Should you sit your exams remotely or in an exam centre? Shaun Robertson, Director, Education and Qualifications, and Elliott Skinner, Head of Exam Projects, help you decide.
By now, you should have a good idea of how the ACA qualification is structured and when you should expect to take the exams (if not, take a look at the exam resources and key dates). But before you book your Professional Level or Advanced Level exam session, you’ll need to decide whether you want to sit your exams in an ACA-approved centre or remotely.
There is no right or wrong choice, say Shaun Robertson and Elliott Skinner, who are responsible for the smooth running of exams at ICAEW. What you opt for will depend on a number of factors, including your location and personal preferences.
What option is right for me?
The main reason most students go for the remote option, says Shaun, is convenience. You don’t have to think about transport or even planning overnight stays if you need to travel far. Your familiar set-up is all in place, and if you have two exams in one day, you don’t have to think about where to get lunch. If you have lots of things on your plate – family commitments, for example – then taking exams remotely is a time-efficient option.
However, you may not have a comfortable, quiet and undisturbed space in which to take exams remotely. And you may like the separation between home and exam centre to focus your mind and get ‘in the zone’. Commuting can help facilitate this switchover, as well as surrounding yourself with other students in a professional environment (exam centres typically hold about 30 students). There’s also the social element of sharing the experience - you may want to compare experiences with fellow trainees once the exam is over.
So, students living in larger cities with a choice of centres and strong transport links may find the exam centre option preferable; while for those more remotely situated, staying put for exams could make the whole experience less stressful.
The most important consideration, if you are leaning towards taking your exams remotely, is to make sure your system will work on the day. Elliott says the exams run on a system that is “as low-requirement as it can possibly be”. But make sure you have a reliable broadband connection, as you will need to be able to stream video to be observed by invigilators for Professional and Advanced Level exams. The primary reason that students run into problems, says Elliott, is that they haven’t run their systems checks before each exam.
What if something goes wrong?
For people who feel more comfortable using their own computer, remote examinations will be attractive. It may also put your mind at ease if you have access requirements or caring responsibilities - ensuring you have everything you need close by. Others may like the reassurance of having everything set up for them at the exam centre, ready to go, and having a friendly face on hand if assistance is needed.
But what happens if you do have a problem during the exam? Technical hitches are less likely to occur in an exam centre but if they do, invigilators are trained to address them. If you’re at home, there is a triage system in place for dealing swiftly with any issues, Elliott says. It begins with a simple webchat for frequently asked questions, such as ‘Can I use the bathroom?’ (answer: yes). The next step is a live chat with support agents responsible for the remote exam software. If you’re still experiencing difficulties, then ICAEW staff will step in. If your internet cuts out, contact student support.
Remember to use the triage system as soon as something goes wrong. The student support team won’t be able to help after the event.
The main thing to remember, Elliott stresses, is that, “We’re there for you. At the end of the day, we want you to become a Member, we want you to get through your exams successfully. There’s a whole suite of things we can do to help to make sure you have a fair experience of exam day.”
The move to remote exams
Remote exam provision was always on the cards, but the pandemic meant it was introduced six years earlier than originally planned. In March 2021, in the second lockdown, 100% of ICAEW students took their exams via remote invigilation. In 2022, when there was a choice of options, around 15-20% of students opted to sit exams remotely. “We’re all becoming more sensitive to the fact that people have different learning and assessment requirements,” says Shaun. “Students are encouraged to talk about what they need, and we want to support them.’
Refinements are being made all the time to improve the software and exam experience for all students. “It’s more evolution than revolution,” says Elliott, “We are constantly working to make sure our support network is as good as it can be, and that more ICAEW staff are trained to help.”
A fair system for all
It’s key to stress that the booking, content, timings and – crucially – results of remote exams are just the same as the ones held at centres. It’s early days for analysing the data but there is no evidence to suggest that outcomes are any different, whichever route students opt for.
In addition, the exam regulations are exactly the same wherever you are, and students should familiarise themselves with them well in advance of exam day. No cans of drink or coloured bottles, no watches allowed, no pacing up and down the room and definitely “no cup of tea and a sausage roll from your mum halfway through”, says Shaun.