5 Steps to Mastering your Actuarial Exams (or any other skill)

Guest Blog by Mike Jennings, FSA, CERA, co-founder of Rethink Studying

The Science of Expert Performance

You’ve probably heard of the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers; you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in any field.

Gladwell based this idea off a research study of musicians. The original researcher (Anders Ericsson) has since disagreed with the 10,000 hour rule, but he confirms the one key component of mastery in any field: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is the gold standard of improvement. What distinguishes it from other types of practice?

In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson explains that deliberate practice has the following qualities:

  1. Well-defined, specific goals – don’t focus on overall improvement; break it into smaller building blocks that you can improve individually.
  2. Focus – give your full attention to the task. No multitasking.
  3. Feedback & response – find an objective way to measure progress and identify problems, and then adjust to correct those problems.
  4. Getting out of your comfort zone – constantly try things just beyond your current abilities, usually requiring a great amount of effort.
  5. Established training techniques & coaching – practice should be designed and overseen by a coach who understands how to develop the skills of expert performers.

The last point about coaching is difficult to follow for actuarial exams. Studying for these exams is largely a personal endeavor – you don’t have a coach overseeing your study sessions as you would with taking music lessons or practicing gymnastics.

Luckily, Ericsson addresses what to do in these scenarios.

Applying the Principles of Deliberate Practice

“This is the basic blueprint for getting better in any pursuit: get as close to deliberate practice as you can… In practice, this often boils down to purposeful practice with a few extra steps: first, identify the expert performers, then figure out what they do that makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.” -Anders Ericsson

Ericsson defines purposeful practice as the first 4 qualities listed above: Well-Defined Goals, Focus, Feedback, and Getting Out of your Comfort Zone.

In the absence of formal coaching, the next best thing is to follow strategies from top-performers in your field.

You can start using these concepts to immediately improve your study sessions. Here are a few examples of moving toward deliberate practice:

  • Well-defined, specific goals
    • Develop a schedule with specific goals for each study session.
    • Rather than a vague goal such as “Learn Annuities”, make it specific: watch 5 FM Learn videos on Level Annuities, and do a 10-problem Adapt quiz on the topic.
  • Focus
  • Feedback & response
    • Make note of the practice problems you struggle with, and revisit these later.
    • Become aware of why you struggled with a problem (e.g. couldn’t remember the formula, struggled with a calculus trick, didn’t know how to use your calculator, or couldn’t identify what the problem was asking for). Once you pinpoint the problem, practice specifically on improving that skill.
  • Getting out of your comfort-zone
    • Rather than using less demanding study methods such a rereading your notes, challenge yourself to become more active in your review (e.g. do practice problems, challenge yourself to explain the material in your own words, create flashcards).
    • If you’re consistently getting problems correct, increase the difficulty until you start making errors. Use the feedback & response process above to correct those.
  • Learn from top-performers in the field

Developing the skill of deliberate practice will not only get you through exams, but it will help you excel at any skill.

How Adapt Promotes Deliberate Practice

“In every area, some approaches to training are more effective than others… the most effective method of all: deliberate practice. It is the gold standard, the ideal to which anyone learning a skill should aspire.” -Anders Ericsson

The easiest way to implement deliberate practice for actuarial exams is with Coaching Actuaries Adapt product. Adapt fulfills the qualities of deliberate practice better than any other study aid:

Well-defined, specific goals: you receive a study schedule with your Adapt subscription, helping you break your exam prep into manageable chunks. Adapt lets you create quizzes to drill down on specific exam topics, so you can hone in on any weak points.

Feedback & response: after doing a quiz or practice exam on Adapt, you get instantaneous feedback on your score (advantage of computer scoring vs. self-scoring). You also get a model solution to show you exactly where you went wrong. And if you’re still confused, you can use the discussion forum to clear up any questions.

Getting out of your comfort zone: it’s called Adapt for a reason – the practice exams adapt to your knowledge level. As soon as you master the basic problems, Adapt bumps up your difficulty to keep you challenged and engaged.

When I was taking exams, I knew Adapt worked. But I never fully appreciated why it worked, hitting on the key areas of deliberate practice.

As you study (or practice any skill), remember that deliberate practice is the foundation of mastery. I hope you find this article useful in preparing for your next exam – good luck!


Mike Jennings, FSA, CERA

Mike is the co-founder of Rethink Studying, a website dedicated to help you pass your actuarial exams (while cutting down on study time). Check out the site for more tips on how to pass your actuarial exams.