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Adapting to online exams

We have received a lot of feedback from candidates about their experience transitioning from an examination taken mainly in examination centres to completing all their papers online. Listening to this feedback, we want to provide candidates with an overview of how the IFoA is now writing its exam papers for an online format.  We also would like to provide candidates with some top tips on preparing for an online examination.

How are IFoA examination papers written?

The IFoA’s examination paper setting begins in June/July each year for the following year. Each subject has a team of examiners, led by a Chief Examiner, who are mainly qualified actuaries but also include non-actuaries who are experts in their field. The examining teams write three examination papers, one for April one for September, and a spare paper. The teams are currently writing papers for 2022.

All exam papers go through several quality assurance checks during the examination setting process.

The first of these checks is something we call the ‘Guinea Pig’ process. These are individuals, who have recently qualified, sit the exam in test conditions and provide feedback on the following areas:

  • Paper difficulty
  • Paper length within the allocated time
  • How appropriate were the questions to an international audience?

This feedback is considered and the examining teams will make amendments and changes to the papers. Further drafts of the exam papers may reviewed by sector experts and qualified actuaries. The exam papers are subsequently sent to an external typesetter who converts the examination questions into the actual exam papers that candidates will be familiar with.  The exam papers are finally signed off by the Chief Examiner around February each year before being uploaded to our examination platform ready for the candidate to sit in April.

How has the IFoA changed the exams are written?

Since April 2020, candidates will have seen a change in their examination papers compared to previous years. This is because the impact of COVID-19 meant that the IFoA’s examinations were moved online instead of being held in traditional examination centres to meet a variety of government regulations .

Moving to an online format resulted in two significant changes to examinations for candidates:

  1. Introduction of open-book exams.
  2. Candidates having to type their answers.

An open-book examination format means candidates can sit their examinations with their study notes, revision guides, textbooks, and with access to online resources. Before open-book exams, many of our papers included definition or bookwork questions. These tested the candidate's knowledge of topics, regulations, theories or concepts and the candidates’ ability to recall this knowledge. Within an open book exam , testing a candidate’s ability to recall or show knowledge when they have their study notes, revisions guides in front of them is not an effective assessment method.

For example, in the past, we might have asked a question on a definition of corporate governance. In an open-book exam, where a definition of corporate governance is readily available, we might now ask a candidate to discuss corporate governance challenges in a real-life setting.

Candidates should expect to see more questions that probe a candidates’ knowledge and understanding of the theory within a context. We know, from feedback provided, that candidates have found this more challenging, despite the wide range of extra possible points marks being available. This resulted in the knowledge-based parts being more integrated into questions than before, reducing the need to regurgitate Core Reading text.

Moving our examinations online also meant some functional changes to certain examinations.

  • The examining teams have been mindful of the additional time to write questions with formulae in the answer. The IFoA has produced a 'Standard Keyboard Notation'  guide for particular subjects such as CM1, CM2, CS1, CS2, SP6 and SP9 where formulae are more likely to occur (though the standard notations may be used in any exam paper). 
  • For CB2, the IFoA removed questions that involve candidates producing diagrams, often required in previous examination questions

It’s also important to note that for some of the IFoA’s examinations, candidates will find little change in the paper format. For example, in the SP and SA subjects, many of the examination papers focused on Application and Higher-Order skills. Questions of this nature required candidates to show a deep knowledge and understanding of the subject's topics and as such the examination papers will not have changed.

How should candidates start preparing for exams in the online world?

There is no ‘golden rule’ for preparing for open book exams. However, there is a wealth of online resources and guides that candidates may find helpful.

The IFoA have provided a few useful tips on how to prepare for open book exams.

Prepare your resources

A well-prepared candidate should not be relying on reference material to pass their exam. You will need to study just as you would for any other exam. If you fail to learn the subject material before your exam sitting, even if you have the textbooks in front of you, you will not pass that exam. Remember: if you fail to prepare, then be prepared to fail.

Candidates might think having all the information in front of them might make their exam easier. Think again. Remember, our Examiners are looking for you to show how you might apply specific knowledge in a situation or context, so simply copying a definition in a textbook will not answer the question. Think Application, not Regurgitation.

Candidates should think about the most effective way of preparing their resources, including notes, study material or textbooks. What does this mean in practice?

  • Think about how real-life examples can be applied to these theories, concepts or ideas. Then, take a concept and think about how this might be applied to different sectors or industries.
  • Identify the key concepts / information / arguments/ theories / conceptual frameworks.
  • Think about what chapters, pages or areas you might find useful. Bookmarks, highlighters, post-it notes might come in handy. You do not want to waste precious examination time trying to find the information you need.
  • Consider writing brief summaries. This will help you prepare to put ideas, concepts or theory into your own words.
  • Bullet points, lists or tables are a good way of accessing information quickly.
  • Use clear headings and identify how topics might be connected. You need to access this information as effectively and quickly as possible not to waste exam time. 

Referencing within the exam

A well prepared candidate should not need to use external source material within their examination to answer the questions. The IFoA does not expect candidates to make frequent use of quotes or external references and we would only expect to see such material to help support or illustrate an answer. The vast majority of candidates in the April 2021 exams did not use any referenced sources, and those that did use referencing correctly, it formed only a tiny part of their overall paper.

The IFoA does not expect candidates to approach their exam paper as they would an essay or assignment; although we don't require full Harvard referencing or bibliography. However, acknowledging work that is not your own is a fundamental component of any business activity. If you are planning to reference any source material it must be done correctly or you might find yourself investigated for plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the act of copying or including the work of another person or your own previously assessed original work in your own work, intentionally or unintentionally, without proper acknowledgement. In its most common form plagiarism involves copying and pasting and/or reproducing material directly from another source. This could include core reading text, Acted resources and/or information obtained directly from internet sources or textbooks.

The IFoA recognises that answers to some questions in our examinations, which ask for basic information for example ‘definitions’, ‘principles’, ‘basic lists’, and ‘regulations’ may have been memorised as part of your revision strategy. These could be identical or very similar to the contents of your learning materials. Examiners and markers will be familiar with these questions, and candidates will not generally be investigated for plagiarism where such similarity is identified.

If you wish to support your answer with the external source material, the IFoA expects you to ensure you have added simple referencing to your paper. For example, it could be as simple as ‘IFoA SA7 Core Reading 2020, Unit 2, Page13, Paragraph 3.4’. It should come at the end of the sentence or paragraph that you are referencing.

How you can help?

The IFoA is always wanting to hear about how candidates are preparing for their examinations. If you have a useful technique for exam revisions that you think other candidates would be interested in hearing, please get in touch via Quality@actuaries.org.uk.