Exam technique marks: 3 things you must do

Ashim Kumar holds your hand and walks you through the tricky Strategic Business Leader exam

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – to pass this test you have know how to analyse questions, and also avoid the common mistakes that students frequently make.
The ACCA has produced enormous amounts of material to support candidates for the SBL examination. They answer pretty much any question that you could have; from explaining professional skills to examiner guidance and feedback. Despite this, fewer than half of all candidates pass the SBL exam!

At the time of writing, we have access to two sets of results; September and December 2018.

Their pass rates were 45% and 48% respectively. I do not expect these figures to change dramatically over time; just look at the pass rates of other subjects for indicators of this.
How do we make sure that you are on the right side of that statistic?

There are many elements to ensuring success in this exam, which I will divide under the headings of ‘technical’ and ‘technique’. As you might imagine, ‘technical’ means a thorough understanding of the syllabus. This is necessary but not sufficient to pass the exam; the missing piece is to get the technique right.

Typically, a student who has scored in the mid-late 40s fails to achieve the magic 50% due to ineffective technique, not because they don’t know the syllabus.

So what technique should we apply?

There are many aspects to consider here, including time discipline, question analysis and, planning and structure of answer, among others.
Additionally, candidates need to understand how to demonstrate the Professional Skills required, which carry 20% of the total marks.
In this article, we have space to address only one key technique; that of how to use the mark allocation as a tool to maximise your performance. Examiners use the mark allocation to communicate three things:

  1. The depth required in your answer: as a rule of thumb I recommend that my students work on the basis of two marks per point made.

This is not a definitive rule and will vary between questions; however, in the absence of a detailed marking guide in the exam it is a reasonable assumption to make. To earn those marks; candidates are expected to:
• Make the point.
• Explain the point.
• Answer the ‘so what?’ question.
A lot of knowledgeable students do the first two and ignore the third. At most, these students will earn one of the two marks available for that point.
What is the ‘so what?’ question about? This is really about your mindset in the exam. The ACCA’s intention is to place candidates in a ‘live’ situation. That is, to demonstrate what they would say or do when faced with this challenge in the real world. The SBL is not an academic test of knowledge.
So, after explaining the point you have made, it is vital to explain the implications of that point to the audience to whom you are addressing your answer.

Illustration: December 2018 exam

An organisation with a strong culture of the fair and ethical treatment of its employees is considering buying a company (in another country) that has not demonstrated similar values in its operations.
As a result, the acquiring company is facing accusations that it will maximise profits by continuing to exploit employees in the target company, thereby acting in a way contrary to its stated principles.
The candidate is asked to produce a press release to address this accusation.
One possible approach to answering this question follows:
• The point: We are a company which has deeply rooted values on the fair and ethical treatment of all employees.
• Explanation: We do not discriminate on any grounds, other than the ability to do the job. We invest heavily in the training and development of our staff. Our commitment to staff satisfaction is a strategic KPI, against which we measure our performance, and so on.
• So what? We are committed to replicating this approach in the acquired company. This is to be achieved by relocating managers from the home country as mentors and investing heavily in training and development of those staff.
Recruitment and promotions will be based on skill and ability criteria only; as they are in the home country. We expect that raising standards in this way, will result in staff satisfaction (and retention), far above that which is experienced currently. It is the ‘so what’ that illustrates our thinking and planning in this area and demonstrates a real-world response to the accusations.
This is not a natural skill possessed by most candidates and I spend a great deal of time with online and face-to-face students in developing and perfecting it.

  1. The amount of time, you are expected to spend on your answer: It is a common misconception among students that answering a one or two-mark question should take no longer than a few seconds. A simple sentence or two, should be enough. A few seconds of thought shows that this cannot be true.
    As well as the depth of answer required (see previous point), which requires more than a sentence or two, there is a time component which we must consider.
    I recommend that you allocate 1.8 minutes per mark to write your answers in the exam, excluding reading and planning time. So, to make a point that earns two marks should take about 3.6 minutes. That is quite a lot of time, and further suggests the need to explain in detail what you are trying to say.
    Remember, this exam is not a simple Q&A exercise. You are required to:
    • Absorb large amounts of data.
    • Identify its relevance to each question, noting that data relevant to a single question may derive from more than one source.
    • Apply your knowledge and experience to the relevant data.
    • Combine the above to generate a real-world solution to the challenge faced in the question.
    This is not easy to do; it takes agility of thought, planning and communication, under exam conditions. It is vital to be able to do this almost instinctively in the exam; a habit that can only be developed through rigorous and continuous practice, with regular objective feedback.
    Even candidates who are ‘expert’ at this technique need every second of the 3.6 minutes available to make a two-mark point.
  2. Earning your Professional Skills marks: 20% of the marks available are for Professional Skills (PS).
    For the purpose of this article I shall assume that you are familiar with the skills and what they mean. (I explain and illustrate each skill in my online and face-to-face programmes, and it is the subject of a webinar I delivered for the ACCA in Poland and the Baltic states.)
    The challenge that most candidates face with earning these marks is two-fold:
    • How do we demonstrate each skill in our answer?
    • How much detail do we need to display for the marks available?

Demonstrating the skill

It is difficult (and time consuming) to keep checking compliance with the skill while writing out our answers. When do we check whether we are being (say) sceptical enough? Before, during or after the writing of each sentence?
A haphazard approach like that produces an equally haphazard answer; there is no ‘thread’ of scepticism running through your answer and you probably won’t finish it on time.

So, what to do?

The technique my students practise is to integrate the PS into the plan for their answers.
Essentially, this means that having completed a plan, students take a step-back from the points included therein and check whether there is enough of the PS reflected. This may mean giving the point a sceptical slant (for example, through the structure of the sentence), or adding/amending points to reflect skepticism more clearly.
This approach incorporates:
• A thorough understanding of the skill required.
• The ability to objectively assess and amend your plan.
• Thinking on how to best present your point to demonstrate that skill.
Again, this is not a natural skill for most candidates, and I work hard to hone it during sessions with students, especially during the revision phase.

How much detail do we need to display?

Knowing how much to say to earn the PS marks available requires a more subtle skill; however, it is closely related to Point 1, above.
Generally, if we follow the ‘so what?’ approach, we stand a good chance of collecting all the available PS marks.

Remember, that the marker will take an overview of your answer to determine the standard of PS demonstrated. Having allocated the marks for the points you make, s/he will step back and assess whether you have sufficiently met the PS requirement overall. This may be translated to mean: has your answer displayed a theme of (say) scepticism throughout? Have you challenged, questioned and probed sufficient to get a reliable understanding of the ‘big picture’?

That is, have you simply made points in your answer, without explaining their implications (‘so what?’), or have you shown that there are additional outcomes of a particular course of action that have not been thoroughly considered?

Please note the marking scheme for the award of Professional Marks for scepticism from Q3(a) of the December, 2018 exam:
There were four PS marks available for this question, and it related to demonstrating scepticism towards the opinions of board members. In order to earn full PS marks here, the ACCA required the following:

• ‘The candidate has presented a report and demonstrated excellent scepticism skills. The candidate has strongly but appropriately questioned and challenged the assertions made by board members in relation to their opinions on disruptive technology and has presented suitable and well-argued evidence to support their challenge to these opinions. The response was appropriate and courteous for a report at this level’ (ACCA December 2018 exam-marking scheme).

We see from this the connection between PS marks and the ‘so what?’ question. The candidate needs not only to challenge the views of the board but also to present a well-reasoned argument for the challenges.

Additionally, although the PS is scepticism, the style of the report is important (appropriate and courteous). This reminds us that candidates are expected to demonstrate professionalism throughout their scripts, and communication style is one indicator of this skill. Without the common theme of professionalism, it is not possible to gain all the PS marks available, so the two requirements are closely related.

In summary, it is fair to say that we need to think carefully not only about the technical content of answers, but also about how we plan and deliver them. Without practising this skill and receiving objective feedback we severely diminish our chances of being the right side of the the magic 50%!

To find out how to pass with my online programme visit https://www.fmelearnonline.com/acca-sbl/

• Ashim Kumar is the SBL expert tutor on the FME learn online platform