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The lowdown on… marks feedback

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Oct 2023

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The marks feedback service is an invaluable resource when preparing for an exam retake - here’s how to make the most of it.

Exam failure is always disappointing – but there are tools at your disposal to help ensure it doesn’t happen second time around. One of the most useful, says Shaun Robertson, Director of Education and Qualifications at ICAEW, is the marks feedback service. “Because our exam system is fully digitalised, we can make detailed marks feedback available to every student straight away, rather than you having to request it,” he explains.

If you fail an exam, you’ll find your marks feedback under the ‘Examinations’ tab of your online training file. For ICAEW CFAB/Certificate Level exams, feedback is by syllabus area, showing you the particular topics you need to work on. For Professional and Advanced Levels, you’ll be given a detailed breakdown of the marks you achieved per question. “As you progress through the exams, the more complicated the marking,” explains Shaun, “so you need to look at the feedback alongside the exam to identify which areas you’re missing.”

Past exams, marks plans and examiners’ comments for Professional and Advanced Level exams can be found within the exam resources. “There are no past exams for ICAEW CFAB/Certificate Level because it’s a secure question bank, which is why the feedback is per syllabus area,” explains Shaun. “And for the Advanced Level Case Study, which is marked slightly differently, you’ll also need to look at the feedback guidance.” Whichever level you’re at, make sure you access – and make sense of – your feedback as soon as possible. “You’ve got to get to it straight away,” he says. “Of course, you’re going to feel disappointed when you don’t pass, but you need to pick yourself up quickly and focus on the next attempt. You’re going to get through this. They say the best drivers are the ones who pass second or third time around.” (Find more advice from Shaun on approaching exam retakes here.)

Time to reflect

Before you sit down to look at your feedback in detail, it’s a good exercise to try to predict where the exam went wrong. Do you remember struggling with a particular question? Or did you just run out of time? “You’ve got to be honest with yourself about why you failed, because your problem will be very specific to you,” Shaun says. “If you score zero on an available mark, you’ve got to dig deep. Is it because you don’t know something well enough, or because you didn’t attempt the question? Those are two entirely different problems. If you don’t understand something, obviously you need to go back and fix that. If you didn’t do the question, you’ve got to work on your time management.”

If you’re honest with yourself, chances are there won’t be any big surprises when you review your marks. “It should be fairly obvious – the questions are not disguised,” says Shaun. “If you are surprised by a low mark on an area that you thought you knew well, it’s worth asking for help from a tutor, as there’s obviously a bit of a misalignment there. If you don’t have a tutor, try to find someone objective that you trust to go through it with you.”

When it comes to revising for the retake, make sure you focus on the areas for improvement that you’ve identified. “I can’t stress this enough,” Shaun says. “Students tend to concentrate on the areas they’re good at because they like them and they feel comfortable, and then they just get better at those areas. It’s always harder to get a marginal mark in areas that are already good. You should see this feedback as a big red flag: ‘You failed because you were lacking in this area.’ Fix that – don’t fix an area that’s not broken.”

The other mistake students make, he adds, is to think that because a particular topic or question came up in the last exam, it won’t appear in the next one. “We don’t operate like that,” he says. “We try to cover as much of the syllabus as possible in every single exam. We will examine the same thing sitting upon sitting if it’s relevant. Don’t go down that route of ‘It came up last time, it won’t come up again’ – because it might.”

If your issues in the exam were around time management, then make practising questions under strict time conditions your priority. By the time you are well into the Professional and Advanced Levels, you should be used to working under time pressure – and good time management is an essential professional skill, not just an exam skill. “Part of what you’re being tested on is your ability to manage and prioritise your work,” explains Shaun. “You’re going to get plenty of deadlines in the real world after all.”

Behind the scenes

You can also request an exam admin check. This is a process check that confirms that the marks have been added up and entered correctly. With the digital system, Shaun points out, it is highly unlikely that an administrative error will have been made – so you are better focusing your time and energy on working towards the retake.

Rest assured that if your fail is on the borderline, your exam will already have been reviewed by at least two markers. “We keep on reviewing and reviewing the marginal results, so if you’ve failed by one or two marks, your script will already have been seen a number of times,” Shaun explains. “We’re trying to pass you – we’re trying to find marks to push you above that 50 or 55%. Obviously markers are human, so there is always an element of subjectivity, but their work is independently monitored and reviewed to ensure objectivity.

“At the end of the day, I’m in the business of passing people. Students often think we’re trying to trip them up – we’re not. We want you to pass, and we’ll give you all the tools and support we can to help you do that.”

Remember your marks feedback will be available in the Examinations tab of your online training file.

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