What a Year
One of the big changes that has happened over the course of the pandemic is the seismic shift away from interactions in the real world to the virtual. This has happened in the world of H&S training and assessment. NEBOSH introduced online Open Book Exams (OBE) for the National and International General Certificate courses last year. And with the launch of their new Fire and Construction Certificate (UK and International) courses this trend has continued. It is highly likely that other courses will follow suit over time. Especially as the open book format seems to work well. It avoids various practical problems associated with running ‘old-skool’ invigilated exams.
Lots of Official Guidance
If you are studying towards the National or International General Certificate or the new Fire or Construction Certificate courses, then you will need to familiarise yourself with the OBE rules and procedure. NEBOSH have published a lot of guidance on their website. It includes video guides and resources such as example exam papers. This is all useful ‘grist for the mill’ and I don’t intend to replicate their guidance here. You can check it out for yourself. Instead what I’d like to do is cover a few tips and give you some things to think about as you prepare for the NG1, IG1, FSC1, IC1 or NC1 final assessment.
The way the OBE works is that you download your exam paper directly from the NEBOSH exam portal on examination day along with an answer template. You then have 24 hours (48 for Construction) to research and write answers to the various questions set and upload your final answer paper up to the NEBOSH portal. As the name suggests the exam can be completed with full access to textbooks, course materials and other sources of information such as the HSE website. There are, of course, rules about collaboration and plagiarism which are well covered by NEBOSH in their guidance.
The exam paper is significantly different from previous Certificate qualification exam papers in that it does not simply set out academic questions with the intention of testing your ability to remember key information. Instead it is a scenario-based exam where you will be set a series of tasks. You have to apply knowledge from the course to a practical situation. An example OBE exam paper has been published by NEBOSH for each Certificate course that uses the OBE assessment. This example paper is essential reading for anyone on these courses. So make sure you download a copy and check it out.
Feedback reports are also available for the first NG and IG OBEs set in August last year. This feedback includes the full exam scenario and all of the tasks that were set plus some guidance and examples of good answers. More essential reading. I am sure that NEBOSH will publish similar feedback for the Fire and Construction Certificate courses. But even if they do not, then the NG1 and IG1 feedback makes for useful reading for anyone on these courses.
There is one scenario for each exam paper and all of the tasks set ask you to address that one scenario. The scenario is quite lengthy, running from a page to a page and a half of descriptive text. It includes information such as the type of workplace, numbers of workers and shift patterns, physical layout and some recent history (such as incidents). Context is important so it is essential that most of your answers relate to the scenario that has been set.
The exact number of tasks set by the examiner will vary from one exam paper to another. The total number of marks, however, will not. There are always 100 marks in the exam. These may be fairly evenly divided between say 10 tasks. Or they may be heavily concentrated on a few tasks with other tasks having proportionately few marks available. The marks available for each task or part of the task are clearly indicated in brackets to the right hand side of each question. Make sure you look.
There is also a word count indicated on the front page of the exam paper. For the General Certificate exams this has routinely been 3,000 words. That’s 3,000 words for the whole exam, not for each task. NEBOSH have not indicated that they will directly penalise people who go well over the indicated word count unlike some exam boards who deduct or cap marks when word counts are exceeded. However, they have indicated that a 10% allowance is tolerated. But if you go over that you may be waffling (my choice of words not theirs). I recommend using 10% above word count as a cap.
So having set the scene we might move on to think about the general approach to the exam paper.
The first thing you must do is read the scenario carefully. The scenario is lengthy, so reading it carefully takes time. Your impulse may be to skim read the scenario and get on with the tasks. You must resist this impulse. Skimming is a mistake. I would recommend that the first thing that you do before attempting any of the tasks is to read the scenario several times and make some notes as you do so. Note-taking will help you to get your head around the scenario. Personally, the first thing I’m doing is making a mind-map of that scenario with pen and ink on a pad. I do love a mind-map.
Next, read the task carefully. It’s a good idea to highlight key words as you read each task. And remember to look at the number of marks available. The number of marks gives an indication of how many pieces of information the examiner expects to see in your answer (one for each mark). It can be used as a rough guide as to how long your answer should be (how many words to use) and how much time you might take.
Having highlighted keywords in a task it’s always sensible to go back through the scenario to pick out key information from the scenario that is relevant to the task. You can then start to plan your answer. Whilst it is true that you can probably start to type your answer into the answer template and cut and paste it around to give it logical structure, you can save yourself a lot of time by planning your answer before you start typing. Personally I’m going back to the pen and pad for this. And yet another mind map. Love ‘em. Then it’s a quick look in the course materials and the HSE website just to check the facts or check for missing information (remember it’s an open book exam).
That Pesky Word Count
Bear in mind that your full set of answers needs to be close to the word count. One way of keeping on track with this is to divide the word count by the number of marks and then use that as a gauge. So if the top word count is 3,300 and there are 100 marks then that’s 33 words per mark. And no, I am not suggesting that you use this as a precise rule. But if you use it as a rough guide (so, for example, a 10 mark question should get an answer with 300-350 words) then you won’t go far wrong.
24 Hours (without Jack Bauer)
Time management is an important issue during the exam. Whilst it is true that you have 24 hours to write and upload your answers, the reality is that you have to be pragmatic about your time. NEBOSH states in their guidance that it should take you 4 hours to complete the entire paper. Most students will tell you that it takes 6, 7, 8 hours or more! You should plan your day accordingly.
You must also recognise that you can’t possibly work for 8 hours straight on the exam. So you are going to need to schedule breaks into your day. If you plan to spend 6 working hours on the exam that’s 360 minutes and there are 100 marks available. 360/100 = about 3-4 minutes per mark or 35 minutes for each 10 mark task (if the task is indeed worth 10 marks). Some people will be able to answer all of the exam questions in far less time. Some will take more. You know how fast you work and type so it’s worthwhile thinking about this and factoring it into your strategy.
NEBOSH have stated in their guidance that your answers should be underpinned using appropriate references. So if you are making use of course materials, text books or websites you should list these sources in your answer template document. So that the examiner can see which sources you have made use of. I’m not going to talk about referencing here other than to say that you need to do it and there is guidance published by NEBOSH and RRC about how to do it. But don’t get too concerned about the intricate details of referencing. Different authorities and different systems have different rules. It is possible to spend a lot of time and energy worrying over minor details. As long as the examiner can see you have made an attempt to reference your sources then that should be enough.
And Finally Esther…
There are two final thoughts that I’d like to leave you with.
The first is that it can be a very good idea to do the exam in the same environment in which you studied your course materials. So if you took a Live Online course in a deserted office at work then this is a good place to take the exam. If you studied at your dining room table at home: ditto.
The second is that YOU MUST REVISE!
At the risk of repeating myself: YOU MUST REVISE!
Yes it is an open book exam. Yes you have access to your course materials. Yes you can use the internet and the behemoth that is the HSE website with all of its glorious guidance documents and webpages.
But you must still study and revise in preparation for the exam. You do not have time to get up to speed from a cold start. If you don’t study and revise then every question starts with an hour of trawling through the course materials to find the relevant content so that you can read it. Every question leads to countless Google searches and floundering around in a morass of uncertainty (hey I live on Dartmoor, I know a morass of uncertainty when I see one). Unless you are really smart or really lucky the result will be 16 hours of stress, panic, wasted time, and a set of patchy answers.
When you sit the exam you need to be in a position to write pretty good answers to most tasks off the top of your head. Without referring to any course materials. The closer you are to that ideal, the easier the OBE will be.
And as I have stated many times in other blogs about exam preparation and revision, for us mere mortals revision means repetition, repetition and repetition.
Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH
RRC Consultant Tutor