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Department Spotlight- Sound and Strong: SOA's New Education Structure

Department spotlight

Sound & Strong

The information on the Education Department that appears on the next few pages represents the second installment in a series of articles that will familiarize members with many on the staff at the SOA–a staff dedicated to meeting the growing and changing needs of the membership and the profession.

SOA's New Education Structure
By Jacque Kirkwood

Ken Guthrie joined the SOA as senior director of education at the end of January 2007. He previously held the position of director, professional education at the Institute of Actuaries of Australia, and was acting CEO of the Institute for a five–month period in 2006. Guthrie's main responsibilities as director focused on the strategic management of the Institute's education program. He also managed the design and implementation of the program's restructure in 2005. Prior to joining the Institute in Australia, he held general management roles with a for–profit multinational educational organization and the commercial arm of a university in Australia.

When you talk with Guthrie, his enthusiasm for the Education Department shines through. He hit the ground running with information, talking excitedly about the staff, their accomplishments and all the plans ahead.

The Actuary: What is the main focus of the department? We focus on educating and credentialing actuaries. In the past, the department has been referred to as E&E. We now have a third E, the e–Learning component. The easiest way to look at this is the education component is really the syllabus, the intellectual capital, the content that actuaries hold dear to their profession.

Then there's the e–Learning part, which is kind of pedagogy of sorts. It's a way of teaching that material and applying that to practical workplace examples.

Then of course we have the examination component, because as a credentialing organization, we must have appropriately tough but fair examinations to make sure that only those who demonstrate adequate knowledge are able to hold the SOA's designations.

The Actuary: What is our greatest strength with regard to education? We have been very good at the assessment side of things so the exam side has always been very strong. We also have a very strong syllabus that is constantly updated, with changes in practice and so on.

We've recently focused our attention on the development of our e–Learning component so that people coming through better understand how the content applies to them, and that's an exciting development. In fact, it's the main reason I picked myself and my family up from Australia and came to the States. The e–Learning development, in particular, is a real emphasis on teaching and learning. I'm extremely excited to be involved in this initiative.

The Actuary: What are some of the challenges the department faces? We must ensure that the content is fresh, current and is relevant to practice, to employers and to those in the field. We ensure that there are practitioners–people who are involved day to day, mostly FSAs, some ASAs–building exams, contributing to a syllabus or writing an e–Learning module, all the time making sure that material is current to their practice area. We also have connections to various people in the SOA sections who are at the cutting edge of the development of practice, making sure that that information feeds back into our syllabus, our pedagogy and our exams.

The Actuary: What are the advantages of the new structure? Now we have a modular shape to what we offer so we can improve or change the content as demand dictates. It's much more flexible from an updating point of view. That's great–it's the kind of design that we really needed because we have to keep pace with those changes in practice. It's complex, but the truth of the matter is that change is a necessary part of providing a good quality, current and relevant professional education program. What we're hoping now is that we have a system that enables us to make changes internally within the structure and keep the structure intact, but still keep the system current and relevant.

The Actuary: What plans do you have for the immediate future? A lot of the modules that we've developed in basic education, the FAP, the FSA modules, are going to be converted into CPD offerings, so they will be offered in a new learning frame. Candidates will still complete modules as part of their pathway to the FSA designation, but members will soon be able to complete them post–designation as part of keeping themselves current.

We have a proposal into our senior leadership team suggesting that we put an education structure around what we offer. Meetings and events would fit in with our e–Learning courses and perhaps other face–to–face programs as well. So we're proposing a bigger, more encompassing educational program, and that's an exciting development.

The Actuary: What are some of your longer–term plans? One thing we can do a much better job with is the preliminary education components. Personally, I think we can provide better training and education of our candidates at that early stage. What we'd like to be able to do is provide a tighter and clearer framework so that the candidates can go through and learn what they need to in an environment similar to what they do in FAP, and then be better prepared, we think, for the exam at the very end.

Our education is strong. Our content is strong. But we just need to strengthen our teaching and learning. We have relationships with the academic sector for example. We need to enhance those relationships.

The Actuary: What else is happening in the educational arena? The validation by educational experience (VEE) program has mushroomed. It's a very comprehensive program. We also have our professionalism courses and the new Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst (CERA) credential. The educational arena is far reaching and the possibilities for growth are endless. It's truly an exciting place to be in right now–restructuring our programs, adding new facets to the learning process, updating existing processes–all with the goal of making education the best it can be for the profession.

We have to make decisions every day to keep pace, like the realization that there are components of our old program, our old assessment, that we really don't need to assess directly anymore. Quite frankly, universities can do a better job of teaching certain subjects than we can and we're happy not being directly consumed with being successful in those programs, because we can turn our attention to other demands.

My colleagues, Judy Powills, Brett Rogers and Martha Sikaras will be addressing a host of topics in the following articles, so I don't want to steal their thunder. I've touched lightly on some of them, but Judy, Brett and Martha will provide more detailed information.

The Actuary: Tell us about your team. They're all a very devoted group of staff–incredible really. It's rare that a mistake is made. And I mean that across the board. It's a complex environment we're dealing with every day, from detailed syllabus documents, to exam scheduling, to process administration, to program management, to coordination of volunteers–the list is long.

We certainly run into problems from time to time and it can sometimes be difficult to correct occasional misperceptions. Yet, with all the complexity, the staff maintain their professionalism and commitment to excellence and do their jobs very well, with a sense of style and grace. It's a pleasure, personally and professionally, to be a part of this dynamic team.

What we have here is a group of 16 staff who work in a close partnership with over 600–plus volunteer members, to make this program come off successfully. It's very much a team effort. We work very closely with volunteers. We rely very heavily on them. We could not run this program without the volunteers.

The staff is very committed to do a good job. They're a great team to work with. They're very devoted to the task. And I'm very lucky frankly, because it's been nothing I've done. I just walked in. They were already here. They are truly the most consistently committed group of people that I've ever worked with and I feel very privileged to be working with them.

e–Learning

By Jacque Kirkwood

Educational evaluation, testing, measurement and instructional design are subjects close to Judy Powills' heart. Powills, who has been with the SOA for five years, has held positions in other organizations including Educational Testing Service and Andersen Worldwide Center for Professional Education to blend her technical skills with leadership, consulting and people and client relationship management skills.

The road to e–Learning started in 2002 as part of the education restructuring. The SOA's e–Learning modules focus on education. They represent a part of the new educational system in addition to rigorous Preliminary Education and FSA exams and the Fundamentals of Actuarial Practice (FAP) formal assessments. Together, the modules and exams are designed to reflect the required learning outcomes for the ASA and FSA designations. To date, the FAP course (eight modules) and eight FSA modules have been fully implemented.

"We believed that e–Learning was a good solution to help meet the goals of the education redesign at the ASA course level and also for various FSA–level topics," said Powills. "We felt that candidates were ready and advanced technology–wise, to move towards this type of learning approach while they continued to move through the traditional examinations."

In addition, we recognized the importance of applying and blending an educational framework, learning theory, instructional design, assessment and measurement and instructional technology to create an engaging, practical and relevant experience within a supportive environment for candidates."

Well over 300 volunteers worked on the education redesign under the direction of a volunteer oversight team composed of Stuart Klugman, Steve Eadie and Al Ford. To create the e–Learning components, the education team leveraged the core competencies of volunteers as subject–matter experts. Many SOA staff supported the e–Learning initiative in various capabilities as project managers, administrators, evaluators, editors, procurement and copyright experts, and information technology specialists.

"We knew we had to outsource other capabilities, specifically instructional design and instructional technology," added Powills. "Throughout the process, we engaged the buy–in and assistance of various stakeholder groups including the Board, employers and candidates. So ultimately, we ended up with a multi–disciplinary team to design, develop and deliver e–Learning."

So far, things are going well in the e–Learning arena.

"FAP, the associate–level course, is structured within the context of the actuarial control cycle," explained Powills. "Candidates learn and apply key concepts to work through the three primary stages–define the problem, design the solution and monitor the results. They learn to consider the effects of external forces and to appreciate that professionalism underlies all the work that an actuary does."

To date, 5,840 students have registered for FAP; 1,815 have completed the FAP course and hundreds are in the process of completing the modules. Students like the flexibility and on–demand approach, practical applications and the feedback they receive with regard to real–world situations.

The FSA modules are very similar in design to the FAP modules; however, each module is topically focused within the context of areas of actuarial practice.

"The FSA module topics are those that the education redesign working groups determined are important, but do not need to be rigorously examined," Powills said. "Some modules are specific to a track of the candidate's choosing while others are shared across tracks. The last of the eight planned FSA modules was released last November. Experience with the FSA modules is not as extensive as FAP yet, but so far the feedback has been positive.

"We now have a strong (and complex) learning management system. It serves as the SOA's platform to deliver the modules, manage the content, house the grading facility for assessments, track usage and generate real– time evaluation reports and communications to candidates. A critical feature is the system's flexibility which enables us to enhance and update the modules and accommodate the future evolution of e–Learning. We're now exploring the development of additional e–Learning modules as appropriate to meet needs in areas such as Continuing Professional Development (CPD)."

Powills noted that it's imperative to keep e–Learning material current, so the education staff will continue to work with the education and examination committees to ensure that we continue to achieve the goals of, and realize the benefits of, e–Learning.

Though Powills plays a major role in the e–Learning component–she executes the strategy and facilitates implementation according to plan, recruits and maintains relationships with volunteers, directs the activities of our external consultants and oversees staff activities related to daily operations and administration–she is quick to praise everyone who has been involved in the process.

"Almost every SOA staff member has touched e–Learning and is in some way responsible for its implementation and success," she said. "IT, Customer Service, Communications, Marketing, the staff actuaries and various other staff have played key roles in helping us to develop and introduce this very important component of our educational offerings.

"And last, but certainly not least, is the staff of the Education Department," added Powills. "We are a tight–knit group. We blend well. We brainstorm. We respect each other and value each other's thoughts and ideas. We enjoy talking with, and listening to, the volunteers, employers and candidates on a daily basis. We work hard and enjoy what we do. When I say our e–Learning adventure has been, and continues to be, a team effort, I do mean team effort. I work with a wonderful group of people and that in itself spells success! We look forward to bringing our knowledge and skills to the table to meet the needs of stakeholders, to produce and administer effective e–Learning products, and to continue to improve, evolve and sustain e–Learning as an education tool."

Examinations

By Jacque Kirkwood

Registrar and Director of Exam Analysis Brett Rogers oversees the exams operation. His experience includes teaching mathematics and working in the field of mathematics test publishing. Prior to joining the SOA he was a technical writer with CCH Business and Tax Law Publishers. Rogers has been with the SOA for over 10 years and brings a wealth of educational expertise to his position.

Rogers' group is responsible for everything involved in the process including getting the exams developed, printed, shipped out to the exam test centers, administering the exams and getting the grades out to the candidates. They are also responsible for identifying new Associates and those eligible for the Fellowship Admissions Course. His explanation of the various steps involved in the examination process follows.

The Structure

The preliminary exams are Exams P, FM, MFE, MLC and C. There are two types of preliminary exams, computer–based and paper–based. We implemented the first computer–based exam, Exam P, in September 2005. Exam FM will be offered via computer–based testing in May 2008. We're administering exams on computer because we can offer them more frequently. Traditionally, we've offered the preliminary exams only in May and November. Now we can offer them up to six times a year due to computer–based testing. Eventually, all the preliminary exams will be computer–based, allowing candidates to get instant pass/fail results.

The Fellowship exams are the Design and Pricing (DP) and Company/Sponsor Perspective (CSP) exams for the group health, individual life and annuity, and retirement practice areas, and the Financial Economic Theory (FET), Advanced Finance/ERM (AFE) and Advanced Portfolio Management (APMV) exams for the finance and investment areas. These are all written–answer exams designed to test the candidates' actuarial knowledge at the higher levels of learning. The CSP, AFE and APMV exams are offered in May, and the DP and FET exams are offered in November.

Exam Development

It takes about a year and a half on average to develop an exam. Exam development begins with committee members writing draft questions and submitting them to the committee officers. When the committee has enough draft questions for an exam, they submit them to us and we prepare the drafts for Central Review.

Central Review

Twice a year all of the exam committees come together in one location to review the draft exams. Central Review takes place approximately four months before the exam is administered and provides committee members an opportunity to work together and discuss exam issues. Finalized exams are the end result of Central Review.

After Central Review the exams are then sent out for formal printing and assembly into final exam booklets. This process takes about four weeks from when exams are given to the printer to when the final exams are delivered to the SOA.

Exam Registration

While Central Review and the printing process are taking place, candidates are registering for the exams. We now have online exam registration, and our Customer Service Department handles this aspect of the process. Online registration has allowed us to focus more on the exam development process. The Customer Service Department does a great job handling all of the administrative work required for exam registration.

We have roughly 15,000 candidates who take the exams each May and November. Since some people take more than one exam in an exam session, it really comes out to about 36,000 exams taken per year for the May and November exam sessions.

Test Centers

We ship exams to about 350 exam test centers throughout the world. Sixty percent of the candidates are in the United States, 17 percent in Canada and 23 percent reside in other countries.

The Work Room

All the exams are shipped from the work room at SOA headquarters. It's a large undertaking to say the least and our staff does everything with some additional administrative temporary help. They set up the work room, which literally becomes a factory–remember, we're sending exams out for the 15,000 exam candidates. Our team works for two solid weeks twice a year getting all of the necessary materials shipped to our exam centers. When the exams shipping assembly line gets rolling, their efficiency cannot be matched.

Exam Supervisors

Volunteer supervisors–FSAs and some ASAs–serve as test monitors at all our test centers. Some college professors help supervise the administration of the exams as well. We have about 400 volunteers who supervise at the testing sites. Once again, our staff is responsible for contacting, securing and scheduling all our volunteers. These arrangements are made up to a year in advance of the actual exam administration date by the exams services staff.

One of our biggest challenges over the past few years has been finding supervisors and exam center space to administer the exams. These days everyone is pressed for time and, consequently, volunteer activities tend to fall off when something has to give in one's schedule. We are deeply appreciative of those SOA members who devote their time and help secure space to administer the exams.

Essay Sort/Grading

The multiple–choice exams go to American College Testing (ACT) for scoring, and the candidate responses for the essay exams come to the SOA headquarters. We set up for what we call the Essay Sort. We open the test envelopes and sort the candidates' responses by question into ascending candidate–number order. For example, if there were 300 candidates numbered 1 to 300, we sort and collate each question of an exam so that candidate one is on top and candidate 300 is on the bottom of the stack. We then split each stack of responses according to the number of graders on that question so that the graders have equal grading assignments, and we then ship each grader their papers to grade.

Grading and Analysis of Exam Scores

For paper–based multiple–choice exams, it takes ACT about five to seven weeks to receive, inventory and scan all of the answer sheets, and to produce statistical reports for each exam. The statistical reports include simple statistics on exam performance as well as statistics on exam difficulty and reliability.

The grading of written–answer exams takes a bit longer as the process of grading essay responses by hand rather than machine is labor intensive. Also, there is a Central Grading meeting for each essay exam where 40–60 percent of the candidate responses (everyone who is not a clear pass or fail) are second–graded by new graders. In the event of a large difference between the first and second score on a question, the first and second graders will discuss the difference and come to an agreement as to the final score. Central Grading is a way of ensuring that the final score on an essay question is accurate and fair.

The Pass Mark

A conference call is scheduled for each exam where the exam committee along with input from the SOA education and examination leadership determine the final pass mark. They take a close look at the real performance on the exam along with the content that the committee expects qualified, passing candidates to know. They will also review the results of passing score studies designed to estimate the pass mark on the basis of volunteer expert opinions. All of these factors are considered in setting the final passmark, but no one factor is used exclusively to set the pass mark.

Who Passed?

About one week before grades are released, we run various reports to make sure everything is accurate with the exam scores and then convert these to zero to 10 scores. We then issue passing candidate numbers, grade slips and names of those who passed each exam. The overall average passing percentage is around 40 percent. The preliminary exams usually have pass rates in the 35– to 45–percent range and the Fellowship exams have pass rates that are around 50 percent.

The names of the candidates who passed each exam is public knowledge, so we post the passing names on the SOA Web site. Grade slips–for the first time in January–were released online only via the SOA's online transcripts functionality.

The Team

I could write volumes about the staff who work with the development, administration and grading of the exams. Their dedication to and understanding of the process is absolutely phenomenal. They are a talented group of individuals, and I am lucky to be working with them. Of course, we wouldn't be able to do any of this without the 600–plus volunteers who are the core of the education and examination function at the SOA. We simply could not accomplish what we do year after year without their time and expertise.

The SOA's education and examination system drives the membership. The candidates who pass the prescribed examinations for ASA, CERA and FSA are the new members. We deal with more than 30,000 people a year, one way or another, and that's a pretty big deal. We literally live our work lives in six–month increments. I salute our team and our volunteers–they're a great group of people!

Professionalism Courses

By Sam Phillips

In her role as director of international activities, Martha Sikaras is staff partner for the International Section Council as well as several committees–China Region, IAA, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Her education responsibilities include the role of staff partner for the Professionalism Education Management Committee and the FSA Capstone Module Team. Prior to joining the SOA–she's been here for nearly 18 years–she worked for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce as a business research specialist.

"The end of the path to an FSA is the Fellowship Admissions Course," said Sikaras. As part of her role at the SOA, Sikaras oversees the educational courses that fall under the Professionalism and Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst (CERA) designation arenas.

Since 1990, the SOA has had a formal requirement that all new Fellows take a course in professionalism, which covers business and professional ethics. The SOA "did a lot of pioneering work to institute such a requirement, and the members and staff who helped develop the program are very proud of that fact," Sikaras said.

The Fellowship Admissions Course (FAC) has remained the one consistent component of our basic education program over the past 17 years. It provides the opportunity to hone in on issues of professional ethics and serves as a time of celebration as well.

After the course is over," Sikaras stated, "there's a formal graduation dinner during which the new Fellows receive their certificate. It is a celebratory moment, complete with the popping of champagne, marking the end of a very challenging process. This is one of the few occasions where you really do get to meet other colleagues who have also been studying and taking exams. Each course generally hosts 150 to 200 new Fellows and the SOA President personally presents each new FSA with his or her certificate."

The FAC is offered quarterly, although more courses will be offered in 2008 due to demand resulting from the conversion of the exam system.

"We have a lot more candidates coming through the system," said Sikaras. "In 2008, we'll actually be running six sessions, the final two in the original format for the candidates who are finishing requirements in the outgoing education system, and then a new expanded format, which is part of the education restructuring and which will now include an oral presentation requirement."

The oral presentation requirement ties into the new Decision Making and Communication Module, which is the final component in the new system. The module focuses on enabling skills: teamwork and consensus building, decision making and communication in both written and oral formats and listening skills. Past surveys of employers indicated a need to increase exposure to these soft skills as part of the basic education program.

"Employers were really happy with the technical skills of the actuaries that were developing through the system, but wanted to see improved soft skills," said Sikaras. "One emphasis will be to highlight the importance of these skills and that actuaries should be constantly developing them throughout their careers.

"These enabling skills will hopefully marry well with the technical skills they've already learned and applied in their job responsibilities. They'll be required to complete an independent project and give a 10–minute oral presentation on that project as part of the FAC. We will bring in a presentation coach to give students information on the hallmarks of a good oral presentation–things they should do and things to avoid. We really want to take any anxiety they might have about making an oral presentation out of the picture and make it a positive experience."

Not Just for FSAs

In 2000, the SOA initiated an Associate Level Professionalism course (APC) that all ASAs are required to take.

"It's the junior course to the FAC," Sikaras explained. "It's a half–day in–person course and it gives the ASAs a basic introduction to the Code of Professional Conduct and Standards of Practice that the SOA and the other U.S. based actuarial organizations follow. In addition, ASA candidates from outside North America are made aware that many other countries have formal Standards of Practice and as actuaries in those countries, they need to be well–versed in those standards and codes."

Though similar in topic to the FAC, there is a difference in the APC's timing structure.

"With the APC, they can take it once they've reached a certain point along their way to becoming an ASA–they have to be near completion," said Sikaras. "Thus, at the APC, you'll have a mix of experience levels in any given class."

A Lot of Help

"For both the FAC and APC, I would be completely remiss if I didn't mention the volunteers and staff," stated Sikaras. "Our volunteers play an integral role in this process. They are the heart and soul of both programs. For a program like the FAC, it is a multi–day commitment for our faculty, many of whom have senior positions at their companies and firms. Needless to say, we are very grateful for our volunteers' time and effort. Our faculty all have at least 10 years of experience, post–Fellowship, and all undergo a training process; many have been facilitating for years. They have so much professional and personal experience to share with the newest members of the profession; both the students and faculty find the program rewarding in that sense.

"Neither program would get very far without the coordinating staff. The staff is responsible for all the logistics–everything from arranging sites to registering the students to executing the programs on site. Both programs require meticulous attention to many details. The staff works in concert with our faculty and course directors."

The New Designation

"The Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst (CERA) designation is the first new designation that we've created in close to 60 years," Sikaras said. "It's an Associateship level designation that's focused on enterprise risk management. Our Board of Directors saw the need for a designation that focused on ERM and its applicability in both the traditional insurance and pension fields as well as new emerging areas."

The Experienced Practitioner Path to CERA

"We know that we have existing members who do a lot of work already within ERM and so we wanted to offer our existing membership a pathway to obtain the CERA designation without having to do additional exams," said Sikaras. "Members with sufficient work experience within ERM are eligible to apply for our Experienced Practitioner pathway. If approved they'll be required to take a specialty seminar on ERM and at the end of that seminar, would earn their CERA credential. It's a limited time offer in that existing members have until July 1, 2008 to apply for recognition."

Jacque Kirkwood is senior communications associate and Sam Phillips is staff editor at the Society of Actuaries.