Expert advice to keep you on track

Welcome to a transcript of this podcast

Paul Kirkwood: Welcome to this ACCA podcast. I'm Paul Kirkwood head of learner experience at ACCA. And today we're meeting with Tom Clendon, an expert online ACCA tutor at FME. Our focus today is helping students get back on track after an exam setback. Hello, Tom.

Tom Clendon: Hello, Paul, thank you very much for inviting me today.

Paul: It's great to have you here. And let's get going straightaway. And to start the podcast. Can you tell me a little bit about your past ACCA teaching experience?

Tom: Well, I was a student once myself, you know, and I went through the ACCA exams. Well before there were podcasts and well before there was online learning. And I enjoyed most of my career with Kaplan here in the UK. But also, I've taught extensively overseas. And in the last few years, I've been teaching SBR online.

Paul: Thanks for that overview, Tom. Now let's focus on the podcast subject itself of getting back on track to exam success. We both know that ACCA is a challenging qualification. And I know that you speak to students who failed exams, what's the first thing that you tend to talk about with students in that situation?

Tom: Well, what I try and do is listen, what I try and do is understand. Because I think that students are individuals. And the reason why a particular student has failed a particular exam is often complex and overlapping. So I try and listen to what where they're coming from. And sometimes they're still in the angry phase, in the denial phase. And I have to draw that out from them a little bit. Because ultimately, they do need to do something different. And it's a question of understanding what they have done so far, and to get them to recognise how they can take ownership of the changes that they need to make.

Paul: So it sounds like when you when you speak to students in this situation, you're almost acting like a bit of a mentor, to help them get to the solution they need to move forward successfully.

Tom: Yes, I mean, the classic situation is, do I go for an immediate resit, in four weeks’ time, five weeks’ time? There’s a number of factors involved there, if they've got late 40s, that's an indication that they perhaps should go for an immediate resit. But if they've got in their 30s, maybe there's a more fundamental knowledge issue, that's not going to be remedied by just running around like a headless chicken for the last few weeks before the exam. There are personal factors involved as well, sometimes people have had experiences with Covid, experiences with unemployment, experiences with illness, which are going to be different next time. So, it's complex.

Paul: It is and I agree, every situation is different. Yes. There'll be themes that we can talk about and explore common themes between students. Do you think students benefit from speaking to each other as well?

Tom: Oh, yes, I did when I was a student. I studied with a really good friend of mine, I was best man at his wedding twice. But when we were students, we weren't married, we would go to the pub after college, and we would talk and he was very good at financial management. And I probably learned a lot from him. Because I wasn't very good at FM. And I was quite good at the audit side, believe it or not, and we would quiz each other. And what I've learned subsequently, as an educator, is that those conversations, and those study buddy relationships are win-win. Because the person who is asking the question is learning from their study-buddy, but actually, it's the so called superior or more knowledgeable study buddy who also benefits because, to pass the exam, it's not about necessarily absorbing everything, and having all the knowledge, it's about having the ability to express yourself to articulate it, to apply it, and to explain it to somebody else. So, getting peer support is invaluable.

Paul: If I go back and think historically, often students with learning providers would be in a classroom, so they're in an environment where it's very easy to speak to students, they're going to be surrounded by people studying the same exams, maybe now it’s possibly even in the modern world a little bit more difficult if we're not face to face. So students really have got to be able to use those digital channels that are available to them to connect.

Tom: Yes, and I know my students do communicate with each other privately through WhatsApp, but there's nothing like a conversation. There's nothing like that, like we're having now put.

Paul: Exactly right, you know, it. That's right. WhatsApp can be wonderful. Email can be wonderful. But just sometimes there's nothing better than having that that conversation as we're doing, recording this podcast. Now. We also recently ran a webinar together, again, focused on the theme of getting back on track, can you give us a brief outline of some of the key points that we covered there, Tom?

Tom: Sure. It was covering the idea that people had to reflect and try and understand where why they had not passed, and what they were going to do differently in order to plan for success. One of the things that I was interested in myself in that podcast was that we heard from several former students who hadn't passed their exams first time. And the credibility that you and I have comes from our experience. But let's face it, I didn't do exams in a computer-based environment. When I was doing exams, there weren't even IFRSs, it was UK saps. And so it was really interesting hearing from these students who had failed exams. One of them had failed exams, multiple times. And yet he had resilience and he had enthusiasm and he had, for me, inspiration. It was inspirational, listening.

Paul: I agree. And we both have come across students who've suffered those multiple setbacks. I find it even more challenging to advise students sometimes when they're when they're suffering this the setbacks in the same exam subject. What advice do you give to students who are suffering those multiple setbacks?

Tom: Well, if it's in an optional paper, and there are some optional papers at the final level, one possibility is that you then switch horses, that you then do another topic. I think it's important to remember your motivation. Why are you doing this? Why are you carrying on, because people have to make sacrifices in order to get to this qualification? And so, it's about listening and understanding what they can do differently, and why they are doing it. There was one student I remember several years ago, and it was to do with their handwriting. They were clearly very articulate in class. And he was on a resit. And he showed me his work and I just couldn't read it. I just couldn't read it. And so he went away and learn to write, that's all you have to do. And there may be some students out there whose typing skills are letting them down. So, it's a question of understanding what the issue is.

Paul: That's interesting. And again, you mentioned the options exams, but I suppose one of the great advantages of the ACCA qualification is its flexibility in the order you can take exams. And I remember speaking to a student some time ago, who'd filled out one of the applied skills exams and had invested so much work that they knew they were going to get it. I'm not going to do anything else until I get this exam pass. I've got 48, I've got 47, I've got 49 but actually, maybe they just need to get away from that subject to take a break, to come back to it a little bit later and do something different to build the confidence and in a new paper to refresh themselves.

Tom: Yeah, I agree, I think confidence is really important. I use a lot of sporting analogies, when I think about students preparing for an exam, and that belief that you're going to pass is important. If you're scarred of failure, it is potentially a handicap. So, the idea of doing another paper that you can succeed, and to look back and to remember, the papers that you've passed, the exams that you've passed, what you did right, the effort that you put in, and you have to be very honest with yourself, when you've come to fail an exam. Yes, you can be angry. Yes, you can be frustrated, but you can't change the mark that you've been given. And ultimately, you have to accept that and work out a strategy that is right for you to make sure that next time you prove yourself, you fulfil your potential, you achieve what you're capable of achieving.

Paul: Absolutely, I agree. And it's interesting. When we do this campaign are back on track to help students after a setback, I really do focus on the importance of reflecting and thinking back. But actually, it's as important, when you pass an exam, just to take that time out to reflect as well. We'll celebrate, but what have you done this time that has got you through the exam? And, therefore, what are you going to take forward?

Tom: Yeah, definitely. If you listen to the football managers after the match, when they've won, it's not about celebrating how brilliant they were, it’s actually, we needed to play better in the first half, and we conceded that goal. So, I like the idea that we reflect and learn lessons, not only when we do badly, and we think how we are going to improve, but actually we work out what our strengths are, and how we can do even better, because every exam is different. But you've got to take your same study skills and your same commitment going forward.

Paul: And these are absolutely doable exams, they were looking not for perfection, they were looking for competence. And once you get off on that good start, and with an exam or two under your belt, you've proved that you're capable of getting through these exams, you can try to create a snowball of success for you to continue on, and then that you've got something to reflect back on positively as well.

Tom: Yeah, they are doable, Paul, we have four diets a year, four exams a year. And I think sometimes students put too much pressure on themselves to do two exams in one sitting. And you can accidentally fall between two stalls. And there may be even a case for saying that you don't have to do an exam every sitting, you might take yourself and have a little break from your studies, have a little bit of time for your family and your loved ones, so that you sustain yourself on the journey. Qualifying as ACCA is not a sprint. It's a marathon. And you need to look after yourself. You need to be kind to yourself, you need to reward yourself and sometimes look back and say, How far have I come? Yes, I know there's more exams to go. I know I've got challenges ahead. But look what I've achieved, look where I am. And look where I'm going. And if you have a plan, if you have a motivation. And you can get your family and your friends around you to support you and not invite you around. Well, there's a bit of an opportunity there moment, isn't there? We're in the middle of Covid. Here we are in the UK in lockdown. And I know some of my students are saying to themselves, this is an opportunity that they want to take advantage of because there are no cinemas open. There are no pubs open. And yeah, there's a perhaps a little bit less commuting going on as well. So, there is an opportunity, and we have to take opportunities when they present themselves.

Paul: I agree. Now, Tom, I want to now focus on some basics, because we spent quite a bit of time talking about getting back on track after a failure and other topics. But just back to fundamentals. What are the key elements that will help students get ready for exam success?

Tom: It's a combination, you have to have the knowledge. So, you have to have studied the full syllabus. So, it's making sure that you are confident and competent about everything that is in syllabus. And then it's about being able to take that knowledge and apply it in an exam context. And that means exam practice. That means forcing yourself to do tests, so that when you come to the actual exam, you have rehearsed for it. When you go to the theatre, you know there's been dress rehearsals, when you watch a football match, you know they've done training, They are doing it, but they are preparing for the real thing.

Paul: So, a couple of questions to build on those thoughts. How many mock exams, would you suggest that a student should aim to take before the final performance, before the real exam?

Tom: I think during the tuition phase, and at the beginning of the revision phase, it's important to do individual exam questions to time, so that you're building up your confidence in doing individual questions or pairs of questions to time. There is certainly a benefit for doing a final mock exam a week, 10 days before the actual exam. And during the revision phase, or at the end of tuition, two. Yeah, could be three. But at least two.

Paul: I mean, I've been asked many times, by people, just that they have not got time to do a three hour exam. Is there any benefit in splitting it into two parts and doing 90 minutes and then doing 90 minutes on another day or later that day? Because that would enable them to do it? My reaction is, if you're telling me that you cannot create that three hour window, fin, do the two chunks, I’d rather you did them. Don't use it as an excuse not to do any. So a three hour mock exam will just be that final dress rehearsal for the real exam itself. But don't use an excuse that you can't find that window of time not to do these questions.

Tom: Yeah, I agree. I mean, you're perhaps doing individual questions to time during the tuition phase. But doing it over two evenings is fine. But you have to be strict with your time management, and you have to do your best question first. Just because the question is question one or because it’s Section A does not mean to say that you have to do that question first. You are an adult, you learn from doing these mock exams, what your personal Exam Strategy is. And if you like a particular topic, if you like a particular style of question, you should do that first. Half an hour, an hour into the exam, you should take a momentary break and say to yourself, things are going well. I'm on track, I have done my best question first, I've got marks in the bag, I'm not running late. You do not want to concede an early goal. You do not want to be stubborn, and do the first question and get stuck in a rut. And then after an hour, you're saying to yourself, oh, sugar, I'm running out of time. I don't think I've done that question very well. You're on the backfoot. You play rugby on the front foot. You tackle the exam with aggression. at the beginning, with your confidence, you make a good first impression to yourself, as well as to the marker.

Paul: And just picking up on that, each individual should make their own plan for the exam. And then they can execute their plan. They will do what's right for you do what works for you. But if you take that approach, if you take your best question first, it's critical that you keep to time that just because it's your best question, you don't then spend far longer on it because you like it.

Tom: Oh, absolutely. Paul, absolutely. You do that best question to time. Why do students fail exams? I mean, that's another whole podcast, isn't it? But one of the reasons is lack of time management, which is why you and I encourage students to do questions to time. If you've got two 20 mark questions, they both deserve 36 minutes, just because what is on your favourite topic? It is, in a 20 Mark question, quite difficult to get the 15th mark, and the 16th mark, you're on the law of diminishing returns. Whereas in the next question, which may not be on your favourite topic, you will know a definition, you will know something to right. And the first few marks at the beginning of a 20 mark question are going to be a lot easier to harvest. And so it is having that self discipline, that self awareness, you can say these things, I can say these things, my parents told me many things, which now as an old man, I realise are true. And that's because I've made those mistakes myself. And if you, as a student, can make those mistakes in the safety and comfort of a mock exam, you can take that into the real exam. And as we talked about, you reflect on your success. Think back on the exams that you smashed, think back on the exams that you passed, what did you do right to help you pass those exams? You have a track record of success, because no ACCA student gets to become an ACCA student without an academic background. And it's about getting through those exams, believing that you can do it, putting the work in understanding the motivation. I need to calm down.

Paul: On that note, Tom, we are really pushed for time now. And I think you're right, I think we could do another podcast quite easily on four or five different subjects if I'm honest. But we are out of time. So just to finish off, we always ask our last question, just to get a get to know you a little bit more. So Tom, what is your favourite place?

Tom: My favourite place is in Scotland, and we go every year. And it's the village that my wife's grandfather came from. And he emigrated at the beginning of the last century, and yet the clan gather every year. And it's a place called Nairn. And it's a beautiful little village and it gives access it's by the sea. And it gives me access to the west coast of Scotland. So I like nothing more than being in Scotland, amongst relatives who are second cousins, third cousins, who we see on our on an annual basis. It's a lovely retreat.

Paul: Tom, that's lovely. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for your insight. And thank you for joining our podcasts.

Tom: Thank you for inviting me.