realised I’d learned a lot of the content by rote and by using anachronyms, etc. Worse still, I also discovered that there was a whole section of content that our practice test didn’t cover.
The moral of the story? Use the question tutorials on the Pearson Vue website, use practice questions published by the big tuition providers or on CIMAStudy.com, make up your own and share/swap with friends. But don’t use OT question practice as an alternative to studying and practicing longer form questions. This can build up a false sense of confidence that takes a severe battering if candidates fail. I see the following comment (paraphrased from a number of posts) far too often on CIMAconnect: “I've done the Kaplan, Acorn and Astranti exam practice kits several times, I’ve tried CIMA Aptitude One and Two, I’ve done the BPP and Pearson Vue mocks but find the real life exam so much harder! Have failed XX subject three times now and don’t know what more I can do to pass.”

Do the extra study
The problem here is that some candidates fail and simply do more and more question practise rather than reflecting on the questions in the exam and where their strengths and weaknesses lay. Also, they measure their preparation in terms of how many questions they attempted, rather than what they got out of them. If you get a question wrong you need to look at why, do the extra study to understand the topic and then try again. Keep trying (without looking at books, etc) until you get it right.
A much better way to prepare is to use the longer questions from the 2010 syllabus (you can find the links in our self-study guides on CIMAconnect where there is a guide for each OT subject).
These traditional questions put you in front of a blank piece of paper and really challenge you to demonstrate your competence in a particular topic. Also, don’t assume just because something forms only a minor part of the syllabus, or you’ve never come across it in any practice questions, that it won't come up in the exam because it might!
Don’t just take my word for it, here’s some feedback from a successful F3 candidate: “I have passed the nightmare paper F3 on my 4th attempt… This time I did the study differently just with Kaplan and First Tuition (previously Kaplan, FI, Acorn… Astranti). I think the most important thing is to establish the deeper knowledge rather than number of questions you do...”
And just for the record, I passed my exam!
• Jackie Durham is Manager, Learning Development at CIMA

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