Case study support 2- planning a good answer
This is the second in a short series of three articles written for students who are preparing for case study exams. It is based on the authors’ experience in setting and marking CIMA case studies. These articles will be valuable to candidates who are preparing for each of the three levels of the CIMA Professional Qualification.
Note: These articles take examples from the pre-seen materials and question tutorials for all three levels of the CIMA qualification to illustrate the points made, so a familiarity with these would be helpful. With that in mind, it is recommended that candidates read these articles in conjunction with the other resources that are available to them, including materials that are level specific.
Study planner additional resources: Operational question tutorial material Management question tutorial material / Gateway question tutorial material Strategic question tutorial material For further resources and variants visit the study planner and view a relevant exam session.
Answering case study tasks requires specific skills. In general, all skills can be developed through understanding and, above all, practise and these skills are no exception.
The previous article in this short series described CIMA’s approach to the case study exams in terms of “role simulation”. In other words, candidates are required to demonstrate their ability to apply the syllabus material to practical problems and do so in response to a request from a colleague /superior.
You should think of the tasks set in the case study exam as if they were set at work. If you are set a task in the real world then the first thing that you have to do is to make sure that you understand what you have been asked to do and set about that specific task. Your boss is unlikely to be happy if you are asked to do something and you decide to do something else instead because that would be easier or you wished to avoid admitting that you couldn’t manage your assigned task. Your work is also unlikely to be accepted if it is not properly supported by a meaningful explanation.
CIMA invests a lot of time and effort in developing the case studies and ensuring that they set tasks that are appropriate to the level of the case (Operational, Management or Strategic). Candidates should present themselves for the exam with a good grasp of the syllabus content for the three papers encompassed by the case (P1/2/3, E1/2/3 and F1/2/3) and of the content of the pre-seen.
What is the marker looking for?
The case study exams are marked by small teams of experienced markers who work under the supervision of a chief marker.
The marking guides used by the marking team are published after the exam. Marking guides can be found in the question tutorial material linked above. You can see that the marking guides provide holistic descriptors against which markers will assess your work and award the appropriate marks. This ensures that markers award marks consistently and that all valid responses are rewarded. In the real world, there is not usually one clear solution to a problem so, similarly, we expect our candidates to come up with a range of answers for the requirements set.
The same goes for the suggested answers. The examiner cannot necessarily include every potentially correct point in the suggested answers and so it is possible that you will score marks for making points that are not shown in the suggested answers. Your arguments will be marked on their merits, even if your conclusion or recommendation differs from that of the examiner.
For example, one of the requirements in the question tutorial Operational Case Study is as follows: “Please also include in your briefing notes an explanation of the main characteristics of beyond budgeting and the benefit for GymFiT of using ‘beyond budgeting’ principles rather than our current budgeting approach. Please also suggest three KPIs and explain why you think these would be appropriate to use to measure the operational performance of our gym staff.”
Without looking at the examiner’s suggested answer, the following points can be made:
- Candidates have been asked to explain the main characteristics of beyond budgeting. That would really require an understanding of beyond budgeting from reading and revising study materials. Note that the request for an explanation means that the examiner requires candidates to answer in their own words. So, it is not necessary to memorise formal definitions of accounting techniques or the descriptions in the study texts. A candidate who understands beyond budgeting (or anything else) will be able to explain what it is in a clear and logical manner in their own words.
- The task seeks application to the scenario, which should take account of the nature of the business. For example, the company has more than 100 locations. Budgets may rapidly become outdated because of the fast-moving industry and so on. These would be relevant facts, regardless of whether the examiner used them in the suggested answer. Notice also that there is scope for offering a counter argument to the effect that traditional budgets may retain some advantages.
- The task also asks for suggestions concerning KPIs, seeking a reason for any suggestion. Again, the examiner could not list every potentially relevant KPI and so it would be perfectly acceptable for candidates to select their own. Most of the marks will be awarded for the justification and so marks will be awarded for any suggestions whose validity can be justified.
Candidates should be reassured that they will be rewarded for acceptable arguments, but that does not mean that marks will be awarded for anything. Arguments must be relevant to the requirement, applied to the scenario and also have to be valid in terms of being supported by a sensible argument.
Reading the task
Examiner’s reports invariably include comments to the effect that some candidates failed to answer the task requirement set. That could be due to some candidates reading the requirement in a careless manner and failing to answer the question that has been set. (There is another possible explanation that is discussed below.)
For example, the following requirement appears in the question tutorial of the Management Case Study: “Please draft a paper for Thomas that sets out the challenges associated with his proposed target costing exercise and indicates how his engineers would be expected to contribute to it.”
The task requirements would have repaid close reading by candidates who did the following:
- In this task, there is no specific requirement to define or describe target costing, although the examiner clearly expects candidates to know what it is. A brief explanation that sets the scene might receive a mark or two (at most), but a detailed explanation of target costing would simply waste time.
- The task asks candidates to set out the challenges associated with this target costing exercise. The expectation is that candidates would identify the issues and explain why they have been identified. If you imagine this in a workplace setting, a senior manager would be unhappy with a list of challenges that have not been expanded upon in any way because that would be unhelpful when briefing other members of the team.
- Always look out for conjunctions. In this case, the word "and" indicates that there is a second element to the requirement, namely that candidates were to indicate how engineers would contribute to this target costing exercise. Candidates often fail to attempt all aspects of a requirement and lose the opportunity to score marks in the process.
It is generally a good idea to invest a few minutes in thinking and planning the approach to each task in turn. The time pressures in any exam might create the temptation to start writing a detailed answer immediately, but that is likely to be a mistake.
The first matter to consider is time. Each exam starts with a table that shows the number of sections, the time for each section, the number of sub tasks and the % of time within each section to spend on each sub task. This table is available to review at any time during the exam. Time weightings are also shown against each of the sub-task requirements during the exam.
For example, the question tutorial Strategic Case Study has three sections, each timed for one hour. The first section comprises two sub tasks and the first sub task has been allocated 40% of the available time.
The first sub task is: “Firstly, analyse the advantages and disadvantages to Fizz of fixing ingredient prices in advance for extended periods.”
Candidates should make brief notes while reading through the requirements. At first glance, the following notes might be worth making:
- 40% = 22 minutes.
Our candidate assumed that 5 of the available 60 minutes would be spent on reading, which leaves 55 minutes in total. That suggests that 22 minutes should be spent on the first sub task and 33 minutes on the second. The examiner has specifically asked for both advantages and disadvantages, so there is a need to jot down a reminder to cover both.
It might be worth investing more time in briefly adding topics for discussion: • 40% = 22 minutes. • Advantages? Sugar prices are volatile Competitors might fix their prices • Disadvantages? Fixing might be expensive Fixing might prove inflexible
These points are not the only factors that could have been discussed, but they follow from the diagram that appears in the reference materials attached to the requirement and allow for the nature of the industry, with the possibility that Fizz might lose market share to competitors if they hedge their sugar prices and Fizz does not.
As a minor practical suggestion, the easiest way to set out the plan might be to simply type it on the answer screen, then it will be there to review and revisit while answering the requirement itself. Candidates can either head this up as “Plan” to avoid confusing the marker or, if they wish, could delete the plan once they are finished with it.
An online scratch pad is also provided in the software but candidates must make sure that they transfer any information that they want to be considered for marking to the answer box as the scratch pad contents are not retained and forwarded for marking at the end of the exam.
The case study exam test driver limits the time available for each section. Candidates should aim to make the best possible use of the time that is available to them. That might involve quickly jotting some brief notes to conclude the answer to the first sub task if time starts to run short, making sure that the 33 minutes allowed for the second sub task (in this example) is spent on that requirement.
Any time that is left after attempting all sub tasks should not be wasted. Those last few minutes might be spent reviewing and improving the answers or thinking about further issues that might have been added. It is not possible to return to a section after exiting it and any remaining time cannot be carried forward, so there is no advantage in skipping forward.
To sum up ...
CIMA’s case study exams test candidates’ ability to apply syllabus material to practical situations that are potentially new and challenging. Candidates should expect to be provided with the opportunity to demonstrate that they are adaptable and can offer realistic and sensible arguments that meet the brief set by colleagues/superiors.
Task requirements should be read carefully and interpreted with a view to ensuring that all requirements are identified and answered. Candidates should focus on planning relevant answers before they start to write their responses.
Time should be managed carefully, bearing in mind that the time provided for each section cannot be transferred or carried over in any way.