Cambridge B2 First (FCE): Paper-based vs Computer-based

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Paper-based or computer-based?

Many people find out pretty late that there even is a computer-based version of B2 First and it is quite often already too late to make the switch by the time they discover this. I thought it would be a good idea to let my readers know what the similarities and differences between the paper-based and computer-based exam are so you can make an informed choice:

  B2 First paper-based vs computer-based
Similarities 1. Registration process
2. Physical location for the exam
3. Delivery of the Speaking paper
4. Exam questions
5. Order of exam papers and breaks
6. Timing of the exam
7. Opportunities to take notes, highlight and underline
8. Marking
9. Price
10. Certificates
Differences 1. Space in the testing room
2. Technological advantages of the computer-based exam
3. Technological advantages of the paper-based exam
4. Listening exam
5. Checking your timing
6. Answer sheets
7. Submission of answers
8. Waiting period to receive your results
Similarities and differences between the paper-based and computer-based versions of Cambridge B2 First

As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing the best option for yourself. You don’t have to feel anxious about it because you’re in the right place. Let’s find out what exactly you need to look at before you make your decision and let’s look at the similarities and differences between the paper-based and computer-based versions of Cambridge B2 First.

Similarities

There are about ten major similarities when it comes to the paper-based and computer-based exams. Knowing them can help you relax a little bit as you will find out that the two delivery methods are not that different in the first place.

Registration process

Signing up for Cambridge B2 First works in the same way for the paper-based and the computer-based version and it happens in two steps.

  1. Find an exam centre near you as you can only register at an authorised Cambridge exam centre. There are over 2800 centres around the world so you should be able to find one in your city or at least close by. You can start your search for an exam centre by clicking HERE.
  2. Book your date at the exam centre of your choice. Please note that not every exam centre offers both the paper-based and the computer-based delivery method so check with them before you sign up.

Physical location for the exam

Even though computer-based sounds like you can relax at home and take the exam online, I have to disappoint you. Both exams are delivered in a central location and you have to be there in person in order to participate in the test.

Of course, you’re not going to be in a room where both types of exam are taken at the same time. The paper-based exam is usually taken in a larger venue with quite a lot of people together in a room, but there are specific distances between the desks while in the computer-based version you will find more people in a smaller space closer together as each person needs their own computer.

To sum up, both exams are taken in a physical location, but not in the same place. It depends on which delivery method you choose.

Delivery of the Speaking paper

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The Speaking paper in both delivery methods has to be done face-to-face. While other exams, such as Pearson’s PTE Academic, do absolutely everything in a computer-based setting, candidates in B2 First don’t have a choice.

As the full exam is fairly long, the Speaking paper might be moved to another day either before or after the rest of the test, and you always do it in person with a partner or in a group of three, depending on the total number of candidates on that particular day.

There are two examiners in the room with you and you follow the same sequence of tasks as the candidates who do the other sections of the test paper-based.

You can learn more about the B2 First Speaking paper by reading my article on the topic. I give you all the information you need to understand it better, learn useful language and ace the test.


>>> Find out everything you need to know about B2 First Speaking <<<


Exam questions

This is something I have been asked many times and it confuses a lot of students as many people seem to believe that there are differences between the paper-based and computer-based exams in terms of tasks and questions.

Let me assure you that no matter which delivery method you choose, the tasks and questions are exactly the same. The exams are even held on the same day in order to make sure that nobody can give the answers to the public or anything crazy like that.

I have written an article on the exam and how it is generally structured, what kind of questions to expect, and other technicalities in a separate article which you can check out by clicking the link below.


>>> Learn everything you need to know about Cambridge B2 First <<<


Order of exam questions and breaks

B2 First follows a specific order in which you go through the different test papers. First of all, there are five papers, but they are examined in only four blocks:

  1. Reading and Use of English
  2. Writing
  3. Listening
  4. Speaking

You can expect the first three to be tested in that same order with Speaking being the exception. As the exam, including all the breaks, takes quite some time, Reading and Use of English, Writing and Listening are typically done on the same day while Speaking is commonly scheduled on a separate day.

With all that being said, the schedule for the paper-based and the computer-based exams are exactly the same. You have the same time to complete all the tasks and even the break times are identical.

Opportunities to take notes, highlight and underline

One of the main concerns many people have when considering their options is if they can take notes during the computer-based exam the same way they would be able to in the paper-based delivery method.

To make it short, yes. You are provided with note-taking paper even if you do the computer-based version of B2 First, and you have to leave that paper in the room at the end of each part of the exam.

However, I have to add that there are certain differences to highlighting and so on that come with working on a computer, but I’m going to mention those in the following section on all the differences between the paper-based and computer-based tests.

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Marking

The marking in both delivery methods of B2 First works exactly the same. There are no magical computer examiners that use their artificial intelligence to mark your writing or anything like that.

It doesn’t matter if you take the exam paper-based or computer-based, the examiners and people who correct your tests are the same. There aren’t any specific rules because you take one or the other test either, just the exact same method.

This guarantees fair treatment of all candidates so your results never differ from someone who took the other version of B2 First so you can stop worrying and start focussing on your preparation. 🙂

Price

As far as I can tell, there are no real differences when it comes to the price of the computer-based and paper-based exams, but I have heard that some exam centres charge their candidates a little bit more for the computer-based test.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the reason for this might be other than the centres trying to offset the cost of electricity and purchase of all the equipment, but I may well be wrong.

Make sure to check if there is a difference at all at the centre of your choice, but even if so, I don’t think it would be a lot more expensive.

Certificates

I get often asked if there are specific certificates that state which delivery method you’ve chosen, but I can assure you that that’s not the case. Whichever test you decide to take, the certificate looks exactly the same.

B2 First Certificate
Example of a B2 First certificate

As you can see, there is no mention of the delivery method. Paper-based and computer-based are completely equal in this regard.

Differences

Now that we’ve had a look at all the similarities between the paper-based and computer-based delivery methods of B2 First, it is time to see how they are different. I hope that this knowledge will help you to make in informed decision once you understand the two delivery methods a little better.

Space in the testing room

The first point is not about the exam itself as it has nothing to do with the design of the exam, any strategies or even the marks, but I still think that it might be interesting to some people.

The paper-based test usually takes place in a large room with all the desks and chairs arranged in a very specific way outlined by Cambridge. There are exact distances between the individual work stations to ensure that candidates are unable to copy from each other or cheat during the exam in any way.

The rooms for the computer-based exam, however, don’t normally offer that much space. Instead, the computers are placed much closer to each other with a little dividing wall between desks. For most people, this is not an issue, but I have spoken to candidates who felt a little crammed in and, therefore, slightly uncomfortable.

So, if you are someone who loves their elbow room, the paper-based exam is the right choice for you, but if you don’t mind, you could be happy with either choice.

Technological advantages of the computer-based exam

With a computer as the platform for the exam there are certain advantages and disadvantages as to how B2 First is conducted and it also gives you some powerful abilities you don’t have when you take the test on paper.

First of all, the possibilities for note-taking and highlighting parts of the different texts can be really useful and are easy to apply. While you need to do everything by hand with your pen or pencil in the paper-based test, you can simply highlight important information in the computer-based version the same way you would online or in your text editing software. It is straightforward and can save you quite a bit of time.

The second major advantage of working on a computer is the ability to edit your writing texts with ease. You can erase text or move individual parts around without having to use a piece of rubber and, therefore, submit a much cleaner-looking piece of work compared to a handwritten text that contains crossed-out sections, arrows and rubber marks.

Technological advantages of the paper-based exam

Even though all of this sounds amazing, there are, unfortunately, certain technological disadvantages to the computer-based exam as well.

The first one might seem small and almost irrelevant, but it is one of the central strategies that I teach my students in my preparation classes. The technique I’m talking about is the elimination of answers. When working on paper, it is easy to cross out an option that we know is incorrect. This can then help us focus on the remaining possibilities and minimizes distraction. In the computer-based exam, this feature doesn’t exist. You have to look at these useless and incorrect answer options all the time without the feature to cross them out…definitely something Cambridge should think about introducing to the computer-based exam in the future.

Another problem that might come up are issues with the computer itself or the software the exam runs on. Of course, the chance of this really happening is not very high, but Cambridge even mentions what to do if you find yourself in tech-trouble. For some candidates, this might be a no-no so they should probably stick with the paper-based exam.

Listening exam

You might think right now, “Wait! You’ve already told me that there are no differences in test design”. The thing is you’re right. I did and I stand by it. The Listening exam in the computer-based and paper-based exams is exactly the same – same questions, same timings, same everything.

However, there is one huge difference that is often overlooked, ignored and/or underestimated. It is so big that some candidates choose the computer-based exam only for this reason.

The detail I’m talking about are headphones. In the computer-based test, each candidate gets their own pair of headphones to listen to the recordings while in the paper-based version there is a central sound system somewhere in the room.

Many candidates complain about the poor sound quality or volume so headphones can really be a game-changer. You get the best sound possible at no extra cost – that sounds like something worth thinking about.

To find out more about some of the biggest issues with the listening exam and how to avoid it, follow the link below.


>>> How to identify and deal with listening distractors <<<


Checking your timing

This one might be just a minor issue during the exam, but for some people it is very important to always have their timing under control. They want to check a clock every few minutes to make sure they are on track so they need access to some kind of time-measuring device throughout the exam.

In the paper-based test, there is usually a clock somewhere in the room so you need to re-direct your attention slightly each time you want to see how many valuable minutes you’ve got left in any particular paper.

The computer-based exam comes with this tiny little feature that can be the difference maker for some people. On your screen, there is a clock that you can check at any time so there is no need for you to look up from your test to find the clock that’s somewhere on the wall. Instead, you look in the corner of your screen and there you have it.

This could definitely save you time and keep you focused and that’s why it is worth considering when you make your choice for or against any of the two delivery methods.

Answer sheets

When you take the paper-based exam, there is an answer sheet that comes with every section of the exam.

B2 First - Example answer sheet
B2 First – Example answer sheet

You have to transfer all your answer onto these answer sheets as these are the only pieces of paper that the examiners looks at when marking your test.

Transferring your answers takes time and can make a real difference, especially when you get into time trouble. Not only could you run out of time and not get every single answer transferred fast enough, but you might also make mistakes in the process and lose valuable marks simply by choosing the wrong option.

This is where the computer-based exam gives you a huge advantage. There are no answer sheets as everything is saved and stored on the computer you are working on. Therefore, you save around five minutes in Reading & Use of English, which can be the deciding factor over passing or failing.

So, think very carefully about it. If you are a person who always needs every last minute in exams, the computer-based B2 First test might be the right choice for you.

Submitting your answers

Related to the previous point is the way your answers are submitted to Cambridge. If you put your answers on paper, those answer sheets are then sent off and eventually land on an examiner’s desk.

The computer-based exam streamlines that whole process by transferring all your answers electronically to a secure server which the examiners have access to.

Again, the computer-based exam comes out on top in this comparison as the whole process is faster.

Waiting period to receive your results

Last but not least, if you are in a hurry and need your results as fast as possible, you should consider taking B2 First on a computer.

While paper-based candidates receive their results after 4-6 weeks, it only takes 2-3 weeks for those who choose the computer-based route. This is a considerable difference which makes many people think carefully if the possibly cheaper price of the paper-based exam justifies the longer waiting period.

Now it is up to you to decide

I hope that this article will help you with your decision between the computer-based and paper-based version of Cambridge B2 First. It all comes down to your preferences as well as the availability of the computer-based delivery method. Not every test centre offers both, but the advantages can be so compelling that a little extra drive to a centre further away seems to be worth it.

As a final little bonus, you can have a look at this tutorial to get a glimpse at the computer-based exam.

Lots of love,

Teacher Phill 🙂

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