It ain’t what you’re asked, it’s the way that you’re asked it


It ain’t what you’re asked, it’s the way that you’re asked it

When did you last sit an exam? For many of us it was YEARS ago – perhaps at school, or university. How did you get on? What did you think of the questions? Too technical? Too long? Wanted too much detail? You thought you knew the subject pretty well but were stumped by some of the things being asked?

It’s pretty scary even remembering it, isn’t it, and you may experience it all over again when you face your NEBOSH General Certificate course exams.

It doesn’t really matter where we are exposed (there’s a good health and safety word!) to questions – NEBOSH Certificate or not, they are just questions. One of my favourite responses to a tricky question – especially on quiz shows – is “that was a bit before my time”. How does that work if the question is about history, or it’s a history exam?

A question means what it means at the time we read it, or are asked it. The trouble is, we can ‘read’ into it things that aren’t there! In the field of human factors, communication features quite strongly, as it does in all aspects of management, not least health and safety management.

In situations where something has gone awry, folk will often say “there was a lack of communication”. You know, I have difficulty believing that – what they really experience is the wrong kind of communication; there is rarely none at all!

I have, in the past, used the “draw a plane” exercise to demonstrate to managers how communication works. So, go on – draw a plane.

How did you get on? Did you draw: 

  • a plane (aeroplane)?
  • a plane (a straight line)?
  • a plane (a carpenter’s smoothing tool)?
  • a plane (a plane tree)?

So why didn’t you draw what I wanted? I said “draw a plane” and of course I meant an aeroplane, because I used to be an aircraft engineer. But my instruction on its own apparently wasn’t good enough. Lack of communication? No, but definitely the wrong kind of communication. “Draw an aeroplane” would have been better (but then I probably would have moaned about it being the wrong type – engineers, eh?!)

This gives you an idea of the dilemma facing the Certificate-course exam question writer. Questions have to be asked that may be based on something that happened ‘before your time’ (even in the General Certificate ‘history’ features – for example, what was the date of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act?) and which can easily be misunderstood.

But as a NEBOSH General Certificate student, you’re more concerned with answering the exam questions. I have been fortunate to examine NEBOSH Diploma papers – now they have some really interesting questions, but the Certificate courses do, too. It’s all about reading what the question-writer is asking you to tell him or her.

Not knowing the answer is, obviously, a reason for failure but, more often than not, so is not answering the question asked. You need to be disciplined and READ the question. Then read it again. Then UNDERSTAND it. Then – and only then – answer it, when you think you know what it is asking.

And be careful here that you don’t get so engrossed in such an interesting and enthralling reply that you wander off topic and end up answering about something else entirely! That’s why you fail.

Let me give an example from a recent paper. The question was about the location of a flammable-liquid storage tank at a facility, and asked for the design features that would prevent, or minimise leaks and spills from it.

Go on – how would you answer that?

Did you think of: materials used in the tank’s construction; its pipe joints and fittings; routing of pipework; bunds; detection measures; shut-off valves; correct tanker connections; leak-proof connectors and valves? Good.

What about no-smoking rules; placement of fire extinguishers; regular fire alarm tests and emergency response drills; correct training of operatives; and – everyone’s favourite – risk assessment?

If you came up with any of the latter, read the question again and tell me where you went wrong. The key words in the question are design features. See? Drills – a design feature? Training operatives – what has that got to do with design features? Risk assessment? You get the picture.

Seriously, take the time to read and understand what you are being asked for on your Certificate course exam papers, and try to stick to providing exactly that.

And good luck!


Roger Passey

Roger Passey

Roger Passey Dip2OSH MIOSH (retired)

Occupational health and safety consultant

Roger has been working in health and safety since 1988 and as a consultant since 2004. Formerly a chartered IOSH member, he now enjoys retired status.

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