Do actuarial students take too much for granted when it comes to core technical revision, asks Matthew Welsh
31 MAY 2012 | MATTHEW WELSH
A little orange book
It was a special day when I got my little orange/yellow/gold book. I finally felt like an official member of the actuarial student community. I had, in my hand, the key to unlocking the secrets of the profession. I still remember flicking through the yellow (or manila, depending on your preference) pages at the front. Sure, I understood bits of it, but seeing it was my first opportunity to peek and immerse myself into the arena in which I would have to prove myself.
I had little idea of who Kolmogorov was and I thought Black-Scholes was a kind of rum cocktail until that point. I consoled myself with the fact that all the detail that lay behind these formulae would be mine given time.
I will admit that I can remember when studying for the core technical (CT) exams, my attitude was very much along the lines of determining the minimum level of knowledge to pass. Indeed, I found that the orange book would often negate my need to know formulae, their derivation and how they actually worked. I felt like I was plugging numbers into formulae, taking for granted their derivation.
A lack of rigour?
Let me be clear - I am not accusing the Actuarial Profession of not setting standards high enough. Far from it, I believe that the Profession demands the highest level of dedication for its acolytes in order to gain entry into the fold. It's just that I would do things differently 'if I ruled the world'.
I am, in spite of my opinion about the power of the orange book in the actuarial syllabus, a great believer in being practical. Some would argue that the inclusion of proofs and the like can lead to dogmatic memorisation and rote learning, which is not especially demonstrative of higher intellectual faculties. I would agree with this sentiment - it is not the learning of proofs that I would wish to see demonstrated, rather, the knowledge of proofs that can lead to far more demanding questions. That is, applying the knowledge of a proof to form an answer.
Mulling it over
I guess, at its core, my gripe with the actuarial exams is not that they aren't challenging enough. Rather, I feel that they are a test of how quickly you can work through questions accurately rather than delve deeply into a problem and emerge on the other side with a calculated answer. I rarely felt that, in an actuarial exam, I was able to deliberate over a difficult question with considered application; if it spilled over the requisite 1.8 minutes per mark, it was comprehensively skipped. I view this as a great shame and a possible reason for the rumour that the bell curve for exam marks has a small standard deviation - perhaps predictably for actuarial exams, it feels like there is a formula for passing them!
I would prefer that there were fewer questions in the CTs but that they demanded more in terms of ability to work with the nuances of the results we are asked to use. Being an expert on which page to use in the formula book should not, in my ideal world, give you an advantage over your peers.
Resolve to be involved
Lucky me, to have a platform to air my opinions. I doubt that the current set of examiners would agree with me - and I have a great respect for the effort and energy that is put in by the Profession in developing these exams. I have sat at my computer and written about how I would try things differently, but so what? Without involving myself in the process, my opinions mean little.
Maybe you feel the same way or have your own views about the exams and want to actively participate in the debate? The student consultative forum
(www.actuaries.org.uk/students/pages/student-consultative-forum) is a way for students to participate in the discussion.
Then, when you're qualified, get involved with the examinations team. They are always looking for volunteers, especially as markers for the exams?