Training focus: Online testing

17th June 2012


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Paul Suff discovers how IEMA's new entry exam for Associate membership differs from the open book assessment

From the start of July, environment professionals seeking an independent way to becoming Associate members of IEMA will have to sit an online exam rather than take part in the open book assessment (OBA), which has been the self-study route for the past 10 years.

The new, web-based Associate entry examination went live in May and is now the only way to achieve the Associate standard without taking a relevant training course with an approved training provider.

The introduction of online assessment coincides with major changes to the Associate certificate. Although the structure and content of the standard is largely unaltered, several key additions have been made to ensure it continues to raise competence and meet the needs of both environment professionals and employers going forward.

The main additions include ensuring Associates are able to: describe the main components of an environmental business case; explain the importance of environmental sustainability across an organisation’s value chain; and improve sustainability through influencing behaviour and implementing change.

To successfully pass the Associate entry exam, candidates will also have to be able to collect, analyse and report on environmental information and data, and to describe important ecosystems services.

The changes also link with IEMA’s skills map as the Institute’s professional standards manager, Claire Kirk, told the environmentalist in April: “We have aligned the Associate standard with the competence requirements outlined in the skills map for individuals fulfilling an operational role, making it very simple for anyone wanting to map out the knowledge that they need to achieve the Associate level against the job they are doing or want to do.”

A new way of working

The OBA typically involved candidates downloading the examination paper from IEMA and completing it over a 10-day period. Usually, they would not receive the results for at least four months.

This was not an ideal process, as Kirk explains: “Candidates would submit their answers in a variety of formats. And the 10-day window allowed candidates to go away and research answers before completing a specific question, but the point of the Associate standard now is that they have the necessary breadth of knowledge before taking the examination. And, naturally, people want to know as soon as is practicable how they’ve done, not wait four months!”

The online entry exam overcomes all of these potential drawbacks. Registered candidates simply log into the examination platform using their unique candidate number. It costs £122 and candidates have a 28-day window to complete the exam following receipt of a confirmation email containing their candidate number. Once they start, candidates have 2.5 hours to complete the exam, they cannot log off and return.

Like the OBA, the exam consists of 10 central questions based on the Associate standard. Candidates type their answers directly into the box below a question – the box automatically expands to accommodate their answer. When they are happy with their answer they move on to the next question, although not necessarily in the set one-to-10 order. An on-screen clock tells the candidate how much time has elapsed.

“Basically, candidates have 15 minutes per question, though some will take a bit longer and others a bit less,” explains Kirk.

Completed online exam papers are sent to the allocated examiner, who receives an email informing them that there is a paper to mark. The mark is validated by the chief examiner, Helen Manns (see below). And, rather than having to wait four months for their result, candidates will receive their mark within six weeks.

“The online system provides much more flexibility for professionals wanting to achieve Associate status,” Kirk says. “The OBA was only available three times a year. Now, the entry exam is available throughout the year, so, as long as you’ve got access to a computer connected to the internet you can take it at any time.”

Manns agrees. “Candidates now have the freedom to take the exam when it suits them, rather than have to wait for when the next OBA is available, when the timing may not be convenient.”

Another change is that candidates taking either the self-study (the online exam) or the training provider route to Associate status will both sit the same exam and have their papers marked by the central assessment team headed by Manns. Previously, training providers had set and marked their own exams.

“Centralising the process ensures uniformity, so every Associate meets the requirements of the standard irrespective of the route they took to achieve it,” says IEMA’s Kirk.

The only exceptions to the centralised exam and assessment are the applied learning route, where candidates also have to submit a portfolio of evidence, and some university courses, where the Associate certificate is delivered as part of a lower- or higher-degree course.

“Universities have their own quality assurance systems so are exempt,” explains Kirk. However, commercial Associate courses offered by universities that are not part of a degree course will be subject to the central examination and assessment process.

“The centralised exam and assessment will guarantee that we have equity across all routes to Associate standard,” comments Manns.

Preparation is everything

As Kirk acknowledges, one of the biggest differences between the OBA and the online entry examination is that candidates will no longer be able to research answers as they complete the exam; they will be expected to be ready before logging on to begin. “The important thing is that people are properly prepared before they start,” notes Kirk.

IEMA says candidates could spend up to 80 hours of independent study – depending on their level of existing knowledge – before attempting the exam. The Institute has put together a comprehensive suite of online documents and aids to assist in this knowledge-gathering process.

Online materials are arranged under several headings, including the environmental business case, the principles of change management, data management, main ecosystem services and environmental reporting and green claims. The information source will include pre-recorded presentations and links to useful resources. The IEMA’s professional development adviser, Victoria Douch, is also available to help.

“The questions are quite straightforward,” says Kirk. She explains that many are scenario-based, so candidates will have to relate their answers to how an organisation would deal with an issue under specific circumstances.

Examinees will be expected to reference relevant legislation in their answers and to include workplace examples wherever appropriate. Although there are 10 questions in total, some are split into more than one part. For example, the first part of a question may ask the candidate to describe either the carbon cycle or nitrogen cycle, while a second part may require an explanation of how human interventions impact natural cycles, with examinees asked to illustrate their answer with relevant examples.

As with the OBA, the online exam will contain at least one question specifically relating to legislation – although reference to legislation may be required when answering other questions.

Overseas candidates will have the option of answering the question on English law, if they feel sufficiently knowledgeable, or one relating to an international treaty and how it applies in their own country.

For example, whereas a UK-based candidate would answer a question on the key legislation governing hazardous waste in the UK and how an organisation can comply, an overseas candidate might have to explain the measures an organisation would have to take to comply with an international treaty or guideline on water.

Exam papers are selected from an extensive pool, so that two people registering for the exam on the same day will sit a different paper. The Institute is working with a body recognised by Ofqual – which regulates general and vocational qualifications in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland – to deliver the online assessment platform.

Professional development

Anyone who wants to become an Associate member of IEMA but does not wish to take the online exam or feel ready to undertake the necessary self-study can still take an Associate certificate course with one of the Institute’s approved training providers.

But with interest in IEMA’s environmental skills map rising and IEMA Associate membership increasingly becoming the industry benchmark for working in an environmental role, demand for AIEMA status is growing, and the new online entry exam will ensure IEMA can handle this growth.

“The new system will mean many more people can become Associates as long as they have the knowledge required to pass, ensuring Associate status becomes stronger in number and recognition,” says Kirk.

The marking scheme

Examiners appointed and trained by IEMA externally mark the Associate entry examinations. The chief examiner, Helen Manns (see below), leads the five-strong team of assessors. They apply rigorous standardisation procedures to ensure marks are awarded in a consistent manner so that all examination scripts are marked to the same standard.

Each question is worth 12 marks, so 120 marks are potentially available. Where there are two or more parts to a question, candidates will be able to see how many marks each is worth.

So, for example, a question asking the candidate to outline the main objectives of environmental auditing may attract up to six marks, while one relating to environmental risks of storing bulk chemicals on-site may be worth three. The marking scheme provides guidance to examiners on the marks to be awarded for each question or part question.

Candidates answering a question on the carbon or nitrogen cycle, for instance, will receive up to four marks for the first part and a maximum of eight for the second part.

To get all four marks for part A, they will have to provide an accurate description of the cycle, covering all of the salient features, and identifying the processes, sinks and pathways/transfers.

Top marks for part B will depend on whether the candidate accurately describes how human interventions impact on natural cycles, the examples used to show these interventions, and the depth or breadth of knowledge demonstrated.

Hazardous waste provides another example of how marks are allocated for answers to multi-part questions. Candidates will, for example, receive up to two marks if they successfully identify relevant legislation, such as the Hazardous Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2005 and the Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC; a further mark for identifying the appropriate regulator; and up to nine marks for describing how a company can comply with the legislation, and what actions to take to ensure it effectively manages its hazardous waste.

To achieve a pass, a candidate must score 72 out of 120 (60%). A candidate who has achieved a pass will have demonstrated satisfactory knowledge, understanding and application of environmental and sustainability issues at Associate membership level.

Results are reported as pass or fail. The candidate will also receive details of their total score, along with their mark per question. Self-study candidates may resit the examination by reregistering online, while training candidates are able to retake it after reregistering through their IEMA-approved training provider.

Step-by-step guide

  1. Members – or those applying for membership and registration at the same time – register for the Associate entry exam with IEMA. The exam costs £122.

  2. IEMA issues the candidate with a unique link to the online assessment, a login name and a password – which can be personalised at first login. These details will be delivered to the candidate’s nominated email address within 10 days of receipt of payment for the exam.

  3. A candidate then has 28 days to log in using their unique details, follow the on-screen instructions and complete the exam.

  4. There are 10 central questions (there may be more in total when taking sub-questions into account), which must be answered within 2.5 hours – in one sitting rather than in a number of short sessions that total 2.5 hours. An on-screen timer notifies the candidate of their available time.

  5. After the candidate has answered all 10 questions they have the opportunity to go back, check and amend any answers as long as there is still time remaining.

  6. A final screen offers the candidate one last view of their answers before they are invited to finish and submit their exam for marking.

  7. Their answers are sent securely to an assessor, who marks the exam against the set criteria and standard. The Associate chief examiner will then verify (or dispute as appropriate) the mark awarded before sending the result to IEMA for distribution back to the candidate within six weeks. Successful candidates will also receive a certificate and notice of their membership having been upgraded to Associate status. Unsuccessful candidates will be notified and advised of their options, including appeal and retaking the exam.

Helen Manns - chief examiner

Helen Mann is associate dean, region, external engagement and partnerships at Northumbria University, and will head the team of assessors for the new IEMA Associate entry exam. She has a BSc in environmental biology and an MSc in rural resource management.

An AIEMA herself, Manns has been an Associate assessor since 1999. She was a member of the group reviewing the standard, and is the education sector representative on the Institute’s North East regional steering group.

Manns’s environmental career spans the local government and higher education sectors, having first started as a parks department researcher for Sheffield City Council. She then moved to the council’s environmental health department where her role covered pollution control, air-quality monitoring and contaminated land.

In 1992, Manns became environmental policy officer at the newly formed Northumbria University. Her role included environment and waste management, and energy. She also helped to establish environment in the curriculum. Her move into academia occurred in 1999.

Prior to her new role as associate dean, Manns was head of division of environmental management at Northumbria and programme leader for its foundation degree in sustainable wastes and environmental management.


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