This June saw the first set of examinations based on the newly revised syllabuses. Steve Wallis will focus here on giving some feedback on the outcomes of these exams, knowing that students who are anticipating the examinations at this December’s or June 2014 sittings will be keen for any further guidance on the challenge that they face.

However, before getting into the detail of syllabus and examination changes it would be remiss not to remark on the greater change that was announced in the spring of the merger of IMIS with the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

In terms of the core focus of each institution within the spectrum of the IT / IS profession this strikes we as a remarkably ‘good fit’. Many of us are in any case Fellows or Members of both societies, and providing those of us with an IMIS background opportunities to progress within the combined body, perhaps as far as attaining Chartered status, must be a welcome development for IMIS students and members alike.

I am presently in discussion with the examinations team at the BCS about the details of administering the IMIS exams alongside their usual business of managing the BCS examinations and we will also be discussing the further promotion of the IMIS qualification offering.

These developments have the potential of raising the profile and standing of the IMIS qualifications to the benefit of all those thousands of individuals who hold these awards, our current student body, and of course students of the future who will sit IMIS examinations in the months and years to come.

Returning to the June exams, you will all recall that the IMIS syllabuses have been revised and students following IMIS courses over the past 12 months will have been studying and being taught on these new curricula. At Foundation level the material has been condensed into just three new modules, while at Diploma and Higher Diploma levels the existing modules have been overhauled and brought bang up to date to meet the needs of the profession today.

So there were no major changes in the Diploma and Higher Diploma, but rather incremental updating - the structure, the number of modules, in many cases the unit titles remained the same and familiar to students. But one element changed at all three levels - the nature and format of the examinations.

In fact IMIS had prepared students and Teaching Centres for the changing nature of the exams by its published guidance and the availability of sample papers in the new format.

However, it was clear from the student response to the June suite of examinations that students generally found them more of a challenge than they perhaps expected, and for the benefit of future students and those present students re-sitting exams in December or next June it may be worth me going through the changes and challenges of the new examination formats again in more detail.

Foundation level

Starting at Foundation level, which for the first time comprised a set of three multiple choice question papers with 30 questions per paper. There is a common misconception that somehow a Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) examination is easier than the challenge presented by a ‘normal’ exam - after all in an MCQ context the examination paper actually gives you the right answer, whereas in a normal question paper the candidate has to construct the correct answer entirely themselves.

Of course MCQ tests need to be used in appropriate contexts (and examining basic knowledge at Foundation level seems a very appropriate context). The questions also need to be well-constructed with an unambiguous ‘right’ answer and with three carefully chosen ‘wrong’ answers (known as distractors).

In fact the so-called ‘right’ answer may in fact be the ‘best’ answer while one or more of the distractors may not be completely wrong in the sense of being untrue but rather not as good a choice of response as the right/best option. Also the distractors are carefully chosen so that they are not so obviously wrong that they can be instantly dismissed by candidates effectively diminishing the difficulty of the question.

The answer options need to be appropriately constructed so that candidates do need to consider them all carefully all the options being and make a thoughtful choice. The IMIS examiners at Foundation level went to great lengths in compiling these questions and avoided ‘lazy’ answer options such as ‘none of the above’ and ‘all of the above’ which are sometimes found in less well-constructed MCQ tests.

A real challenge

Any thoughts that MCQ tests are somehow intrinsically easier were completely dispelled by the June results where it was abundantly clear that candidates had faced a real challenge and were by no means running away with untypically high scores across the board. Naturally, simply by chance and guesswork a candidates can get some MCQ questions correct without knowing the answers.

But this is taken care of in the establishment of the pass mark where a good deal of research underpins the methodology of equating the pass mark in a ‘normal’ paper to the number of MCQ questions that need to be correct in an MCQ paper in order to be equivalent.

This was applied to the June papers and a satisfactory set of results attained, though no doubt students will benefit from further practice and experience of tackling MCQs, with the June papers now providing this further revision opportunity for those taking December and next June exams at Foundation level.

Diploma and Higher Diploma

Now turning to the Diploma and Higher Diploma papers where the old-style ‘answer five of the following eight questions’ was replaced by a rubric that required all eight shorter questions in Part A of the paper to be answered along with three out of five longer questions in Part B.

Remember that the underlying rationale of taking this approach of including compulsory questions is to ensure that the IMIS examinations are compliant with Ofqual requirements that all Learning Objectives of a syllabus are examined - that explains the compulsory Part A of the papers with questions that do indeed span all the LOs of the units.

That aspect in itself has the potential to make the papers ‘harder’ for some candidates. Under the old ‘5 out of 8’ format students could, if they choose to, completely avoid substantial areas of the syllabus in the hope that the questions on the paper in the areas that they had studied would be answerable and enable them to clear the pass mark.

Anybody taking that approach with the new papers stands the risk of finding at least three and possibly four or five of the short questions beyond them, reducing the total possible mark attainable from Part A from 40 to something between 20 to 28 depending on the luck of the draw in matching the questions to the areas of the syllabus that they had studied.

Now assuming that on average none of us are perfect (a fair assumption?) then in those topic areas where students had understood and revised the material they would be unlikely to gain full marks and might be picking up 2 out of 4 or 3 out of 4 for their responses to each short question.

Examiners also reported that candidates had in general not put enough into the answers of Part A questions - they might be called ‘short’ questions but that does not mean that a short single-sentence answer will suffice.

To gain full marks may still require half a page, or more, response depending on the requirements of the question. Overall then in Part A candidates were not attempting sufficient number of questions and were presenting inadequate answers in many cases to those that they did attempt.

Part B should have been more familiar as with its ‘3 out of 5’ rubric and with the number of marks available being 60 it very closely resembles the old-style ‘5 out of 8’ format of previous papers.

However it goes without saying that choice is reduced: with only 5 questions rather than 8 previously there is a greater risk that your favourite topics may not appear on the paper, meaning that choice across the paper is reduced with students required to be more competent across the different syllabus areas if they are to prove successful.

The rewards

So the challenges for IMIS students are high and as ever I wish you every success in your efforts to clear the hurdles that you face.

But remember that now the rewards for your success are likely to be higher than ever with the association of IMIS with the BCS and the benefits, both reputational and practical in terms of membership opportunities, that that brings.

There is a very bright future ahead for IMIS students, IMIS Teaching Centres and IMIS award holders as they take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new BCS / IMIS association.