Just Read the Instructions

In a recent blog (You Make Your Own Luck) I wrote about one key issue for NEBOSH exam success, namely revising for the exams, and made a few points about self-help on what topics to revise and revision techniques.

The blog proved very timely for my 15 year old daughter who had an unfortunate experience in her school science tests before Easter (let’s just say that the little rascal didn’t cover herself in glory). When the next physics test loomed large my wife, always the prime mover in these things (it can’t be me – I’m too much of a gunboat diplomat), spent a while taking my daughter through the specification (the equivalent of the NEBOSH syllabus guide), pointing out the topics, the content and the words and phrases that are used. That work paid dividends and resulted in a much stronger performance. It also showed my daughter that taking the time and effort to go back to the syllabus guide can be a worthwhile exercise and that just reading your notes is not enough.

In this blog I would like to write about the second of the two key issues for exam success: exam technique.

There is lots of guidance available on exam technique. At RRC we make a point of trying to incorporate this guidance into all of our NEBOSH course materials, for example, at breaks between course textbook Elements and at the end of each book. You will also find additional web-based help incorporated into the online versions of these same courses. Not to mention the supplementary Revision Guides (see here) that analyse and provide outline answers for exam-style questions and advice in the NEBOSH examiner’s report Banks (see here, here and here).

What all of this guidance boils down to is the trite message that you need to read the question. Or to put it another way – just read the instructions.

At the risk of droning on about this and sounding like a zealot of the cargo cult of NEBOSH exam technique it is important to impose a systematic approach to exam questions. There is a process to apply and though this may not help you correctly answer every single question this process can help massively in terms of interpretation. It can also help in terms of exam nerves. If you are nervous in the exam then applying a process that you have practiced as a part of your exam preparation can be a way of settling those nerves.

Read the question – read it caerfluly to make srue that ecah wrod is the word taht you are acutally lokonig at and not the wrod taht you tinhk you see. It is easy to misread words in the heat of the moment. The words mechanical and non-mechanical look very similar but have polar opposite meanings.

Keywords – highlight the keywords. The command word is a keyword because it tells you how much depth and detail are expected in your answer. Definitive guidance on command words is given by NEBOSH for both Certificate and Diploma exam questions (available here). But the command word is not the only keyword. Other words tell you about the topic of interest and therefore the element and relevant content area. Other words set a scenario and that scenario both gives context to the question (that should be referenced in your answer) and can also constraint your answer.

Marks – look at how many marks that question or part of question is awarded. This tells you how many credit-worthy pieces of information you have to give the examiner. It also tells you, in combination with the command word, how long your answer is likely to be. If you write six sentences to identify something that was worth 2 marks then you have written too much and wasted your time. If you write one single word or phrase and expect to get 6 marks for providing an outline of something then you are going to get 0 or 1 mark only because you have failed to provide an outline and you have failed to provide six credit-worthy bits of information.

Read it again – this can help to clarify your understanding of the question and it may correct any misinterpretation. It can also reassure you that you have correctly interpreted the question first time round. This is very reassuring if you are experiencing exam nerves.

Plan – jot down some words and idea on the page. Get the ideas that, as you read the question, are popping into your head onto the page. Pin them down. If you write them down as they spring to mind you don’t need to remember them. You can then turn your attention to which ideas are relevant, which are irrelevant and what order to address the relevant ideas in.

As Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane says in the film Moneyball, “This is a process, it’s a process, it’s a process.” The film is about the game of baseball and we may not be playing that game here, but the advice is still sound advice.

Processes are habit forming. So as you prepare for the exam you can start to apply this process to every exam question and exam-style question that you attempt. If you apply this process consciously at first it will gradually become automatic. Come exam day you won’t need to think about it, you will apply it from habit.

As you do this you also need to keep a weather eye on the clock. Time can be a significant limiting factor. In a Certificate exam you have perhaps 25 to 30 minutes for the first question (question 1) which is worth 20 marks. For the remaining ten question (questions 2 – 11; each worth 8 marks) you have 8 – 9 minutes for each. In a Diploma exam you have 12 – 15 minutes for each short-answer question (questions 1 – 6; each worth 10 marks) and 25 – 30 minutes for each of the three long-answer questions (questions 7 – 11; each worth 20 marks).

You have to get in the habit of checking the time routinely so that you know how much time you have for each question and when to move on. The best way to manage this is to write down your start time as you first move on to each new question. You can do this on the exam paper itself. My personal habit is to take a watch, take it off and put it on the desk in front of me – right in the field of view and at the same focal length as the exam paper. I learnt that habit the hard way – through my own youthful indiscretion.

Well I said it was trite advice. So much for subtlety. As my daughter would say I do tend to go on about these things. She thinks I have a screw loose and she may well be right. But when faced with an unfortunate conflict of evidence I do try to maintain a flexible demeanour. And as I said to her when she suffered her significant shortfall in gravitas after crashing and burning in her science tests, “of course I still love you”. I can’t tell you what her reply was because they wouldn’t print it. Three words; first word starts with a k.

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor