Syllabus of Basic Education
HINTS ON STUDY AND EXAM TECHNIQUES
Editor's Note: These hints do not include any material on which candidates will be examined, but are provided by members of the CAS Syllabus and Examination Committees to encourage candidates to do their best when sitting for CAS Examinations. This section has been updated many times over the years, most recently in 2010. It is based on the experience and advice of many people. An early version was prepared by James L. Clare for the Society of Actuaries and then G.D. Morison adapted it for the Casualty Actuarial Society.
Motivation is the single most important ingredient in learning—and in passing exams. Motivation suffers when candidates worry about or are preoccupied with personal matters or other problems. This suggests that candidates should keep the studying for the exam at the very top of their lists of priorities, and should always have a constructive attitude about their studying. In particular, candidates should approach the exam as an opportunity to enhance their knowledge and understanding of actuarial science, rather than as an obstacle in their paths to membership in the CAS.
Motivation is increased by incentives, such as the following:
- Passing actuarial exams requires many hours of study—more for some people and less for others—but often more than many candidates realize. Putting in enough hours can actually save a candidate time. Suppose, for example, that mastering the syllabus for one exam will take a candidate 400 study hours, and that a candidate only puts in 300 hours and fails the exam the first time. He or she then puts in an additional 300 hours and passes the exam the second time. That candidate will have spent 600 hours, when by studying 400 hours the first time around, he or she would have saved 200 hours, not to mention passing sooner. It is recommended that candidates decide for themselves how many hours they really need to study, and then do that much studying—the first time around.
- Candidates can increase their motivation level by regarding the exams as a stepping stone to greater responsibility at their places of employment, to opportunities for getting more done on their own, and to greater results and rewards from their work.
- Candidates can also increase their motivation through sufficiently intensive and sustained study so that they come to appreciate more fully the fascination of the various subjects, and the interrelationships between them. A number of doctors, educators, executives, and human resources professionals agree that motivation can be greatly increased by having a goal in mind. Candidates must determine their goals and keep them in mind.
It has been proven many times in various countries, both by individuals and by controlled groups, that improved study and exam techniques can strengthen a candidate's mastery of a subject and increase his or her exam scores significantly. Provided that the candidate is motivated and spends enough time studying, techniques such as those given here often make the difference between failing or passing an exam.
Each person has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, so candidates are advised to work out their own personal sets of techniques which will work best for them. What follows are merely suggestions to help candidates in getting started in building up their own techniques.
It is easy to underestimate the effort that is required because substantial changes may be needed to switch from college or university life to successful study of actuarial exams.
University courses often do much to smooth the path for students with lectures, personal contacts, organized places of study, and a focus on learning.
By contrast, actuarial candidates must work a great deal on their own to reach their goals. Much actuarial studying is normally fit in after a full day's work, or is done on a weekend when one's friends are free to do as they please. Making adequate time available for studying requires sustained self-discipline and is a purely individual and personal responsibility.
Schedule of Study
There is only one substitute for hours of study time omitted one week—at least as many additional hours of study in another week. An unavoidably "necessary condition" for success in studying (though not necessarily "sufficient condition") is simply spending enough total hours studying.
Candidates must decide how many hours in total they need to study. Then they need to set out their schedules in writing, specifically stating the weekday evening and weekend periods allocated to studying. They then should total the number of hours made available. If the total hours scheduled are less than the total hours necessary, candidates should expand their schedules until they at least have equaled the required total time plus an additional cushion for absorbing time that will inevitably be lost along the way on account of illness, work pressures, etc.
Then candidates should fit all the segments of the syllabus into their schedules so that they will thoroughly cover all the learning objectives, knowledge statements, and readings in good time before the exam, with time left over for a thorough final review. It is important for candidates to spread their time over the entire syllabus in some deliberate way, for example, in proportion to the pages of reading material on the syllabus or to the range of weight given to the material.
It is not appropriate to assume that certain parts of the syllabus will not appear on the exam either because of historical precedent or because of the range of weight given to the material.
Candidates may find it helpful to study several subjects within an exam, or all of them, in parallel. This gives them more variety each week, and may give them a combination of both study that is more appealing and study that requires greater effort and concentration. Particularly demanding study may be best left for weekends when candidates are less fatigued from regular work.
It is a good idea for candidates to keep a record of the hours they spend studying. Even if candidates are completely confident that they know the syllabus before putting in their required total hours, there is much to be said for carrying out the full schedule and completing the total time quotas.
As part of human nature, our memories forget facts and ideas most rapidly during the time immediately following our study of them. For a given number of study hours, therefore, candidates will remember more if they review promptly and frequently. It is recommended that candidates review what they have learned as part of ending their study for the day.
Before reading a paper or section of text, candidates should scan the section for titles, headings, subheadings, and topic sentences to get the general idea, paying attention to graphs, charts, and diagrams. They should read the summary at the end of the paper or chapter and look for leading questions and exercises at the beginning and at the end.
After the initial skim, candidates should read through the entire material one section at a time for the main ideas, and not worry if the reading is relatively slow. Technical reading is challenging and requires more careful processing. Although it is tempting, candidates may want to avoid taking detailed notes at this time, but rather focus on understanding the material. Taking notes at this point may not be an efficient technique—candidates may take down too much information or simply copy information without understanding. If a section is difficult to understand, candidates should mark it to review in a later pass.
As each section or paper is completed, candidates should paraphrase and write down just the main ideas in their own words without looking at the source material. Putting the information in one's own words forces one to become actively involved with the material. It helps improve retention, and forces attention to those items that are not really understood and require further study. While the extent of a candidate's notes will be a matter of his or her own personal tastes, taking thorough notes will be a good investment of time for most people. Upon reviewing their notes, if candidates find gaps in their knowledge or in their understanding, they should bear down on those areas and master them.
As they begin their next study session, candidates should review what they learned the last time and what they learned during other recent sessions. Then they can recall points they have learned during odd spare moments in between study sessions.
In their study for the mathematical sections of the exams, candidates are advised to work out as many examples as possible in order to acquire facility in the application of the mathematical principles and methods to specific problems.
Candidates should note the considerable emphasis in actuarial exams on knowledge. They should remember, however, that the best way to learn facts by heart is to understand the whole subject, and to tie together ideas that are related. They should look at any single subject from several different angles, relating what they learn to what they know already. Candidates should look for as many connections as they can between their actuarial work and their actuarial studies.
Another study technique candidates might want to try is to test themselves as they go along. They can review previous exams when they start to study to get an idea of the mastery of the syllabus expected. Candidates can also take these as "trial exams" to help them in testing their knowledge and understanding of the course of reading, and in improving their exam speed and confidence.
Some candidates deliberately test themselves; others prefer not to do so. Candidates should expect a gradual gathering of momentum as they begin their study for a particular exam. By keeping at it, according to their plans, candidates will find their rate of progress speeding up after the first few weeks.
When a candidate finds himself or herself getting very "stale," one possibility is to stop studying altogether for, perhaps, three days. Then the candidate should continue on with his or her study plan, no matter how he or she feels, for at least the next month or six weeks. A candidate's study plan should have enough spare time available in it to allow for such occasional "down time." Following a mixed schedule, with a weekly combination of subjects that the candidate likes and subjects that he or she finds difficult, will help to minimize staleness.
Discussing the syllabus with friends taking the same exam, or with others who have passed the exam, will help candidates remember the material firmly and understand it. It also helps candidates to realize their own gaps and difficulties. If effective study circles, online forums, and review courses can be found, they will give candidates a different slant on the subject, give them a chance to review and to practice, keep them moving through the syllabus, and help to combat lethargy and self-satisfaction.
It is important for candidates to leave time for a thorough final review before the exam. In the last three or four weeks before the exam, candidates should use practice exams to simulate the exam experience as closely as possible, while keeping in mind that they need to be able to pass any set of exam questions which has been drawn from the syllabus.
When taking the practice exams, candidates should set up a clean, distraction-free space and allow plenty of uninterrupted time. Candidates should develop a plan for how to answer the questions. One strategy is to determine a time limit for each point and stick to it. If there are 80 points on the four-hour exam, allow about two and a half minutes for each point, leaving time for review at the end. When the time is up for one question, move on to the next question. Incomplete answers may be completed during the review time.
Candidates are responsible for mastery of the learning objectives and knowledge statements in the syllabus and the associated readings that pertain to these learning objectives and knowledge statements. Simply relying on seminar notes, past exams, or on material from review courses or online forums may leave a candidate missing salient and important knowledge necessary to obtain maximum points on the exam.
Candidates can definitely improve their speed and mastery by seriously practicing sample exam type questions before the exam. It helps to have a good understanding of the subject material. Candidates can also develop valuable shortcuts, such as eliminating impossible answers by checking out boundary conditions, by inspecting other aspects of certain suggested solutions, or by substituting numerical values and cutting out some answers. Since questions are varied, candidates will need a variety of techniques to cope with them.
In a multiple-choice exam, candidates increase their chances of passing if they are able to seriously attempt each question on the entire exam at least once. It may help them to determine the proportionate number of questions to answer in the first half-hour of the exam, to check how much ground they cover in that time, and then accordingly either speed up, or slow down and dig more deeply.
When pressed for time, it may pay for candidates to omit a few multiple-choice questions that they expect to take more time than average, so as to have time for a larger number of more quickly answered questions. For example, a cluster of questions may have a common introduction that a candidate does not readily grasp, in which case he or she might skip the entire cluster at a first attempt.
Candidates may find it helpful to keep a list of the number of the questions not answered so that they quickly can get an idea of how many they are omitting. This will allow the candidate to quickly return to these questions. Candidates should change their answers only if they are sure that their first solution was wrong.
Constructed Response Questions
The model response to the typical constructed response (e.g., essay style) question depends on the level of knowledge that the question is asking the candidate to demonstrate.
For non-calculation questions, there are typically three levels of information that may be tested: a deep understanding of the material, an average understanding of the material, or a concise understanding of the material.
The "action" verbs of each question (e.g., explain, identify, describe, determine, etc.) are chosen very deliberately by question writers to instruct the candidates how to answer the question in order to demonstrate the required mastery of the learning objective(s) that the question is testing. Very often, the question writer will add an adverb before the action verb, most notably the adverb "briefly." This one simple word means a great deal to both the question writer and the grader. Just as importantly, the absence of this word means a great deal to the writer and the grader.
The verbs and adverbs used, or not used, and the point values assigned to each question and subpart provide cues to how the candidates are expected to answer each question. A typical key for any exam follows this rubric:
- "Brief" descriptions, discussions, etc., are worth ¼ point, so candidates should respond concisely, but with clarity regarding what is being communicated.
- (Unmodified) discussions or descriptions are worth ½ point, so candidates should provide a more in-depth response with more detail compared to a question that asks for a brief response, but typically not more than one-half of a written page.
- Full descriptions or discussions are worth at least 1 point, so candidates should provide a detailed and thorough response in order to ensure that they demonstrate strong mastery of the relevant topic
For questions that require candidates to work a numerical solution, candidates should take the time to set up the problem so that they document their understanding. They should set forth relevant equations or formulae, then enter appropriate values. They should lay out complicated calculations in tables that demonstrate their understanding of the correct solution. If the candidate needs to set forth further assumptions to answer the question, these assumptions should be provided and explained. If a candidate is pressed for time, then setting up the response and walking through how it would be calculated will earn the candidate partial credit on the question despite not having punched the numbers on the calculator to get the final answer.
Candidates should keep each answer relevant to the precise question being asked. They should make sure they first understand exactly what is wanted before they begin to answer a question. When they have written part or all of their answer, they should take another look at the question and make sure they have answered—not their own question—but the question as set on the exam page.
If a candidate believes that a question is ambiguous, or that it does not provide all the information necessary to answer the question, the candidate should state how he or she interprets the question and/or what assumptions are made to answer it.
Candidates should take time to write legibly, since examiners can only give credit for what they can read. They should try to "organize" their answer. Then, their aim should be to get down sufficient relevant detail given the question's scope and available time.
There is no advantage to answering the questions in any particular order. Candidates may answer the questions in the order given if they wish.
Candidates are given a 15-minute reading period prior to the exam at which point the candidate can quickly read over the whole paper and determine their ideal test taking approach. For example, candidates may wish to start on questions that come easily to them, then gradually work into the questions they find more challenging, and end on a question that they think can be answered readily even though, by that time, their energy and concentration may be falling off.
Note that since each question is graded separately, each answer must be self-contained. Candidates should not write, "Part of my answer to question 3 is found in my answer to question 1."
It is important that candidates remember that they have limited time. Candidates will find that it is worth checking their progress to assure that they have an opportunity to respond to every question. If they know that a question will take too much time, they can pass it and return to it later, if time permits.
Candidates should never give up in the examination room. They should use every minute and every second of the available time. They should not "grade their own papers," and decide not to hand in an answer to a question or two because they feel it is all wrong. They should hand in all of their answers, and let the examiners do the grading. More than one candidate has not handed in some answer pages which he or she had condemned in his or her own mind, only to find out later that the work was correct, and to find out still later that he or she had narrowly failed to pass.