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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Soft skills: Struggling with CA3

This year, students have the option to sit the CA3 (communications) exam as either a two-day course or the traditional three-hour written exam. But just how do the two compare, and will this improve students’ skills and understanding?

The lower-than-expected pass rates for the CA3 communications exam have surprised students and examiners alike. The exam is not meant as a hurdle, rather a smooth transition to qualification. Yet there are many of us for whom this exam proves to be a nightmare.

I have heard, and indeed made up myself, numerous excuses for failing the communications exam (CA3): “I just didn’t have time to study it” is a common one, or even better, “It’s a lottery – I’ll just keep on taking it until eventually I get lucky with the paper”.

As you can probably guess, I have struggled with this exam for years now, as have others I have met over the course of my many sittings and tutorials, and it always amazes when I hear examiners saying that the pass rates disappoint them. Surely then, the ideal solution is to simply increase the pass rate? Apparently, this is exactly what the examiners had in mind when setting the new CA3 structure.

So, is this new structure the answer to our CA3 woes? I attended one of the pilot courses run in late 2008 to find out. The £600 for the course seemed steep, but worth it if it meant I passed the exam.

Advance warning
We received a pre-course workbook about six weeks beforehand, with a month to complete it. Although it was painful at the time, in hindsight I think the workbook has many good things to offer – it forces you to actually study for the course and think of the audience, the tone, the use of jargon and so on – there goes one excuse for failing!

Day 1
It was nice to see some familiar faces on the course in Oxford. We spent most of the first day learning about the dos and don’ts of communication (both verbal and written) from business professionals – both non-actuaries. The most useful part of the day was when we were split into groups and asked to give a presentation and get feedback within our groups.

At the end of the day we were given two hours to prepare about seven slides for our presentation the next day. The question was similar to a typical CA3-style presentation question, only this time round we had to prepare our notes together with the slides. We were allowed to take away a printed copy of our slides, but not the question. And we then had the whole evening to practise our presentation skills in front of the hotel mirrors.

Day 2
Day two was mostly spent waiting for our turn to present. The presentation took place in front of four people – two actuaries and two non-actuaries - with about five to ten minutes of presenting and five minutes for questions. On the whole, I think the first day had prepared us well for this stage. At the end of day two, we were required to submit a written question in the form of a letter – again typical CA3-style except that we had use of a computer.

The new structure – pros
>> Allows networking
>> Pre-course workbook forces you to study
>> Presentation skills learnt during the course are useful in working life
>> Using a computer to do the exam is more realistic
>> While giving the presentation, you can gauge the understanding of the audience and expand on points if necessary – something that is not possible in the current structure
>> Course seems more a test on communications than current exam.

The new structure – cons
>> Questions styles are the same – so similar trouble with actually understanding the question
>> Requires familiarity with Microsoft PowerPoint and Word
>> Presentations may put people off
>> Expensive.

So, will this new structure actually increase CA3 pass rates and be the answer to our CA3 woes? Only time will tell. I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping to finally get lucky.