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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

No pain, no gain

Most of you would agree that the prospect of cracking open those blue and white leverarch files at the end of a hard working day is less than tempting. But is there a way to cut down the study load?

Every individual studying to become an actuary has a history of successful study behind them and knows what works best for them. Some like to trawl over all the details in the notes and build up a complete picture before revision — made easier by their rigorous approach. Others maraud through their notes as fast as possible, jettisoning anything with the word ‘proof’ in front of it, relying heavily on past papers to build up exam technique and learn the tricks. Most of us regard with envy those colleagues who, almost by magic, learn whole chapters of the syllabus in a fraction of the time. Wouldn’t it be great to be like them? There may be a way.

Learning vast amounts of exam material can be made easier through mnemonics. We’ve all been to at least one tutorial when a tutor has recommended to us a memorable phrase or sequence to help us recall, say, the 11 accounting principles of CT2. But ‘BRADMMCMCPG’, while providing the first letter of each of those concepts’ names, doesn’t tell you anything about them or what they are — so you’re still left with the slog of committing them to memory.

A more sophisticated method, preferred by ‘mentalists’ like Derren Brown, is the method of imagery. Brown suggests in his book, Tricks of the Mind, that to remember a list of items use an image that links one image to the next. For example, take a look at this list:

1 Telephone
2 Sausage
3 Monkey
4 Button
5 Book
6 Cabbage
7 Glass
8 Mouse
9 Stomach
10 Cardboard
11 Ferry
12 Christmas
13 Athlete
14 Key
15 Wigwam
16 Baby
17 Kiwi
18 Bed
19 Paintbrush
20 Walnut

Start off by thinking of trying to dial an old-fashioned telephone with a flaccid, uncooked sausage. Emphasise to yourself the cold feel of the sausage, and the impracticality of dialling with it. Now think of watching a documentary on a rare species of monkey, in the jungle, cooking a sausage over a barbeque. He’s a clever monkey; he even has next to him a collection of dips. Notice how easy it is to remember this: the links are far more memorable than the dry list of items in front of you.

The beauty of this is that no matter how long the list, with a little time invested you can remember with ease far more items than your working memory can handle. Could this technique, and others like it, make our exams easier to tackle?

Yes and no. Some lists can be easier to remember with this method. Actuarial exams, however, require remembering many abstract nouns or ideas (sensitivity analysis; call option). These things are inherently less memorable because they’re not concrete — it is harder to think of images for them. For the majority of the exams it’s hard to see how such methods apply at all — most CTs, for example, depend on a very different set of things to learn; the understanding and application of mathematical techniques to actuarial problems, not to mention the need to hone exam technique, which these methods do not.

Therein lies the problem. Ultimately actuarial exams demand more than just a good memory; they demand the ability to apply techniques and knowledge to problems. Being able to remember large lists is a part of this but really is subordinate to exam practice.

There’s still a lot for me to learn — when my CT2 results came through, I didn’t pass! So while these methods may be useful, I lie firmly in the camp of practice, practice, practice, which means picking up those blue and white files after work, and then ASETing all the way to the exam. Alas, no shortcuts for me...

Stephen Paines is a trainee actuary at the Government Actuary’s Department and will be taking on the role of student editor in 2010.

Student noticeboard
Are you a recent graduate who’s just entered the Actuarial Profession or do you know someone who is? The Actuarial Network at Cass (TANC) is holding a panel discussion on 22 October aimed at graduates entering the actuarial job market for the first time. The panel, consisting of student actuaries, newly qualified actuaries and actuarial employers will discuss study tips, and how to maintain a healthy work/life/study balance. For more information and to register for this event, visit www.cass.city.ac.uk/tanc and click on ‘News & Events’.