April 2020 Exam Results
The April 2020 exam results are in, and this sitting was one like none other before it. The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns it prompted have had a radical impact on individuals and organisations across the whole planet. We have all been tested in our ability to adapt to change in these eventful months – businesses are having to run their operations with all employees working from home, teachers are having to educate children without anyone setting foot in a school, and (most importantly of course) the IFoA have had to figure out how student actuaries could sit their exams remotely. The result was four exams cancelled (CM1, CM2, CS1 and CS2) and the remainder being taken online from home as open-book tests.
Our Thoughts on “Lockdown Exams”
Undoubtedly the lockdown had a major effect on the exams and their results. Given the uniqueness of this sitting, we have devoted a section here to discussing our students’ thoughts on the experience and how we adapted to it.
The IFoA had an incredibly difficult task on its hands having to reorganise the examination process in light of the pandemic with only 1-2 months to go. On the one hand, candidates wanted an assessment that fairly reflected their knowledge and preparedness as accurately as possible. On the other hand, candidates did not want their progress to be set back by one or even two whole sittings, making across-the-board cancellations difficult.
The short timeframe available meant that producing a replacement online format with the same accuracy of assessment as the tried and tested written exam process would not be a realistic possibility. This was very much out of the IFoA’s control. Instead, they had to devise something that was as good as possible given the restraints they faced, and, on balance, we believe they did a good job. Ultimately, we feel the Institute was able to put something together that allowed a large proportion of students to continue with their exam progress through assessments that were reasonably fair.
Adapting our preparation
So how did our students on the whole respond to the changes? Firstly, much of our core exam preparation techniques remained the same. At the end of the day, the objective was still to understand the material of the course and answer questions on it, so this is not too surprising. The most prominent changes made were in respect to exam technique, such as:
- Less reliance on memorisation and acronyms – Acronyms are a very common way to memorise key lists and information for the written exams, especially CP1 and SPs/SAs. With the tests being open book and all of this available on hand, they became much less important.
- Practice papers done on computer – No surprises here. The general principle behind doing practice exam questions is to replicate exam conditions. If exams are now done on your computer, you should now do practice questions on your computer!
- Devising and practising “zeroing-in” techniques – Generally, each question in an exam is targeted at one specific part of the core reading. With the move to an open-book format, finding the relevant extract of core reading as quickly as possible (“zeroing-in”) became an essential skill to answering a question. Two key approaches we used were:
- Use the course’s Summary pages – match the question to a specific section of one of the chapter summaries and turn to this part of the core reading. The benefit here being it is much easier to flick through the summary pages than the full course notes.
- Use the Syllabus Objectives pages – match the question to a syllabus objective and turn to the chapter and relevant section for that objective. Note that the syllabus objectives have designated chapters for each objective. It is important to note that, whilst the core reading extract is there to guide an answer, it should not be copied word for word. Doing so constitutes plagiarism and would not usually make a good answer to the question either. The core reading provides the key points and topics of interest. However, it is the student’s job to select, apply and tailor these as well as develop specific points further in light of the scenario set in the question.
What did we find beneficial and what was challenging?
- [Benefit] Less time pressure – Almost everyone can type significantly faster than they can write. With the exam time remaining the same, it was much easier to get all our answers in good time, giving opportunity to add additional content too.
- [Challenge] Little exam adrenaline – Being in an examination centre with other candidates and invigilators puts you into an “exam-ready” mentality. For most people, this does a lot to focus them and help perform in the moment. We found doing exams at home did not have the same mental effect as an exam centre. Instead it felt closer to taking a practice paper or mock exam which we think impacted performance.
- [Challenge] Home distractions – Taking an exam in a centre, invigilators will try to make sure there is as little distraction as possible, noise or otherwise. Taking exams at home, this would never be the case. Some students live in shared households, others have young children, and virtually all have neighbours. The well-regulated exam environment was a distant fantasy. Sadly, this factor led to inequality between students as some (e.g. those without children living alone) had a much better exam environment than others (e.g. those with young children).
- [Challenge] Adapting in the short timeframe – No surprises here! Preparing for a whole different format exam in the space of two months was always going to be a big challenge.
There are, of course, many more things to say on this topic, but these were the overarching key themes from our students.
The change in format definitely affected some people more harshly than others and this inequity was not realistically avoidable. As mentioned above, those living in quieter home environments were able to focus better during the exam, but there is more than just that.
By making the exams open book, we believe the well-prepared candidates who knew the material well saw much of their advantage eroded. Similarly, those less well-prepared had their shortfall reduced. In this sense, the new format helped the less well-prepared and hurt the more well-prepared candidates as, for many of the bookwork questions, good knowledge of the material now only served to save a few minutes of time searching through the notes.
Following from this, for the specialist exams in particular, having work experience relevant to the questions that came up now provided a much bigger advantage than it previously did. The application and higher-level skills elements were much more crucial differentiators in this sitting than core bookwork knowledge. Work experience serves to augment the former two putting certain people at a big advantage.
Finally, the online format favoured those who are generally more comfortable working with computer documents – e.g. those who can type quickly were at an advantage whereas those who like to organise their thoughts by highlighting and freely annotating a paper copy of the exam were disadvantaged. It goes without saying, however, that all examination formats will naturally favour some people’s habits over others so you could easily make similar arguments about written assessments in centres.
In general, we do believe there were inequities which were unfair. Nevertheless, whilst faults did exist, we ultimately believe that an assessment with some unfairness was a better outcome for most than no assessment at all. Even if they were far from perfect, the online assessments were a suitable “second-best” option delivered in good time.
September 2019 was an outstanding sitting for APR with an 87% pass rate across 39 exams – 34 passes in total. We showed in our rather nerdy flex in January (https://aprllp.com/september-exam-results-analysis/) that this would be equivalent to a 1-in-a-million sitting if APR’s underlying exam ability were in line with the industry average.
This sitting, we passed 15 exams from 25 attempts. Of course, this was by no means a typical sitting, and as we discussed above a whole new set of skills was required to do well. Our company’s results were worse than usual. Nevertheless, in spite of the disruption, a 60% pass rate is not to be sniffed at and we are suitably proud of our students’ results.
As a final note congratulations to all those who passed exams! Below are some notable APR achievements from the April 2020 sitting.
- Congratulations for the entire 2016 intake – Adam Smith, Deven Rickaby and Dennis Wang – all of whom qualified this sitting having never failed any of their exams. This is a first for APR and an achievement which we are immensely proud of. An incredible effort on the part of all of them.
- Congratulations to Ajay Kotecha for passing SP7 on his first attempt in a sitting with a very low pass rate (20.5%).
- Congratulations to Craig Lynch for passing CP1 on his first attempt only eight months into his actuarial career.