Time to end the old closed book/handwritten exams for actuaries (and lots of others too)?

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A recently qualified UK actuary (Actuarial Outpost handle “SugarBaron”) wrote eloquently two days ago about the deficiencies s/he perceives in the current exam system for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, which of course the newly merged body inherited from the two predecessor bodies.  You can find SugarBaron’s original post here, plus some ensuing comments on the Actuarial Outpost.

I have to say that I agree with a lot of what SugarBaron says, and I was sad to realise that many of the complaints were ones that I and my contemporaries were making when I qualified 21 years ago in 1989 – in other words, there seems to have been little progress since then, at least as far as the exams system goes.  (My impression is that the tuition material has probably improved, but I haven’t looked at this in any detail.)

One of the points that SugarBaron makes is that it seems unfair to force exam candidates to write answers by hand (thus penalising those who write slowly or whose handwriting is not very clear), when in their real life work they do very little by hand. Instead, SugarBaron proposes that candidates be allowed to type their answers, surely not an unreasonable request given that we are in 2010.

I agree – it does seem as if in this regard, the exam system has not changed since, say 1910, and would like to propose that the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries consider changing the exams as soon as reasonably practical to a 21st century system, perhaps something like the following:

1.  All candidates to take their exams by typing on basic computers (which could be either desktops or notebooks) equipped with Microsoft Word and Excel (or if the organisers preferred an open source or Mac equivalent)

2.  Candidates should be allowed to bring in one USB drive which may contain whatever background material they like.  In the real world, actuaries have access to reference materials (including drafts of previous, similar letters and reports), and it is extremely rare that they have to carry out work without such access, and indeed it could be argued that it would be reckless of them to do so without checking their work against previously relevant material.

3.  The computers in the examination centre need to be configured (and this is easy to do via disabling networking or the IP protocol on the pc and only giving the user accounts very limited privileges) so that no access to the internet is possible.  This appears to contradict 2. above, but seems to be essential because otherwise it would be very difficult to stop cheating via candidates sharing answers, getting answers from somebody outside the exam room.  (I know that in real life actuaries can and do ask colleagues for their opinions, but the purpose of the exam is to test whether the particular individuals sitting the exam have sufficient knowledge, without help from other people [accessing reference materials is different, it is simply making use of the tools of the trade, in the same way as typing on a computer, or using Excel or a calculator to perform calculations]).

4.  To prevent any possibility of candidates sharing answers via passing USB drives to each other, the desks need to be sufficiently far apart, and the entire exam session needs to be filmed by sufficient cameras to cover the whole hall, and candidates need to be made aware of this fact.  (Such filming devices are now relatively cheap and can be obtained from computer retailers such as PC World.)  Invigilators would also be present, as they are at the moment.

5.  A complication arises in situations where candidates need to be able either to draw, or to use mathematical or actuarial symbols that aren’t part of the word processing package installed on the computers.  In the case of the mathematical and actuarial symbols, this ought to be solvable by preinstalling images of such symbols on each computer, which can then be copied and pasted as needed.  In the case of diagrams, Microsoft Word includes facilities for creating flowcharts and various shapes which could be used for diagrams of system processes.  If free form diagrams are needed, these can be done (albeit with varying degrees of difficulty according to the mouse usage skills of individual candidates) in Microsoft Paint or similar, but such diagrams ought to be rarely needed for actuarial exams.  Alternatively, the computers could either allow touch operation, or the examination hall could be equipped with a scanner which the candidates could use after having drawn a diagram in the old fashioned way on a piece of paper.

6.  Candidates would no longer need to bring calculators to exams because they could use Excel (or the equivalent) installed on the pc.  (In theory, they might be able to run programs installed on the USB drive: whether this should be permitted or not needs further thought.  Such programs could include actuarial calculators which could supply annuity values or commutation function values.  My inclination is to think that, in line with 2. above, again such calculators form part of the toolkit available to actuaries in real life, so students should be allowed access to them.  If the exam is one of the earlier ones which tests that the student knows the details of how to calculate an annuity value, then the exam should require the student to show the detailed steps involved in the calculation, so if the student doesn’t know these, having a calculator display the final answer will not help the student to hide his or her ignorance of the detailed steps.  If the actuarial calculator has a facility which shows the detailed steps then that is another matter – perhaps this should be disallowed [in the same way that at the moment I understand that only certain models of calculators are allowed to be taken into the exam room], or yet again, if in real life the actuary would get the correct answer thanks to such tools then why impose an artificial handicap?  The exam questions ought to be sufficiently cleverly designed to enable those candidates who understand the material to be identified from those who do not.)

7.  This would also be environmentally friendly, by reducing the vast volumes of examination scripts which are currently produced, printed, posted to examination centres, written on by candidates, and then (unless they are scanned and sent electronically, but I suspect not at present) posted to assistant examiners to mark, then posted back to a central location for collation.  Instead, the exam questions can be sent by email to each exam centre, and then the electronic answer files produced by each candidate can be emailed to assistant examiners, who can then mark them electronically (e.g. via adding comments and marks via Word’s Track Changes) before emailing the marked files back to a central location.

8.  As always, special provision will be needed for candidates with visual or other impairments.  I am unaware of what provision is currently made for candidates with visual impairment, but I’m sure that an electronic solution can be found in such cases too. Similarly for candidates who are unable to type: voice activated computers should be part of the solution here.

I have sent a link to this article to the Secretary of the Qualifications Executive Committee (QEC, the body within the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries with direct responsibility for education) and welcome the QEC’s comments both on SugarBaron’s original paper and on the suggestions made here.

Of course, if the suggestions made here are practicable, then this has implications for all sorts of other exams, including school, university, accountancy, medical, legal, etc., although of course different areas may require differently configured computers at exam centres (e.g. there is likely to be much more emphasis on free form drawing in biology, medicine).  For some exams (and for the practical parts of some subjects), computers may not be suitable, e.g. science practicals, music performance, art etc.

But we should stop thinking that just because things have been done a particular way for years/decades, that now isn’t the right time to start moving to a better way.

I think the Institute and Faculty, in the year of its formation as the newly merged body, could do far worse than keeping the following in mind on lots of different fronts (including reducing environmental costs, which the changes above would help)

Business as usual is no longer acceptable: it’s 2010!

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One Response to Time to end the old closed book/handwritten exams for actuaries (and lots of others too)?

  1. Pingback: Institute and Faculty of Actuaries Council Election: voting closes today at 1600 UK time! | 21st century actuary's blog

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