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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Points of view

On a cold Tuesday evening in January I unchained myself from my desk and dragged myself up to Staple Inn to hear the talk that Trevor Watkins gave on ‘Exams from the examiner’s point of view’. With the fellowship looming large, I decided I needed all the help I could get and besides, it was a good excuse to leave work before 9pm, which had been quite a rarity over the past few weeks.I arrived at just after 5.40pm for a 6 o’clock start and was quite taken aback. The main hall was already full to the rafters and that dim hope of a choccie biccie and a nice cup of tea beforehand quickly faded. The biscuits were finished a long time ago. Oh well, might as well go and find a seat then - but even that was quite a task. It was literally standing room only by the time the session was opened.Trevor started off telling us about the administration of exams to give us all a feel for what a huge task the team has. With students sitting exams in 180 centres in 80 countries it’s a wonder things don’t go wrong more often than they do. The lengths the examiners go to make sure that the paper is fairly and correctly set are quite impressive. I’ve been a Student Consultative Committee (SCC) rep for longer than I care to remember and even I learnt something. Did you know that each exam paper is guinea-pigged not once but twice? I didn’t. The main aim of the game for examiners is consistency - consistency between markers, papers, and sessions. So why do pass rates very so much? The main reasons given were a need to maintain standards, under-prepared candidates, inability of candidates to apply what they know, and - the student’s favourite - the occasional rogue paper.The second half of the evening was run by Helen Gregson, one of the staff actuaries at the Institute. Having held many a hand through exam counselling she’s in a pretty strong position to comment on the reasons why people fail exams. Her talk started with an example - a ‘student’s’ answer to an exam question was passed round (she promised us faithfully that answer hadn’t come from one single student but was an amalgamation of many scripts that she’d seen). I don’t know about the other people in the room but it was quite an eye-opener for me. It was a perfectly sensible answer - it read reasonably well and struck me as the sort of answer I could come up with too. The only trouble was that, while being reasonably impressed by the answer, I also knew it was a load of rubbish. It hadn’t answered the question asked and at points was merely a brain dump of vaguely relevant core reading. I decided I had better pay careful attention to the rest of this talk.Those hoping for a secret recipe for passing the exams may have been disappointed - as suspected there is no substitute for hard graft. Helen likened the exams to passing your driving test (yeah, I know, if only (!) - but bear with me). It’s not just about knowing your stuff but also having had as much practice as possible so that you can perform the manoeuvres with some confidence and do so under pressure. So yes, know your bookwork but there’s no substitute for practice exam questions. And for goodness sake, don’t do an emergency stop if the examiner tells you to reverse round the corner! The examiners are looking for evidence of ‘fitness to proceed and assume professional responsibilities’ - so demonstrate it! Wise words indeed - I just hope they stand us all in good stead for April.