Improving the Efficiency of Actuarial Study Time Through the Use of Effective Learning Techniques

By Julie Lederer

Actuarial candidates, especially those who are working or going to school fulltime, face a variety of demands on their time and energy. This makes it especially important to maximize the efficiency of study time through the use of effective learning techniques. A January 2013 monograph released by the Association for Psychological Sciencei provides an evaluation of ten commonly-used learning methods and assigns a relative utility rating to each method. The authors’ evaluations can guide students toward the most productive study techniques and encourage them to substitute highly-rated methods, such as practice testing, for lower-ranked techniques, such as rereading the material. This can boost exam performance and increase the effectiveness of students’ study time. This article first introduces the ten methods and provides the authors’ overall conclusions. Then each technique is reviewed individually, with suggestions on how actuarial students can employ the methods as they prepare for exams.

The chart below, adapted from the cited monograph, lists and describes the ten learning techniques evaluated by the study’s authors. The rightmost column displays the utility ranking the authors assigned to each method.

Technique Description Utility Rating
1. Elaborative interrogation Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true Moderate
2. Self-explanation Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving Moderate
3. Summarization Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts Low
4. Highlighting/underlining Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading Low
5. Keyword mnemonic Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials Low
6. Imagery Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening to text Low
7. Rereading Restudying text material again after an initial reading Low
8. Practice testing Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material High
9. Distributed practice Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time High
10. Interleaved practice Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session Moderate

  1. Elaborative interrogation
    Elaborative interrogation prompts the student to answer some version of the question, “Why would this fact be true of [X] and not some other [X]?” This method is believed to facilitate learning by helping the student integrate the new piece of information into what he already knows. The literature suggests that this technique is most valuable when the student has a high level of prior knowledge about the subject to be learned. Therefore, it might be most useful to an actuarial candidate on his second or third pass through the exam material, when he already has a preliminary understanding of the information. The elaborative interrogation method has generally been evaluated in the context of learning discrete facts, versus complex or lengthy material. This suggests that it might be most useful for memorizing lists of facts, such as those often found on a student’s notecards.

  2. Self-explanation
    Students employing this learning method explain their reasoning as they carry out a process. For example, an actuarial student might explain each step as she works through a sample problem. The need to explain her process as she goes may lessen the temptation to use “trial and error” to reach the correct answer and then conclude ex post facto that this must have been the correct approach. Along similar lines, studies have shown that concurrent self-explanation, in which the student generates the explanation during the process, is more beneficial to learning than retrospective self-explanation, in which the student produces the explanation after the completion of the exercise.

  3. Summarization
    Summarizing may help students identify and remember the most important pieces of a written text. However, few studies have evaluated the effects of summarization as a learning technique, making it difficult to draw conclusions on its efficacy. Summarization appears to boost performance more for free recall exercises, such as essay questions, than for recognition exercises, such as multiple choice questions. Therefore, students preparing for upper-level actuarial exams may find the technique more valuable than students studying for preliminary exams. Summarizing the main concepts of an article may be worthwhile preparation for higher-level Bloom’s Taxonomy questions that require students to make connections between different papers on the exam syllabus.

  4. Highlighting/Underlying
    Highlighting and underlying text are two of the most common learning techniques employed by students. Unfortunately, the monograph’s authors state that “most studies have shown no benefit of highlighting (as it is typically used) over and above the benefit of simply reading” (p. 19-20). One of the main problems with the technique is that students usually highlight too much of the text. This makes it more difficult to remember the highlighted information and also may keep the student from carefully identifying the most important points. Accordingly, students who are instructed to read the material first and then highlight only the most critical passages may be better served by the technique.

  5. Keyword mnemonic
    The keyword mnemonic technique involves the production of mental images that facilitate learning comprehension and memorization. This method was first developed as a tool for learning foreign language vocabulary and probably has limited applicability to actuarial exam material. Nonetheless, it might help candidates memorize information which is amenable to the formation of keywords and mental images, such as vocabulary definitions, an individual’s contributions, or laws and regulations.

  6. Imagery
    A student employing the imagery technique forms mental images of the text that she is reading or hearing. This method facilitates memorization in certain situations when the text is amenable to mental imagery but has limited utility for complex, abstract text. Most actuarial exam materials are not well-suited to the formation of mental images, so this technique is probably of limited use. If mental images aid learning and memory, however, then an actuarial student may benefit from spending more time studying charts and graphs within the text and creating her own graphs to illustrate concepts. Diagrams that show the connections between different papers may prove useful to a student preparing for higher-level Bloom’s Taxonomy questions.

  7. Rereading
    Like highlighting and underlying, rereading is an oft-used learning technique. Studies suggest that rereading may help the student organize the main ideas of the text and remember central concepts. Rereading has been shown to aid performance on free recall exercises, such as essay questions, and cued recall exercises, such as short answer and fill-in-the-blank questions. The technique appears to be less effective at improving performance on recognition-type exercises, such as multiple choice questions, and the effects of rereading on comprehension are uncertain. Though the technique is generally less effective than other methods, its efficacy is enhanced when the time between the initial reading and rereading is greater.

  8. Practice testing
    “Practice testing” as the term is used by the monograph’s authors includes studying flashcards, working practice problems, and taking practice exams. Practice testing is believed to work by facilitating the retrieval of information from long-term memory. Numerous studies have demonstrated the high effectiveness of practice testing as a learning technique. The literature suggests that the efficacy of the technique is enhanced when:

    1. The amount of practice testing increases;
    2. The time lags between practice testing sessions are greater;
    3. The practice testing requires free recall (used to answer essay questions), as opposed to cued recall (used to respond to short answer questions) or recognition (used to answer multiple choice questions);
    4. The practice testing is repeated until the correct information is recalled four to five times, versus only one time; and
    5. Feedback, such as an explanation of why a particular answer is correct, is provided.

    Studies have shown a benefit to practice testing even when the format of the practice test does not match the format of the exam. This suggests that essay-type prompts may be beneficial to actuarial students studying for preliminary exams and that those studying for upper-level exams can still gain from working the multiple choice and true/false questions found on the older style of exams.

  9. Distributed practice
    Not surprisingly, spacing study sessions out over time appears to be more effective for long-term retention than cramming right before an exam. In general, longer lags between study sessions seem to be more beneficial than shorter lags. One study suggests that the “ideal lag between practice sessions would be approximately 10-20 percent of the desired retention interval” (p. 38). So, for example, if a student needs to retain exam information for two months, he may wish to review his notecards every one to two weeks. We procrastinators needn’t be completely disheartened by these findings, however. The monograph’s authors note that “the distributed-practice effect is often stronger on delayed tests than immediate ones, with massed practice (cramming) actually benefitting performance on immediate tests” (p. 38).

  10. Interleaved practice
    Students using interleaved practice switch between different types of problems within a single study session, instead of working all problems of one type before moving on to the next subset of problems. This method is thought to boost exam performance by requiring the student to differentiate between various types of problems while studying. The literature suggests that interleaved practice is most effective when the problems of various types are first completed in discrete “blocks,” with interleaving being introduced only once the student has gained proficiency with each type of problem. Most actuarial students probably already use some version of this technique, moving through the study manual section by section and then working practice exams that combine many different types of problems.

    Faced with the competing demands of studying, work, travel, family time, and childcare, actuarial candidates may benefit from seeking ways to improve the efficiency of their study time. All ten of the cited learning techniques can boost exam performance, but busy students may wish to concentrate more of their efforts on the highly-ranked methods, such as practice testing and distributed practice.

    Julie Lederer, ACAS, MAAA, is a consultant at Deloitte Consulting LLP in Chicago, Ill.

i Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266

Summer 2013