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It is not uncommon to see students recoil in horror at the mention of Paper F5, Performance Management. The purpose of this article is to identify the reasons why sitting the Paper F5 exam seems to cause such a problem for students and try and improve performance in the future.

As you are aware, Paper F5 builds on the blocks of knowledge gained from sitting the Paper F2 exam. Although the pass rates for Paper F2 tend to be on the low side when compared with some of the other Knowledge papers, they are still significantly higher than the Paper F5 pass rates. Therefore, although poor pass rates could be blamed on the fact that Paper F5 covers an area that most ACCA students have no experience of and find it difficult to relate to, the same could be said of Paper F2. Why then, does Paper F5 seem to invoke such fear and poor performance from students?

One of the reasons why I think the problem arises is because the Skills papers, of which Paper F5 is one, are often the first time that students have had to tackle written questions. No longer is it sufficient to simply learn material and churn out calculations. With the Knowledge papers, ability to write clearly and set out workings logically and neatly is not required; the papers are in the form of sets of objective test questions. Instead, the skills involved become fourfold, with candidates being required to do all of the following:

  • correctly interpret requirements
  • actively read sometimes scenario-based questions, highlighting the information that is relevant for each part of the requirement
  • use that information to perform calculations that are carefully structured and clearly set out, with all workings shown in an easy-to-follow layout
  • write accurately and coherently, using simple English rather than long, rambling sentences that have no structure and no real content.


Another reason why problems arise is because candidates do not take the time to understand the differences between Paper F2 and Paper F5. Some subject areas are obviously included in both syllabuses, but you can be sure that where subjects are repeated in Paper F5, the skills required of you are over and above the knowledge required in Paper F2.

I am going to concentrate on a brief step by step approach to the exam on the day and then on a more detailed explanation of how you should interpret all the different 'instructions' contained within question requirements. The points made in this article about interpreting requirements in questions are equally valid for interpreting the depth of the Paper F5 Study Guide which is attached to the Syllabus, since this too is written in terms of 'instructions' such as discuss, describe and so forth.


READING TIME

The Paper F5 exam, as with all three-hour exams, starts with 15 minutes of reading time. This time should be spent by quickly allocating your 180 minutes to each question and reading all the requirements and the questions so that you can think about your answers and decide the order in which you will answer your questions. Remember, always start with your best question first. It is important to build your confidence up so that you perform your best.

When it comes to answering the question, be sure that you are strict with your time allocation. If you are spending too long on one question, it is either because you can't do it anyway (in which case move on and come back to it later) or you are saying too much and going beyond what the examiner expected of you. How much an examiner expects you to write is directly linked to the marks available and therefore the time available.

To spend half an hour, for example, on Part (c) of a question, which is only worth five marks is madness: the examiner expected you to spend nine minutes on it. As well as allocating time to individual questions, you should allocate time to individual requirements in questions.

In the reading time, you should get a chance to have a good look at the requirements of all five questions. Remember: the requirement should always be the first thing that you look at in a question. What is the point in reading a question if you don't know what you are looking for? When you read each part of the requirement, underline the 'content' - what the question is about, for example target costing, and the 'instruction' - what it is telling you to do. This helps you to focus your mind on answering the actual question rather than answering what you thought the question was going to ask you.

As regards the content, you have either studied the area and can tackle it, or not. This instruction could be a whole variety of verbs ranging from numerical requirements such as calculate, produce, derive and apply; or more wordy requirements such as describe, interpret, outline, compare, identify, discuss, explain, evaluate, suggest and justify. The possibilities are endless and the one thing you can be sure of is that the verb used has been carefully thought about by the examiner, obviously taking into account any restrictions imposed by the syllabus. If you don't read and understand the instruction carefully, then you will find that you are not actually answering the question. If you are not answering the question, then you are not earning marks. For example, being asked to justify the use of target costing as opposed to traditional absorption costing is different from being asked to explain target costing. Each of the common exam 'instructions' are dealt with below.


ANSWERING NUMERICAL QUESTIONS

'Calculate' and 'derive'
Some instructions are easier to understand than others. For example, there can be no confusion as to what the word 'calculate' means; if you are asked to calculate a number, you just have to work it out. Similarly, 'derive' should pose little problem. In the context of Paper F5, you might have to derive an equation showing the relationship between price and quantity or derive a target cost for a product. Being able to 'derive' a figure sometimes requires more than simply being able to calculate a figure, as a candidate may have to use their powers of deduction to derive something. However, the mechanics of 'deriving' or 'calculating' would actually be very similar in most cases.

'Estimate'
If a question asks you to 'estimate' a figure it suggests that the answer cannot be calculated with certainty. For example, if you are asked to estimate the time taken to produce a batch of items where an 80% learning curve has been shown to exist, you are making an estimate rather than an exact calculation. This is due to the fact that the learning rate itself reflects what a business THINKS will happen but it is not certain until it has happened. Once again, however, as with a 'derive' instruction, the mechanics of 'estimating' are much the same as 'calculating'. There is a set approach to the question (tabular or algebraic, in the case of learning curves).

Why, then, do candidates often still perform poorly on the numerical parts of the Paper F5 exam paper? In my opinion, poor numerical answers often arise merely as a result of candidates failing to study the whole syllabus well enough in the first place. Anyone who thinks they can question spot exam questions for a particular sitting, based on topics that have been examined or not examined in recent papers, is sadly mistaken. Certain publications publish 'top tips' which should most certainly be ignored.

If exam papers were this predictable, they would not be a true test of candidates' knowledge as students would then simply be able to learn distinct areas of the syllabus and ignore the rest. Study all of the Paper F5 syllabus or you are not giving yourself a real chance.

The other reason why candidates score poorly on numerical questions is because they approach the question in a disorganised fashion, with no logical progression through the calculations and no clear, numbered workings. You should go into the exam with a metaphorical management accounting toolbox, full of all the tools that are going to help you answer the questions. So, for example, if it is a linear programming question, go in your toolbox and pull out your five-step guide for linear programming:

  • define the variables
  • state the objective function
  • state the constraints
  • draw the graph
  • find the solution.


To give another example, if it is a pricing question that can be solved algebraically, pull your pricing tool out of your management accounting toolbox and follow your five-step guide:

  • establish the demand function
  • establish marginal cost
  • state marginal revenue by doubling the gradient
  • equate marginal cost and marginal revenue to find optimum quantity
  • substitute quantity into the demand function to find optimum price.


The problem with Paper F5 is that students go into the exam with only a few tools in their 'box'. If you put the work in, you will reap the rewards.


ANSWERING 'WORDY' QUESTIONS

Requirements that necessitate candidates writing in a coherent, organised manner are also a big issue in Paper F5. Candidates are not penalised for the fact that English may be their second language, and I do not think it is this that causes the real problem. The issue is often that candidates appear unable to grasp what to write and how much to write, ie they don't understand the instruction. Further clarification of all the main instructions you would expect to find in a Paper F5 exam is given below.

Describe
When you are asked to 'describe' something you are expected to give some sort of narrative about it. For example, if you were being asked to describe suitable non-financial performance indicators for a hospital, you would be expected to describe indicators such as number of patient complaints, bed occupancy rate, number of admissions per employee. It would not be enough to merely 'list' these indicators. You would have to go a step further and describe how they might be calculated. As always, you should be guided by the mark allocation in deciding how much time you spend answering the requirements and therefore what level of detail you should go into.

Interpret
When you are asked to 'interpret' something, for example, the balanced scorecard approach, you are being asked to explain the approach in your own words and give your opinion about it. It is quite a high-level requirement that will usually be reflected with higher marks than, for example, 'outline'.

Outline
As suggested previously, this is quite a straightforward, low-level requirement. An outline should be fairly brief and well organised. It is simply an overview, without the level of detail that would be required by the 'describe' instruction, for example. Since it requires less detail, you could be asked to outline a bigger topic than you would have time to describe. In Section C of the Study Guide, you are asked to 'outline the objectives of a budgetary control system'. This is something that could be discussed at length but the Study Guide is clear in that it only expects your knowledge to be sufficient enough to outline.

Compare
The instruction 'compare' requires you to discuss similarities between two or more things and draw conclusions. For example, if you are asked to compare product costs using activity-based costing as opposed to traditional costing, you need to say why the costs are different. This will involve looking in detail at the activity-based costs and ascertaining the reason why the overheads absorbed into one product are, for example, higher under activity-based costing than traditional absorption costing. In this kind of question, 'comparing' needs to be preceded by a degree of analysis.

Identify
This means to pinpoint and list. It can be quite a simple requirement, requiring knowledge rather than skill. For example, in the Study Guide, it states that candidates must be able to 'identify and explain the interrelationship between price, mix and yield'. This simply requires candidates to understand what the relationship is and then state it and explain it. Sometimes, however, candidates may have to identify points from within a question scenario, and this can be a more demanding requirement because it requires more skill.

Discuss
This is a higher level skill and requires a candidate to give their own thoughts on a subject, supporting it with facts and logical reasoning.

For example, you could be asked to discuss the effect that variances have on staff motivation. You would need to discuss the fact that they can be demotivational, for example, if they lead to managers being assessed for cost increases that were beyond their control. The material price variance may be adverse but this could be because the market price for materials increased. This will be demotivational unless the price variance is broken down into its controllable and uncontrollable aspects, ie planning and operational variances are calculated.

The opinions you give in any discussion must be sound and well reasoned. It is no good saying that variances are demotivational without explaining why. Also, you are expected to look at both sides of the story. The 'discuss' instruction is always a good test of candidates real understanding.

Explain
This means that you need to give a reason for something; say why it is as it is rather than just stating that it is. It is a very common requirement and appears many times in the Study Guide. It requires understanding as well as knowledge.

Evaluate
This requirement would not be expected to arise much in Paper F5. Most of the evaluation work is reserved for Paper P5. If you are asked to evaluate something, you are being asked to decide on the merits of it. It is most definitely a higher level skill.

Suggest
The use of the word 'suggest' itself suggests that there may be more than one answer to the question being asked. It means give a suitable idea or solution, bearing in mind that there will probably be more than one. For example, you might be asked to suggest how a target cost gap can be closed. Your answer could only ever be a suggestion as there will be many possible ways to close a cost gap.

Justify
With this requirement, you need to tell the reader why a particular answer or position makes sense. For example, if you had to justify the use of backflush accounting within an organisation, you would have to mention the relative immateriality of inventory balances, presuming this was in fact the case (otherwise you would struggle to justify the use of backflush accounting in the first place).


CONCLUSION

To conclude, the step up from Paper F2 to F5 is a big one, with a sudden need for clarity of writing and understanding of 'instructions' within requirements that was not essential for Paper F2. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a disproportionately hard paper. It does require students to work hard in order to gain knowledge of areas that they have not practised. All written papers require the organised approach set out above, whereby you underline the content and instruction of all requirements at the beginning of each question. Keep referring back to them, particularly on wordy questions, to make sure that you are not going off on a tangent. And remember, practice makes perfect. Keep practising past questions until your approach and layout becomes second nature, leaving you with plenty of time to think about the issues in the question.

Written by a member of the Paper F5 examining team

Last updated: 22 Sep 2014