IEMA Certificate in Environmental Management (PIEMA) Assignment Writing Guide

Everything you need to know to complete your PIEMA assignments succesfully

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Looking back through my records for this article, I was surprised to discover that I have marked well over 400 PIEMA papers in the past 4 years.

Over that time, I have seen the good, the bad, and even, occasionally, the ugly of assignments!

Although no two papers are the same, there are some prevalent themes that I have seen over that time; the same typical errors, the same common structural issues, the same common word count problems (either too many or too few!) and of course the same standard good features as well!

As you start your journey to IEMA Practitioner membership, this article will share my experiences and insights and make life easier for you and, in some cases, less frustrating for me as a marker by helping you submit the perfect paper!

Common PIEMA Assignment Writing Mistakes

It is fair to say that across many of the papers I have marked, some common themes cost delegates marks and can even make the difference between a pass and a fail.

Here are the common themes; don’t let these mistakes affect your chances of success:

Not Using Enough of the Word Count

The Assessment Guidance provides a word count for each question.

Now, you don’t have to use all of it to meet the marking criteria if you are succinct and your answer is well structured (more on that later!). However, you will have to use a significant amount of them in all cases to get the required level of detail into your answer and get top marks.

Each ten-mark question has a 700-word limit, and the fifteen-mark questions have a 1000-word limit, and you need to work towards the top end of that ideally (don’t go over the limit, though (more on that later as well!)).

From experience, the best-scoring answers are usually within 10% of the limit; any less than that, and you will likely have missed something.

References Not Included

Remember that the word count does not include your references or any text integral to a diagram. Still, any words you add to a diagram (including a title) and any words in a table should be included in the word count.

You can pass a question and squeeze into the top marking range with fewer words than that, but you most likely won’t get the very top marks.

If you drop below 25% of the total, your chances of getting into the top marking range are remote; your answer will need more detail to address the marking criteria fully.

Not Addressing the Marking Guide Criteria

This can be linked to the ‘word count issue’ already discussed. It is always best to use the word count to your advantage, ensuring you provide the detail necessary to meet all the requirements in the marking guide criteria.

However, even if you have used all the word count, there is a chance that you still won’t get the top marks if you haven’t addressed all of the marking guide requirements.

I advise my delegates that when they have finished their answers, they should go back and check that they have covered all of the upper-tier marking guide requirements precisely and unambiguously.

If you can pinpoint where you have covered the requirements, it will be easy for the marker to see that you have covered them and award a top-tier answer.

It is frustrating for markers when they must dig to find where you have touched on the requirements in your answer. If you can clearly articulate how your answer hits the mark, it will be easy for your marker to award the top marks.

Poor Structure

Another common theme is that you have a relatively small number of words (honest, even 1000 words is not many for some of the questions!) for each question. Therefore, you need to get as much relevant information as possible into the answer to meet the marking requirements with as little superfluous material as possible.

This means that you need to plan out your answers. Should you convey your information using a traditional essay style, subheadings, bullet points, or a table?

Consider all those options for the various questions, as no one size fits all. Don’t think that you have to answer each question as an essay!

You will find that some answers will suit being tabulated (a legal register or PESTLE analysis, for example) as it means you can cram as much detail as the word count allows without superfluous conjunctions and punctuation.

Use Subheadings

Subheadings can work well for some questions, particularly when addressing a topic with multiple, distinct parts, e.g., ecosystem services, the five capitals, or questions that ask for five barriers or risks.

Subheadings help to clearly differentiate between the different parts of your answer and help the marker to see that, for example, you have identified the five barriers asked for in the question.

Too Many Words

The final common error, which is again very frustrating for the marker as they hate having to dock marks that you have worked hard to gain, is to exceed the word count.

The word limits on the questions are absolute. The assessment guidelines state that ‘if the delegate exceeds the word count, then marks should be deducted’—this is pretty definite!

Although the odd word over may not attract a penalty, the only way to be assured of not losing marks then is to stay within the word count!!

Penalties range from 5% for up to 20% over to a zero mark for the question for going 30% over. The penalties can be the difference between a pass and a fail, so stick to 700 or 1000 words, please!!

Module 1 Specifics

The four module 1 questions are all 1000 words, 15 markers.

Question 1 (i)

Question 1 (i) is comprehensive and has many ways to answer. Still, you must read the question and marking criteria carefully before you start to avoid wandering down the rabbit holes that such a broad question can lead you down.

Focus on the concepts of sustainability and the three pillars, consider the drivers for increasing consumption and the impacts of that increasing consumption on the three pillars of sustainability.

Incorporate the planetary boundary concept into your answer and use specific global examples to illustrate what increasing consumption does to those boundaries.

Also, consider the social and financial impacts and include a section on the benefits of increasing consumption for top marks. All this in 1000 words!!

Question 1(ii)

Question 1(ii) is specific and focuses on the 5 capitals model.

Introduce the capitals at the start of each section and then use the case study clues(water, solar energy, etc.) to discuss how Zam Zam can specifically contribute to them in this case, i.e., what they could actually, practically, do in terms of initiatives at the site.

For top marks, clearly state the benefits to Zam Zam and the local community for each capital. It would be best to ensure the initiatives are in the right places, e.g., keep human and social capital initiatives distinct.

Question 2(i)

Question 2(i) concerns the SDGs and asks you to select some to focus on in a business strategy.

For this one, you need to introduce the SDGs and their goals and then discuss an approach to applying them in the first year.

Then, you need to pick out, ideally, at most 4 or 5 goals (or you will just run out of words) and discuss why you have selected them and then what you would do to take them forward, including initiatives, comms, reporting, etc.

Please DO NOT mention that you already have a strategy and these are part of it or that you already do this, as this is covered explicitly in the marking guide. These should be a new critical assessment of the SDGs relevant to your business.

Question 2 (ii)

Question 2 (ii) examines five barriers to implementing the strategy. The best approach is to focus on higher-level barriers rather than the specifics for each SDG you identified above.

Make sure you cover governance and economic issues in your answer. Calling them out as specific barriers means you only have three more to find! The other 3 can be operational, technological or people-related.

You must clearly discuss how you would overcome the barriers, perhaps introducing change management techniques if appropriate for top marks.

Module 2 Specifics

The module questions are all 700 word, 10 markers split into 2 sections.

The first section focuses on ecosystem services and natural cycles using the construction of a railway as a case study.

Question 1 (i)

Question 1 (i) asks you to identify the impact of the construction of tracks, access roads, stations and freight management facilities on three ecosystem services: regulating, provisioning and cultural.

This question lends itself well to either a table or three subsections. Ensure that you include plenty of relevant examples and the links between the activities and the impacts, and include positives and negatives.

I would like a brief definition of ecosystem services in the answer to demonstrate that the delegate understands the concepts for the very top marks.

Question 1 (ii)

Question 1 (ii) focuses on natural cycles and asks you to discuss the impacts of railway construction and operations on one of them (make sure you cover both in your answer!).

You don’t have to fully describe the cycle in your answer, but a brief introduction is helpful. Include plenty of examples of railway construction and operations stages, and use the clues in the case study (mangrove swamps, etc.) to talk about their impacts on the cycle.

Again, you need positives and negatives in your answer for top marks!

Please refrain from answering part (iii) of question 1 by discussing how to mitigate the issues. This is a common mistake.

Question 1 (iii)

Question 1 (iii) links to part (ii) and asks you to discuss how the railway construction and operational phases could be modified or managed to reduce negative impacts on the natural cycle.

You need to identify a range of management practices that would effectively reduce negative impacts on the natural cycle, e.g. input of pollutants or conservation of resources.

So, all you have to do is to discuss a range of things that would reduce the impacts on the cycle!!

Think about the answer to part (ii) and what they could do practically to reduce the impact. For very top marks, include some specific examples to illustrate your answer.

Question 2 (i)

Question 2 (i) asks you to develop a legal register for a road construction company covering waste, energy, carbon, and wildlife, with two pieces in each section. This has to be tabulated!

The legislation is listed in your workbooks, and all you need to do is pick two bits for the first column of each of the three sections and discuss why it applies to a construction company in the second column.

In the third column, you need to provide an overview of the practical compliance steps the company needs to take to comply with the requirements.

Note that you need to check the up-to-date references for each piece of legislation, as some of the legislation in your workbook has been updated since it was written!

Question 2 (ii)

Question 2 (ii) asks you to discuss the legislation applicable to a construction company covering air, land, water and nuisance.

Start with these four subheadings and then discuss the relevant legislation. Ensure you get a good range in each section (i.e., more than one piece in each!!). Discuss briefly how the laws address pollution in practice.

It would help if you also had a short section on the legislation’s shortcomings for top marks.

Question 2 (iii)

Question 2 (iii) stays on the legal front. It asks you to explain how national and/or international policies and laws associated with lifecycle thinking can be applied to reduce the environmental impacts from material sourcing, manufacturing, waste generation, and energy consumption by organisations manufacturing electrical goods.

This is a very specific question and requires only the laws associated with electrical goods to be discussed, not other goods.

Structure is essential for this question. Your best starting point is to outline the lifecycle stages and then discuss the relevant legislation associated with them. Make sure to mention specific legislation and briefly discuss what they must do to comply.

A helpful tip is to look ahead a little. The module 3 workbook contains a useful diagram that can help answer this question!

Module 3 Specifics

Module 3 is a mixture of three 10-mark questions and two 15-mark questions.

Question 1 (i)

Question 1 (i) requires a PESTLE analysis of your organisation and a system for ranking the issues. Again, you must use a table; you can do it other ways, but it doesn’t work!

You need to identify factors in each of the five PESTLE categories (at least one for each, but don’t go mad, or you will run out of words!) and discuss how they might relate to the business’s environmental performance.

You then need to rank the factors using a system you have introduced; keep this simple to keep the word count down!

For top marks, you also need to briefly describe how (if applicable) the identified factors can be integrated into an ISO14001:2015 Environmental Management System; this can be brief, e.g. what section it could be considered in.

Question 1 (ii)

Question 1 (ii) requires identifying two environmental aspects with life cycle impacts and then writing a procedure to address one.

Ensure that you identify aspects, not activities and that the two elements are completely different.

It also helps to pick ‘chunky’ aspects with significant life cycle impacts so you have something to discuss.

Then, once you have done that, pick one of the aspects and draft a list of activities to address the life cycle issues you identified in the first part.

Question 1 (iii)

Question 1 (iii) requires you to identify the prominent challenges to organisational change from ISO14001:2015, including the role of leadership, awareness, lifecycle thinking and behaviour change, with a specific focus on the enhanced role of leadership in the standard and a change management approach that involves engagement of senior leaders as a priority.

This example also asks for a range of techniques relevant to managing change. This is quite a lot to fit into 700 words, so you need to be concise and precise in your answer!

You should address the four elements in the question and focus more on the enhanced leadership requirements in the standard.

The change management part does not require you to detail a specific change management tool but does need you to reference elements of one or more tools and how they can be used to address the challenges.

Question 2 (i)

Questions 2 (i) and (ii) are questions on auditing.

Question 2 (i) is a general question on how supply chain sustainability audits can help reduce risks from prosecution, pollution and reputational damage and identify opportunities for improved performance.

Start by defining auditing and how it works. Then, discuss how it can help reduce various risks, including those listed (and more), plus the continual improvement process.

Your answer must include several specific examples, i.e., use named companies and their processes, so some research is required!

Question 2 (ii)

Question 2 (ii) requires the development of an audit template for an environmental audit of a fabric manufacturer. It is an environmental audit template, so don’t include H&S or quality issues!

Identify the main environmental impacts associated with a fabric manufacturer and ask open questions about how they are managed, monitored, or controlled.

In the second column, include the evidence you would be looking for for each of the 12 questions you are asking.

For the evidence, assume that you are giving the template to an auditor, so be specific about what you are looking for and detailed enough to make it clear.


This guide will point you in the right direction, enabling you to complete the three assignments to a high level and avoid common pitfalls.

Upon successfully completing the three assignments, you will pass the certificate course, but you won’t automatically get the PIEMA designation. You must complete the personal paper demonstrating how you meet the IEMA competencies, but that is a paper for another day!

I hope that you enjoy the certificate course. Good luck!!

Picture of James Wyse
James Wyse
James is a Fellow Member of IEMA (FIEMA) and Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv). His approach is to use his experience to make the complex topic of sustainability more understandable and accessible. James shares his experiences on the TSW blog.
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