(Posted November 2023)
When we talk to candidates who were unsuccessful on their Core and Elective CPA exams, we discuss how they studied. There is a consistent theme we hear. They write the question, they read the solution, and then they move on thinking that was enough to understand why they were wrong. To get the most out of your studying for the CPA PEP modules for both the final Core and Elective exams and ultimately, the CFE, you need to do more to retain that knowledge. This process is called debriefing.
Debriefing is the process of working through the question to understand what went wrong and how to improve on future questions. This incorporates the concept of experiential learning or learning through experience. The experiential learning cycle contains four steps – experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting, and these steps not only help you learn the specific technical in the question, but also help you learn about your own learning process. Debriefing achieves this by taking the experience (writing the case) and providing a process for you to reflect on this experience, thinking about the reasons for the issues experienced, and then acting on those learnings by actively practicing and correcting those issues.
Let’s talk about how to effectively debrief multiple choice questions (MCQ) and practice cases.
Debriefing Multiple Choice Questions
Debriefing is more than just reading the correct answer if you answered a question incorrectly. The learning comes from understanding why the answer was wrong. When you debrief an MCQ, you want to read through all of the possible answers to understand why each incorrect answer was incorrect and why the correct answer was correct. This is not a passive process. You should be doing the calculations involved to have a better understanding of the process to calculate an item. You should be reviewing the wording of the MCQ to understand what trigger you may have missed or what wording you may have misinterpreted that led you to select the wrong answer. You may want to dig deeper if you do not understand from the support given, or if it is a technical area where you are not up to speed.
You should also debrief each MCQ that you answered correctly. If you got the question right because you were certain about the technical, then that is great. However, if you are like most of us, there are going to be more than a few MCQ that you guessed on and luckily selected the correct response. You still want to debrief those correct MCQ as well. Understand why you got the right answer and why the other options were wrong. Maybe you had to guess because you did not feel the question was worded clearly. Go back and assess the question and determine what you did not understand to ensure you will be able to comprehend that question better next time.
Debriefing Practice Cases
When it comes to debriefing PEP module practice cases, many candidates say they read the marking guide (the suggested solution) and mark their response to see what rankings they scored, but they do not do much else. Other candidates flip immediately to technical review and study everything that was tested in the case. Neither strategy is effective in helping you retain the knowledge you needed to apply in the case. Do not assume that the issues with your case response were technical weaknesses. There are many other reasons that you may have struggled with a specific issue.
Debriefing practice cases involves more than just reading the marking guide and doing technical review. You need to put on your detective hat and determine what went wrong. Perhaps you misread case facts or interpreted them incorrectly. Perhaps you missed part of the required. Perhaps you used too much time on one issue and ran out of time for the others. These are all reasons for poor performance that do not relate to your technical knowledge. To learn effectively, you have to dig deeper to determine what caused the poor ranking and deal with that specific problem.
For each assessment opportunity (AO) in the case where you did not score Competent, you need to go back and determine why you did not score Competent. Why did you score Not Addressed or Nominal Competence? Then, deal with that problem. If you misread case facts, go back to the case, reread those case facts and determine why you interpreted them incorrectly. For example, were you rushing your reading? Were you not tracking case facts effectively as you read?
Consider keeping a list of corrective actions that you regularly review. This will help you ensure that you are not continuing to make the same mistakes each time you write a case. Make it a goal to focus on the specific actions that may be occurring most frequently. Once you have succeeded in fixing the issue, you can remove the item from the corrective actions list.
You also need to actually attempt to rectify the issue by amending your response. For example, if you consistently forgot to explain the impact of the issues on your user, go back to your response and add in that impact to each of the issues you wrote. This will help train your brain to remember the need to include that component in your response for similar items going forward.
Another key component to debriefing is understanding what it takes to score Competent. For this, you will want to debrief every AO, even those where you did score Competent. As you debrief your cases, you will start to see patterns for how many issues were needed or how much depth is required to score Competent. This is a critical step to improving your case writing because it will help you better manage your time and focus on the important items.