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Memory vs. Understanding

Memory vs. Understanding

Many delegates ask me for advice on how they can improve their memory. Exams require candidates to be able to recall lots of facts so developing a good memory means you are more likely to pass. Sounds obvious but I believe it’s the wrong approach.

You need to make a distinction between memorising and understanding something. It’s possible to memorise all the different parts of the heart but that wouldn’t equip you to be a cardiologist. Moreover working on memorising rather than understanding the subject will often result in knowledge fade. If you rely on memory to pass J01 you will probably find that you have forgotten most of it by the time you get to AF1. If you understand something you retain that knowledge.

I have at best an average memory and at 63 it’s not getting any better. However I passed all six exams in the Regulated Financial Planning suite first time without doing any revision. The reason was that I had built up a deep understanding over the previous years in my work as a trainer. I achieved that by writing notes whenever I needed to learn something new.

When I run training courses I find very few delegates have written any notes. Many candidates have highlighted lots of their study texts but this is not the same thing. What should notes look like? They shouldn’t just be a summary of the text but should explain the subject or topic to you in your own words. Once you’ve done that you’ll always be able to recall the key points

The starting point is to select the topic you want to work on. This should be focussed so rather than writing on say Capital Gains Tax, you should split it into smaller elements. The syllabus will help you do this and for example under CGT you might have the treatment of losses, Principle Private Residence Relief, chattels and so on. Ideally at the start of your study process you should split the whole syllabus into these key topics.

You then research each topic. Use as many sources as you can, the main study text, the HMRC website together with anything you can find on the internet. Next write in your own words a summary of what you have found out. For example you could write your own explanation of how to calculate an IHT liability. This approach will also prompt you to ask questions. “If the situation was different would that rule apply?” “Are there any exceptions to this?” In other words it’s helping you identify what you don’t know. You answer these questions by doing further research until you are satisfied that you understand the subject.

This approach is effective for a number of reasons. First the fact that you are writing helps improve retention. Even if you were just to copy the study text, which I don’t recommend, you would find you remember more than if you had simply read it. However its main strength is that you have worked out the answers for yourself and have expressed these in your own words. Your notes become an explanation to yourself in a language and structure that is right for you and nobody else. Not only will this help you retain the knowledge for the exam, it will also help you give clear and simple explanations of complex subjects to your clients.

This approach does take time and it’s not something that can be started two weeks before the exam. It is though a very efficient form of study. You work on one small topic at a time with the set objective of researching and summarising. It’s possible to spend one hour on this and finish with a clear and measurable increase in your knowledge. You will certainly have learnt more than if you had just spent the hour reading the text. You will also find that re reading your notes will make your final revision period ahead of the exam far easier and more effective that going through the study text.

John Trayner is a Fellow of the CII and PFS and has worked extensively as a trainer.