The challenges of examinations – and how to deal with them

From computer-based testing to narrative exams, there are study techniques and approaches that can help with both
by Neil Jensen and Bethan Rees

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You’re sat at a desk, exam paper in front of you, sweating. Suddenly everything you’ve ever learnt has vanished from your memory. You can hear the clock ticking away the seconds. You realise maybe you should’ve spent longer revising. Maybe that Sunday evening you chose to relax wasn’t the best way to spend your time after all.

Taking exams can bring out the worst anxieties in a person, and most of the time, they’re unfounded. By preparing fully and effectively, you should be able to approach the examination room with a cool, calm and collected attitude. But what’s the best way to do so?

Learning from the past experiences of fellow students is a key element of being appropriately prepared for qualification pathways offered by the CISI, which include exams.

CISI exams are in two formats:

  1. Computer-based testing (CBT), an online multiple-choice exam.
  2. Narrative exams, a written exam including lengthy answers to questions.

Both types of exams require thorough preparation. Below, we hear from members who have successfully navigated the switch from taking a CBT exam to a hand-written narrative exam, who share their top tips for exam success. 

Reading materials

Rule number one may not come as a surprise – read the coursebook, every part of it. The exam may cover some of the smaller parts of the syllabus, not just the big themes.

The CISI provides an online study tool called Revision Express, which expands on the information in the coursebook and helps students revise through exercises and questions. It also has a list of helpful associated website links for further reading and a glossary of terms. Professional Refresher is a CISI training solution that helps students stay up to date with sector developments. It aims to allow them to develop wider knowledge around a particular subject, such as artificial intelligence, conduct risk, or soft skills.

Supplementary reading of articles and news will help develop a broader picture of the subject matter. For narrative exams, this is particularly important as it will demonstrate your knowledge of the subject beyond the content of the workbooks. Setting up alerts on your phone or internet browsers for keywords that are relevant to you might help too, for example, ‘money laundering’ or ‘financial planning’.

Develop a study technique

Developing a routine is a practical and disciplined way to approach learning. Julie Hedley, Chartered MCSI, senior operational risk manager at Brewin Dolphin, received the level 6 Global Operations Management award in 2019 at the CISI annual awards ceremony. Julie recommends allowing ample time to study – it may be more than you think. “You can study while travelling to and from work, part of your lunchtime and at the weekend to allow yourself to have at least one full day off work. Don’t underestimate how much studying you will need to do.”
Learn the topic, not just the answer to particular questions

Tom Oakman, Chartered MCSI, CASS manager at Jarvis Investments, received the award for the level 6 Diploma in Investment Operations in 2019. He had previously achieved a merit in the level 5 Advanced Global Securities Operations exam in 2015, success in which led to him being invited to join the exam panel for that subject. Tom says it’s important to understand what works for you when studying. “If a particular method doesn’t seem to be working, don’t be afraid to try something else. For me, writing pages of notes, followed by then summarising those notes at a later date into bullet point format, seemed to work well.”

Studying is personal, so it’s important that you find what works for you. You might be more of a visual person, in which case a mind map might help you recall information, or colour coding could help signpost important information.

Zoë Nateras, manager in M&A, corporate finance at KPMG, specialising in public company transactions, received the 2019 award for the Diploma in Corporate Finance. She used a blend of study techniques when revising for the exams. “I found reading and making notes on a topic, followed by exam practice questions, and then repeating this to learn what the key areas the examiner wants to test you on was the best technique for me. However, exam practice wins hands-down as the best tool.”

Practice makes perfect

Students are advised to take as many practice papers as possible. These prepare students for the types of questions that can be included in the exam and underline the importance of reading the questions properly. But don’t rely on past papers alone. CCL Academy, one of the CISI’s accredited training partners (ATPs), advises students to learn the topic, not just the answer to particular questions, since the practice questions are not the same as those in the exam.

One of the challenges you may face transitioning from CBT to narrative exams is the change in format and the physical impact of this. Julie believes practising under exam conditions can help, for example, answering a past paper and timing yourself. For the narrative exams, she recommends practising handwriting too. She says: “The most difficult bit of narrative exams is holding the pen for three hours, as not many of us write anymore. Hand cramp can be a real problem, therefore find a comfortable pen and practise writing at least four weeks before the exam.” Ergonomic pens may help.

Adapt your approachCBT exams can often present a range of seemingly similar options, so understanding the question and selecting the right answer can be harder than people think. CBT exams require a good level of understanding of the subject material and the syllabus. Do not make assumptions about a question and consider answering the easier ones first to allow adequate time for the more difficult questions. Tom advises doing practice exams for CBT too. “Not only do they test your understanding of the subject material, they prepare you for the types of questions that could come up in your exam and highlight how misreading or rushing through a seemingly simple question can be costly.”

“Narrative exams require a different approach to study, not just more study,” says Martin Mitchell, director of training services at CCL Academy. “They are generally set at a higher level than CBT exams, so the subject matter is inherently more challenging. Examiners for the narrative exams are typically looking for candidates to have a well-rounded understanding of the subject matter, so wider reading around the topic is vital. The CISI workbook is a great starting point but, unlike for the CBT exams, candidates for narrative exams shouldn’t assume that thorough knowledge of the workbook will be sufficient for success in the exam.”
Make sure you are only answering the question asked, not offering everything you know surrounding the topic in a panic

Richard Galley, director of learning at CISI ATP, Financial Services Training Partners (FSTP), says that in his experience some students find the move away from CBT to narrative exams challenging. “The ability to write about the syllabus and combine it with real-life scenarios can prove problematic for some people if they are used to a tick-box response to a multiple-choice CBT question,” he says.

Richard stresses the importance of avoiding the ‘waffle factor’. “They should make sure the answers are written precisely and concisely. This is a bit of an art form in itself and well worth trying out in advance of the exam.” To help reduce waffling, ensure you read the question properly.

Zoë Nateras said, “Writing a brief plan for each answer was helpful because it helped me focus the argument and structure my answer to ensure I had tackled each part of the question with all of the required elements.”

For a narrative exam, it is important to plan what you’re going to write before you start writing, but don’t spend so long thinking about your answers that you run out of time to complete the exam. Allocating a set amount of thinking time for each question will help. For example, said Tom, “if one question is worth 10% of the marks and the exam is three hours long, aim to spend around 18 minutes on the question.”

Make sure you are only answering the question asked, not offering everything you know surrounding the topic in a panic. If your answer doesn’t match the question, stop writing and rethink what is being asked of you. It can be useful to start a new paragraph after each point you need to make, ensuring the points follow each other logically. This structure will enable you to see at a glance when you’ve hit each point.

Leverage past experience

Read chief examiner reports to see what examiners expect of students, says Richard. The CISI’s My Study area has access to such resources. In addition, talking to someone who has taken the exam in the past can provide valuable tips. Networking at CISI events and forum groups are a route to meeting other CISI members and those who have taken exams previously. There are nine free professional forums and two interest groups you can join as a member, with each group specialising in specific subject areas, such as fintech and compliance.

If your exam covers an area that you don’t have any practical experience in, use this as an opportunity to take advantage of your colleagues' expertise, where appropriateNarrative exams allow a student to use real-life experiences from the workplace as an effective way to demonstrate their understanding around a subject. Tom, for example, encountered a question during the Advanced Global Securities Operations narrative exam about the importance of reconciliation. “At the time I was reconciliations manager at a stockbroker, so I used the knowledge I picked up through my job (for example, knowledge of the CASS rules) and took the opportunity to talk about all of the different aspects of reconciliation – some of which the examiner probably wasn’t looking for, but I like to think it helped evidence my understanding of what was being asked.”

If your exam covers an area that you don’t have any practical experience in, use this as an opportunity to take advantage of your colleagues' expertise, where appropriate. Ask them for real-life examples of the topic to help you put it in context.

Use an accredited training partner

CISI ATPs help with exam preparation. FSTP, for example, provides support across a range of 20 exams. Richard says its tutors have experience as financial services sector practitioners, which is important to offer fully rounded learning support.

“We are pretty flexible, offering support in several ways: on a one-to-one basis, in-house with firms and as part of our open course study programmes. We do like to emphasise that our success is based on the relatively small groups of up to ten people. This gives everyone a chance to focus on particular problem areas and discuss the latest best practice and hot topics,” explains Richard.

Martin explains how the CCL Academy can help. “While the CISI offers a range of materials to assist candidates preparing for its exams, many students find it helpful to have additional support, particularly where the student is unfamiliar with the topics they are studying. A training partner, such as CCL Academy, can identify the key points the candidate must know and understand, and can help explain concepts that students typically find challenging,” says Martin. “Using an ATP doesn’t guarantee a pass in the exam, but in our experience, it gives a student a real boost in confidence and enhances the likelihood of success.”

CBT and narrative exams are both designed to test the aptitude and ability of students. Both have their hurdles, but they require different applications on the part of the students. Taking exams doesn’t have to be a stress-inducing experience. If you’re fully prepared, having figured out a study technique, or used an ATP, you should feel confident as you enter the examination room. Exams aren’t meant to trip you up, they are an opportunity to show off your knowledge of a subject, so make sure you use that opportunity wisely.

For more information, visit the My Study section on the CISI’s website.

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email
Published: 13 Feb 2020
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Career Development
  • student membership
  • narrative exams
  • exam tips
  • CBT
  • accredited training partners

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