Try our course finder tool

CFA® Exam study tips: which techniques really work?

Here we explain the challenges candidates may face in mastering the study material for the CFA charter, discuss the latest research on learning methods, and how to efficiently learn and retain new information.

This blog post has been updated and was originally authored by Dr. Doug Van Eaton, CFA

CFA® exam study tips are easy to come by, so which tips and techniques really work?

Our job at Kaplan Professional and Kaplan Schweser is to help candidates prepare for and pass the CFA exam. Kaplan Schweser has been navigating the challenge of the CFA Program exam since 1990, and we understand what it takes to pass. Our study program has evolved over the years to create an engaging and motivating experience for CFA candidates, guiding them to exam success. Here we explain the challenges candidates may face in mastering the study material for the CFA charter, discuss the latest research on learning methods, and how to 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 offer little or no benefit.

The challenge of the CFA® exam

The Chartered Financial Analyst® (CFA) Program has become the most recognised and respected investment designation in the world. The CFA Charter is awarded by the CFA Institute to candidates who pass the three exams. CFA exams are more difficult and longer than most exams candidates will have sat. On average, candidates will study for approximately 300 hours over six months or more for each level of the exam. CFA charterholders are most often employed as portfolio managers, research analysts and chief-level corporate officers.

Given candidates typically have full-time jobs, family commitments and responsibilities limiting their available study time, it’s important their study is time-efficient. With the amount of material candidates are responsible for, it’s also important they retain learnings 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?

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 for how educators should teach, has cast serious doubt on the understanding of both subjects. For example, you may 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.” It has been around for decades and has influenced educational methods. Careful research into the origins and foundations of this claim has identified no evidence for it – just repeated references to this supposed fact.

Another example is the hundreds of articles and books 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. It has also been hailed as a technique that makes an impact on studying for exams, such as the CFA exams. Recent research about the foundation for such a belief has concluded there’s no empirical evidence to support it.

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, their general applicability across different student characteristics, learning conditions, materials and tasks. Here’s a partial summary of what they found:

Technique 1: Practice testing

Taking practice tests improves recall and retention, compared to simply re-studying material. This has been documented for decades. The current thinking is practice questions improve learning and retention because this activity creates information linkages, facilitating later recall. It’s also believed this practice helps students to better mentally organise 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 demonstrate when practice sessions were further apart in time, even 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 better when the interval between practice sessions was extended to 30 days. The retrieval of information after longer intervals is thought to require more intensive retrieval effort and 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, research ranked it as having only moderate value because similar results haven’t been demonstrated for more complex material.

Technique 4: Mixing Problems

Mixing question types requiring 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. However, numerous studies haven’t found this result effective, except for in mathematics. There’s little evidence it improves retention.

Technique 5: Highlighting and underlining

It’s difficult to find a used academic textbook without significant underlining and highlighting, as this is a frequently used study technique. Several studies have failed to find any difference in test performance among groups that highlighted text themselves, groups given previously highlighted text, and groups that didn’t highlight or underline text at all.

Technique 6: Summarising

Writing or speaking a summary of what has been studied didn’t raise test scores in classroom research. There’s 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 potentially write poor summaries.

Technique 7: Re-reading

Re-reading has been cited by 55% of students as their number one study technique. While there’s evidence it can improve test results, especially on memory-based tests and for the broad ideas of a text (rather than details), it’s 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 and clear mental images. This technique has been shown to improve test scores on memory-based tests but was ranked low value by the authors because these results were based on “imagery friendly materials and tests of memory”.

Top CFA exam study tips

Based on research, here are our top CFA exam study tips:

  • Study in shorter sessions over a longer period of time
  • Complete more practice questions and space out these sessions over time
  • Add topics to your practice questions as you move through the material
  • As you study, 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

Although the above study tips are considered more effective by research, nothing here demonstrates a particular method won’t work for you. It’s best to study in a way most effective for you using a method where you feel confident with.

Preparing for a CFA exam? Practice and prepare for your upcoming exam with Kaplan Schweser’s CFA exam preparation packages available for all levels.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Programs you might be interested in


Master of Applied Finance

Leading online degree designed for ambitious and savvy individuals who are looking for advanced academic rigour, but thrive on practical and real-world learning immediately applicable in the workplace, and directly relevant to future career roles. It caters to experienced finance professionals and those transitioning into the field, integrating learning outcomes with pathways for further accreditation such as a CFA®.

Master of Financial Planning

Our online, FAS-approved Master of Financial Planning is a purpose-built higher education qualification set at AQF level 9. It’s designed and developed in consultation with industry experts, and combines advanced technical rigour with practical and relevant performance-focused learning outcomes.

Graduate Diploma of Applied Finance

Set the direction of a financial career with the Graduate Diploma of Applied Finance. Individuals can choose to specialise in a particular area of professional practice, or follow a generalist pathway and study the subjects of interest.