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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Talking the talk

Jessica Elkin discusses the communications exam (CA3), and examines the pitfalls and problems students should watch out for

Student page August 2014
©Phil Wrigglesworth

How can you tell when you meet an actuary who is an extrovert? He is the one who looks at your shoes when he talks to you! 

This joke tells us two things. Number one, people who like to laugh at actuaries do not have a very good sense of humour. Secondly, actuaries aren’t reputed for their dazzling conversation skills. That’s probably why the profession decided it was necessary to add the communications exam, CA3, to the array of hoops set out in front of students, to ensure that actuaries have the skills for “effective communication to both technical and non-technical audiences”.

Have you spotted the problem yet? Most of our exams are about facts and figures, and using an exam to test communication is a bit like putting someone in a paddling pool to ascertain if they can swim. You’d get an idea of their reaction to water in general, but it wouldn’t necessarily show they could handle an ocean of sharks and jellyfish and krakens. Trouble is, dropping someone into the ocean isn’t a feasible testing method.

Paving the road to hell

The profession has put a lot of thought into this problem, and their method for tackling it has been to set students a two-day, course-style exam. On the first day you complete a written exam involving the communication of actuarial issues to a non-actuarial audience. In the afternoon, you prepare slides for a short presentation that you make on the second day.

It’s an imaginative solution – but there are snags. First, you do not deliver the presentation to a group of people as you might in a work environment. Your audience is a webcam, which you are now required to set up and use yourself at home or in the office. This has been controversial, with many concerned that it is not a like-for-like exchange; both because it allows misanthropists not to have to face anybody, and because it is harder to deliver a presentation when you do not have the added eye contact and rapport with your audience.

An added complication is that the software required for the exam is not supported on Mac OS X or Linux, so many students are unable to set it up at home. And since some firms’ IT security policies do not allow the downloading of the software, Mac or Linux users can be left at sea as to where and how they can sit the subject. Associated problems include the fact that not having a controlled environment to present in can lead to issues involving errant pets/flatmates, unexpected loud building work, or various IT problems. Unfortunately, although the examinations team is aware of the above complaints, there are still no plans to develop the software to be used on other platforms.

The idea behind having the exam exclusively online is to allow more spaces to be available, as CA3 is oversubscribed. However, it is still notoriously difficult to get a place on the course. As a friend put it: “The spaces came online today and got snapped up before I could say ‘Why aren’t they releasing enough spaces?’. I got tickets for the Monty Python reunion, but I could not get CA3. Ridiculous.” Many students end up with a lengthy wait in CA3 purgatory long after finishing the rest of the exams. Removing the requirement to have passed all the CTs and CA1 might help, as it would allow people to attempt it earlier; hopefully, the examinations team is considering this solution, or finding a way to open up spaces.

Blind man’s bluff

Ironically, given the point of CA3, communications on the exam are considered to be lacking. Judging from the Student Consultative Forum, candidates often feel they have followed the marking schedule without success and consider the process a “lottery”. One student complained that they had been told during a mock exam that their presentation was among the best the examiner had seen, but came out of the real thing with an FB. A colleague who passed on his third attempt told me that he did not do anything especially different between takes and that he views the passing of the course as “completely random”.

I haven’t covered all the complaints about CA3. The impossibility of knowing whether you need to improve on the written or vocal side without paying for expensive exam counselling, the lack of available past papers and model solutions, the low pass rate… I don’t have space for it all.

The testing of communication skills is a worthy endeavour, and the profession has certainly put effort into coming up with a solution. But while CA3 has improved over time, it doesn’t seem to be quite there yet. A review of the course is forthcoming, and students are likely to welcome some changes that would hopefully see the pass rates increase and frustration surrounding the process drop.

The Student Consultative Forum discusses the examinations and examination processes, including a whole section on CA2 and CA3, each time. If you have comments to make, do pass them on to me at [email protected] and I can take them to the SCF. It would be good to get some communication practice myself!