Before starting any exam revision, it’s important to take time to think about what is being examined. In some exams all topics are covered. In others, some aspects have been assessed using coursework and only certain topics are included in the exam paper. So you’ll need to be clear about which topics could be included in the exam. Some students look back at past papers and try to work out which topics are most likely to appear by looking for those which haven’t been on a recent paper. This is a risky process. Unless a tutor has specifically indicated that some topics will not be examined, there is no guarantee that this will be the case.

It’s also important to understand the length and the structure of the exam. How many questions will there be? Will they require short answers, long essay style answers or are they multi-choice questions? It’s also important to know whether all questions are compulsory or whether students will be allowed to choose to answer a certain number of questions. Again, care needs to be taken here. If, for example, the requirement is to answer four out of eight questions, revising just four topics could be risky. Not all topics may have questions and it’s possible that the question on a topic you’ve revised is wording in a way that you feel unable to answer. It’s also possible that one question will draw on learning from more than one topic area.

It’s important to understand what the examiners expect. This information can be found by reading past examiners reports or by asking a tutor for advice. Usually, just learning facts and being able to reproduce them will be insufficient. Examiners are likely to look for analysis of facts, and application of material to the question asked.

Some exams are ‘open book’ which means that certain books or notes can be brought into the exam. Students should check whether this is the case. If books can be taken into the exam it is important to check whether they can be annotated in any way.

Once you know the nature of the exam, the next stage is to start planning your revision. When to start revising will depend on the amount of material to be revised and the amount of time that can be devoted to revision each week. Generally, most students start revision around four weeks before an exam.

Creating a revision timetable is the first step and will make sure you allocate the necessary time to each topic. Your revision timetable must be realistic or you’ll find you can’t keep to it. First, list the key topics to be revised, then the number of revision slots (hours each day) you’ll have available for revision. You’ll need to add short breaks in as it’s not possible to concentrate on revision for long periods at a time. You can then allocate the topics to each revision slot, remembering that it’ll be best if each topic is revised several times. It’s also important to look at any planned events on your revision days - if there’s an event already booked in the diary, it might not be realistic to carry out any revision that day. If time allows, it’s recommended that you include some days off in your timetable as a day off revision gives time to relax and refresh, and to return to revision with greater concentration.

Different students take different approaches to revision and all students need to find approaches that work for them. Approaches that you could try are:

  • writing out notes time and time again until you remember them, possibly shortening them each time until you are left with memory triggers
  • writing out notes on a large poster in a diagram format with key topics included - some students then put the poster on the wall so that every time they pass the poster they can be reminded of key points
  • writing out notes in different colours, with the colours being used to trigger memories
  • recording key points and then listening to them on your mobile phone or similar device
  • meeting with friends and discussing material
  • linking key facts to events and using them as memory triggers (for example, linking key legislation to actual cases which have interested you).

Another key part of the revision process is practising answering questions. It’s important to look at past exam papers to get an idea of the types of questions that might be asked. However, it’s important to check that nothing has changed, for example, if there’s been a change of examiner the approach to the exam paper could also have changed.

Many students do most of their communication using a keyboard and are not used to writing by hand for any length of time. It is important, therefore, that you take time to practice writing answers by hand, and have a sense of how much you can write in the time typically available for an exam answer. If the exam lasts for two hours and there are four questions to answer, then you must be able to answer each question within 30 minutes, and be able to sustain writing over a two-hour period.

Some tutors will arrange mock exams. It’s strongly recommended that you take this opportunity if offered, particularly if feedback will be given on your performance.

Although revision is very important, it is not something that most students enjoy! Problems can occur, for example:

  • Becoming demotivated. To counteract this, you could build some rewards into the revision timetable, for example, with a box of chocolates or a night out when you get to a particular stage in revision.
  • Getting bored. This might be an indication that there needs to be more variety in the revision. It could be useful to look back at your revision timetable to see if the topics could be allocated in an order that gives more variety.
  • Getting behind on revision. Sometimes students will fall behind, maybe because unexpected events have happened or because you haven’t kept to your revision timetable. In such a situation, it’s important to revise the revision timetable and keep going. If something happens which might make it impossible for you to take the exam, you should contact your personal tutor as soon as possible.
  • Becoming ill. Illness cannot be avoided totally. However, it is important to eat and sleep properly during the revision process to try to keep healthy.

When the exam is getting closer, it's important to address practical issues.

  • Check the venue of the exam. If you haven’t been to the venue before, consider doing a trial run of the journey. You’ll need to know how long the journey will take and where the actual exam room is. When travelling on the day, try to allow extra time in case you have transport difficulties.
  • Check what must be taken with you. Some exam venues will require students to bring particular identification papers.
  • Check what can be taken into the exam. At some exams students are allowed to take in only a pen and pencil. Some exam venues insist that any pencil case taken into the exam is transparent. Students are usually allowed to bring water into the exam room, but you should check whether other drinks or food are allowed. You’ll also need to check the policy on taking your mobile phone into the exam room.

When you get into the exam room, it’s important to try to remain calm. It is inevitable that there will be some nerves and adrenaline, but trying to breathe deeply and slowly will help.

When you are allowed to look at the exam paper:

  • Read the instructions carefully. Check how many questions are to be answered. Is there a requirement to answer a specific number of questions from different sections?
  • Be sure how long is available to answer each question. It is very important to keep to the allocated time. If there are 30 minutes for each question and you spend 45 minutes on the first question, it’s possible you won’t be able to complete the last question. In a worst case scenario, this could mean you fail just because of poor time management.
  • Read the individual questions carefully. Read the questions several times and highlight any key words. Make sure you are very clear what is being asked in every section of the question.
  • Plan your answers before you start to write. However tempting it is to start writing immediately, it’s best to plan your answer by noting down the key points you’ll need to make. This will help in making sure you include all the relevant points and that your answer has a structure. (If some reading time is given as part of the exam, it’s usual for no writing to be allowed during this time, so any notes would have to be made when the reading time is over).

Dealing with problems

Hopefully no problems will arise, but some common difficulties are:

  • Going blank. If you’ve revised properly, then it’ll be possible to answer the question. If you start to have a confidence crisis, it can help to stop and take some deep breaths. Then go back to look at the key points you want to make and start writing again - the feeling of ‘going blank’ will often disappear.
  • Worrying you can’t answer the required number of questions. Take it one question at a time - choose one question you feel can answer and do that one. Often that gives the confidence to move on to the next one, and soon sufficient questions have been answered. Even if you feel unable to write a detailed answer, writing something is likely to get some marks.
  • Disturbances. If there is any disturbance, the invigilator should be informed immediately if they have not already noticed. If you really feel that this has affected your exam performance, you should talk to the invigilator at the end of the exam and check that the disturbance will be reported.

Some common errors

Students do make some common errors in exams.

  • Writing a very messy paper. The examiner is likely to have a large pile of papers to mark and will not spend a long time trying to decipher a messy or poorly written paper. Try to make your writing as neat as possible and space your work clearly so that it is readable.
  • Not answering sufficient questions. It’s likely that more marks will be gained by writing something about the required number of questions, rather than writing a lot in response to one question.
  • Not answering the question that has been asked. It’s vital that you answer the actual question that has been set and do not write a general answer about the topic or even the answer to a question you would have preferred! Such answers are likely to be given no marks at all even though what you write is correct.

There are some specific points that students who’re preparing for a CIPD nationally-assessed exam should note:

  • It is not possible to sit a CIPD exam without being a current member of the CIPD.
  • Before sitting a CIPD exam, a student should have passed all assignments in the relevant subject area.
  • Students must complete an exam enrolment form and send it to the CIPD. These forms are available from tutors in January for the May exams and in July for the November exams. Information on completing the enrolment form, fees and the closing date for enrolments are on the form.
  • Enrolment forms must be signed by the student’s tutor to confirm that the required assignments have been completed and passed and that the student is registered to sit the exams at that centre.
  • Students must send payment for each exam with the enrolment form. These fees must be paid in sterling and are non-refundable.
  • Students receive their results by post.
  • If a student fails a CIPD exam, it’s possible to receive detailed individual feedback. A fee is charged for this.

Useful contacts

Books

COTTRELL, S. (2012) The exam skills handbook: achieving peak performance. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

HORN. R. (2009) The business skills handbook. London: Chartered Institute of personnel and Development.

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