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CFA® Exam Study Tips: Which Techniques Really Work?

By: Kaplan Schweser
January 8, 2021
Group of people using CFA study tips and techniques

CFA exam prep study tips are easy to come by. But which tips and techniques really work?

My job at Kaplan, at least the fun part, is to help candidates prepare for and pass the CFA exam. I have been working with CFA charter candidates for over 20 years, and have spent more than 10 years at Kaplan Schweser. In this article, I’ll explain the challenge candidates face in mastering the study material for the CFA charter and discuss what the latest research on learning methods tells us about how to most efficiently learn and retain new information. You may be surprised at which techniques research has shown to be most effective and which often-recommended techniques have been shown to offer little or no benefit.

The Challenge of the CFA® Exam

The Chartered Financial Analyst® designation is awarded by CFA Institute to candidates who pass three six-hour exams, over a period of at least three years. CFA charterholders are most often employed as portfolio managersresearch analysts, and chief-level corporate officers. CFA exams are more difficult and longer than most exams the candidates have taken thus far, even though most candidates have undergraduate and graduate degrees in finance or accounting. On average, candidates study for about 300 hours, over six months or more, for each level of the exam.

Given the fact that candidates typically have full-time jobs, in addition to family and other responsibilities that limit their available study time, it is very important that their study is efficient in terms of time spent. With the amount of material that candidates are responsible for, it’s also very important that they retain what they learn and can draw on it across the many topic areas on exam day. So, which study tips and techniques are the most useful for those who must learn and retain great amounts of new information?

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Searching for CFA Exam Study Tips and Techniques That Work

Recent research into commonly accepted theories of how we learn, as well as the implications drawn for how educators should teach, has cast serious doubt on much of what we thought we understood about both subjects. For example, I suspect many of you have heard something along the lines of, “We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and 30% of what we see.” This claim has been published in several forms with various percentages and definitions; it has been around for decades and has definitely influenced educational methods. It might even be in a list of CFA exam study tips somewhere. Careful research into the origins and foundations for such a claim has identified no evidence for it—just repeated references to this supposed fact.

Another example is the hundreds of articles and books that have been devoted to identifying the different “learning styles” of students. Identifying a student’s learning style and matching the educational methods and materials used to that style has been seen as a way to improve student learning and has been hailed as a technique that makes an impact on studying for exams like the CFA exams. Recent research about the foundation for such a belief has concluded that there is no empirical evidence to support it. Commercial products based on the claimed benefits of identifying various learning styles are widely offered.

By contrast, in a January 2013 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, five university researchers examined decades of evidence on the value of popular study techniques in terms of their increase in learning and retention, as well as their general applicability across different student characteristics, learning conditions, materials, and tasks. Here is a partial summary of what they found.

Technique 1: Practice Testing

The fact that taking practice tests improves recall and retention, compared to simply restudying the material, has been documented for decades. The current thinking is that completing practice questions improves learning and retention because this activity creates information linkages that facilitate later recall; it is also believed that this practice helps students to better mentally organize the material. Repeated practice tests continue to increase learning and retention, especially when practice tests are spread out over time.

Technique 2: Scheduling Practice Sessions Further Apart

These studies showed that when the practice sessions were further apart in time (by as little as one day), performance on a test 30 days after the study sessions concluded was significantly better. Although students forgot more from their previous practice session between sessions with longer intervening intervals, this improvement in final performance was actually better when the interval between practice sessions was extended to 30 days. The retrieval of the information after longer lags is thought to require more intensive retrieval effort and, in that way, may be related to the above results for practice testing.

Technique 3: Asking Why

When studying, asking why a particular fact is true and then developing the answer has proven to be moderately effective. This technique has been shown to increase scores on tests of factual material, for example. However, the authors ranked it as having only moderate utility because similar results have not been demonstrated for more complex material.

Technique 4: Mixing Problems

Mixing problems of different types that require different techniques, such as multiple-choice versus problem-solving, across the material to be learned is believed to lead to dramatically higher scores on an exam, but a number of studies have not found this result except in mathematics. There is little evidence that it improves retention.

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Technique 5: Highlighting and Underlining

It’s difficult to find a used college textbook without significant underlining and/or highlighting, sometimes in multiple colors; it is a very frequently used study technique. Several studies have failed to find any difference in test performance among groups that highlighted text on their own, groups given previously highlighted text, and groups that did not highlight or underline text at all.

Technique 6: Summarizing

Writing or speaking (to someone) a summary of what has been studied did not raise test scores in classroom research. There is a consistent finding that students who write better summaries do better on tests, but perhaps students who don’t understand and learn the material well just write poor summaries.

Technique 7: Rereading

Rereading has been cited by 55% of students as their number one study technique. While there is evidence that it can improve test results, especially on memory-based tests and for the broad ideas of a text (rather than details), it is relatively less effective than other techniques that take the same amount of time. This refers to the technique of mentally imagining the content of text paragraphs using simple, clear mental images. This technique has been shown to improve test scores on memory-based tests, but was ranked low utility by the authors because these results were based on “imagery friendly materials and tests of memory.”

Final CFA Exam Study Tips

So, based on this research, here are my final tips. Study in shorter sessions over a longer period of time. Complete more practice questions and space those question sessions over time. Add topics to your practice questions as you move through the material. As you study, ask why and provide yourself with explanations of why things are true or why relationships must hold, linking new topics to your previous knowledge for better recall and retention. These are proven methods that will work.

With that being said, nothing here demonstrates that a particular method will not work for you. I often write summaries of complex material for my own review, just to make sure I can explain things clearly and that the “story” holds together logically. I likely won’t give that up, especially for finance articles and research results that don’t come with any practice questions.

Happy studying and best wishes on your exams.

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