NEBOSH have a special language – there I’ve said it; that language is English! Of course the exams are translated into other languages as well. But in all cases, the use of language has to be clear and precise so everyone can understand what the question is asking. Try writing a question that is clear and unambiguous and you will see just how difficult the task really is!
So, how do you understand exactly what the question is asking and how do you know how much to write?
The obvious answer is to be well-prepared and to know all the material on the syllabus – there really is no substitute for diligent study. However, there are other things that are useful to know as well.
It may be helpful to think of the exam questions not as questions at all, but as a series of instructions. These instructions are given using ‘Command words’ like ‘Outline’, ‘Describe’, ‘Identify’ or ‘Explain’. Thinking of the questions in this way helps the candidate to decide how much detail to put in an answer.
An ‘Outline’ requires the candidate to indicate the principal features or different parts of something – perhaps writing a short sentence on each point. ‘Identify’ questions often require less detail, so the candidate need only give a reference to an item, such as its name etc.
The more detailed questions start with words like ‘Describe’ or ‘Explain’, although it is a mistake to think of any command word as a guide to the number of words to write – it is all about the amount of depth to include in an answer.
A ‘Describe’ question requires the candidate to give a detailed account of the distinctive features of the subject, although it will fall short of a full explanation. To ‘Explain’ something requires the candidate to make an idea or relationship clear – to provide an understanding. Depending on the topic, this might take just a few words or could take half a page.
So when tackling the NEBOSH exam it is of the utmost importance that the candidate reads and takes note of the command word as this provides the instructions to follow.
Also worthy of note is the fact that the specific intended learning outcomes in the syllabus all start with command words. Therefore, if a learning outcome starts say, with ‘Identify’, the examiners cannot ask the candidate to, for example, “Explain” – that would go beyond what the syllabus requires.
So, writing examination questions is a difficult and time-consuming task that has to result in a question that can be understood by the majority of candidates and is as unambiguous as possible. This is achieved by the use of command words, which provide a framework of instructions to follow. However, if you are ever at a loss for how much to write, simply look at the number of marks available for the question. Similarly, the number of marks available will indicate the number of different points that needed to be made in your answer. One final rule – unless the question asks you to ‘Identify’, always write in sentences – simple lists are not normally enough to get a good mark.
Long-standing RRC Associate Tutor, NEBOSH Principal Examiner (Unit A), Barrister (non-practising) and Safety Practitioner http://www.linkedin.com/pub/andrew-ashford/33/722/304