A Scientifically-Proven Way to Study for the CFA Exam

Look to science to help you learn and remember more of what you study for the CFA exam

The phrase ‘study smarter, not harder’ is thrown around a lot but candidates may not be taking the advice to heart. Studying upwards of 300 hours for the CFA exam is hard enough but even that may not get you closer to the designation if you’re not retaining the information. You truly do need to master the material in order to recall it on the six-hour CFA exam and you won’t be able to do that by just reading through the curriculum.
We’ve already talked about the power of active learnings to remembering the CFA curriculum. We only remember about 10% of what we read and 20% of what we hear through these passive learning strategies. Working practice problems, flash cards and other active learning strategies can help you remember up to 90% of the material.
I thought I would explore a few more ways science has proven the best study methods and how you can incorporate them into your CFA study plan.
Keeping from Forgetting What You’ve Learned for the CFA
Ebbinghaus published his hypothesis on the ‘curve of forgetting’ in 1885, describing how we learn and forget information. The idea is that you learn everything you can about a topic through a study event or lecture but then start to lose the information over time if it’s not reinforced. If you do nothing to remember the information, you’ve lost up to 80% of it by the second day and retain just 2% in a matter of 30 days.
The solution is to reinforce the material and commit it to long-term memory by reminding yourself of the key points. Spending just 10 minutes studying the material the day after a lecture will help boost your memory back to full comprehension. After that, it takes less time revisiting the material to remember the bulk of the topic.
curve of forgetting
Using this idea in your CFA study plan means reviewing the material you study the following day and each week for the next month. Use study notes to review the key points and then do 15 or 20 minutes of practice problems.
Use active recall to convert to long-term memory
Work published in Psychological Science by a Washington University professor on a 2009 study shows that students remember material better when they actively recall it after studying. Instead of just reviewing notes or rereading material, close your book and verbally recite the key points to a topic. Do this just after studying and before reviewing the material.
Focus on one thing and don’t multitask
I know a lot of CFA candidates like to listen to music or sit in front of the TV while studying but research proves that these distractions cost you when you go to recall the information. Studies by Indiana University and Ohio State show that trying to multitask while studying interrupts the process of absorbing and retaining the material. Study more effectively by concentrating on just one thing and limit distractions.
Change up your environment
We talked about finding the ‘perfect’ CFA study location last week but there’s science behind finding a few different places to study. UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork points to evidence that changing your study location regularly helps to improve retention. It has to do with state-dependent learning and the idea that the brain associates learned material with the environment you were in when you learned it. Change up your location every few weeks and you’ll be able to recall the information no matter where you are.
Get moving before you get learning
Exercise gets your blood pumping and that includes to the brain. Research has proven that a brief period of exercise before studying can make you more alert and better able to learn.
So incorporating these five ideas into your study schedule could help boost your memory and get you those last few needed points on the CFA exam. Remember to use active learning by working practice problems and learning through all five senses (ok, maybe not so much through touch and taste). Actively recall the material after you study and then keep from forgetting by touching on it the next day. Keep physically active and focus only on your studying at different locations.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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