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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Summertime blues

So, it’s July.

Staring disconsolately at the orange book on my desk, I know that the dust having cheerfully settled on it in the last few months is going to transfer to my fingertips too soon.

Mr Motivator, I’m not. Apart from neon green spandex not being my thing (I am helpfully informed), it is difficult to accept that now is the time to start studying for my next exam. Of course, there will be those of you who can’t understand why I am not already starting my second read-through. Indeed, I have flicked through the odd chapter, but the fact remains — the doorstop of paper currently held in several lever-arch folders is still very crisp.

I have definitely lost the desire for manic study that sustained me for the first few sittings. I need help. I want to pass, of course, but I want to work less than previously to pass this sitting. Don’t gasp in horror, I am not naïve enough — or, sadly, smart enough — to think I can wing it. I’ll still need to work hard. I just need strategies that will reduce desk time while allowing a chance of passing. Inevitably, these will increase the risk of failure.

Discussing this with fellow students has dug up some ideas that will hopefully give me more time over the barbecue than last summer:
>> Ignore the Q&A bank. ActEd says that the Q&A bank is set at an easier standard than the exams, so why risk lowering your expectations?
>> Only read the core reading. This reduces reading time and, some would argue, makes the reading flow better.
>> Don’t answer questions in preparation. Read the model answer so you can recreate it.
>> Look at the topics covered in previous past papers and only focus on the most frequent. This avoids peripheral parts of the course.
>> Look at topics that have not come up for a while. Take a punt on them being revisited
>> Ignore the most recent past paper. Surely they’re not going to ask the same questions again?

Okay, confession time. I can think of more ways to cut study time but it’s easy to come up with counter-arguments to the points already raised. Underlying each rebuttal is the idea that there is no substitute for thorough and careful preparation. Now that I’ve burst that bubble, I can perhaps still motivate myself through the next few months of (full) preparation with a few well-chosen carrots.

It should be easy to think up suitable rewards: finish a past paper and have a Chomp (if I do well, a Curly Wurly); finish a Q&A bank, pop to the cinema or spend an hour on ‘Call of Duty’ (if you do not know what that is, it’s probably a good thing. Particularly at exam time).

Incentives should act to make my studying easier, right? Yes, except...

There was a study carried out to test the use of extrinsic rewards as a way of aiding motivation. In it, two groups of children were asked to draw pictures. One group would get small rewards for completing a drawing (the reward was extrinsic) and the other group got nothing when they completed a drawing (the activity itself was the reward, intrinsically).

The study found that, after a couple of weeks, the group that received the rewards became focused on receiving the next reward rather than actually drawing. The result was that they produced fewer pictures, more slowly and to a lesser standard than those for whom the activity was the reward in itself (Lepper et al, 1973).

I guess rewards are fine — I just need to be careful the reward does not overshadow the fact that each extra nugget of understanding and, ultimately, passing the exam is supposed to be the real reward. Maybe the best way to reward myself is to do it when I qualify. Like the person who, once qualified and went to Hong Kong for the weekend as a pat on the back. Now, where’s my suitcase?

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Matthew Welsh works as a GI reserving actuary for Zurich Financial Services

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The views in this article are those of the author and not the Profession