(Posted January 2024)
Online learning introduces its own set of unique challenges. It is the responsibility of the learner to identify the pitfalls they are most susceptible to and proactively create safeguards to combat these. Together, let’s explore the following common pitfalls and the strategies you can implement to be proactive, so you get the most out of your online learning experience.
- Motivation slump
- Passive learning
- Memory retention
- Concept understanding
- Boredom and burnout
1. Motivation slump
Motivation is not linear. At some point in your study period, you will inevitably struggle to complete even the first task on your to-do list. While motivation slumps are normal, they are dangerous. If you are not careful, you can quickly lose several hours by scrolling internet platforms or even worse, fall days behind schedule. It matters that you prepare for and recover from these dips in motivation. The good news is that building motivation is relatively easy and requires simple proactive and intentional actions.
- Motivation reminders – Why are you here? Why are you writing the CFE? What is your big-picture goal that this helps you achieve? Write this down or print it and hang it in your room or above your study space. Make it your phone background. We know it sounds cliché, but many candidates have told us that the visibility of their “why” carried them through numerous motivational dips.
- Streaks – Have you noticed that you struggle to drink an adequate amount of water for a few days in a row, but your Snapchat streak is several months? This is partially due to how easy it is to send a snap but is largely due to the dopamine reward you receive from consistently showing up. Preparing for the CFE is a marathon and extra motivation can go a long way. Use mobile apps for tracking habits streaks to keep you on track with your study plan. Streaks for iOS or HabitNow for Android can help you build the habit of sticking to your schedule. Simply add the habit “Completed Densmore tasks today” to your habits list and watch the streaks grow as you stay on track. If you break a streak, remember, you are only one day away from starting another one.
2. Passive learning
After a few hours, or even after a few minutes of reading or viewing an online lecture if you’re honest, we tend to lose focus, particularly when we’re already stressed or tired. We’re sorry to break it to you, but you’re going to be stressed and tired more than normal in the next few months. It will pass, we promise, but for now, you need to prepare for the impact this has on your ability to focus and retain knowledge.
- Active notetaking – Research consistently proves that active notetaking improves knowledge retention. Take handwritten or digital notes during CFE Prep sessions and while studying. While you may not come back to review these notes, the act of using abbreviations, symbols, and personal annotations to summarize content will increase knowledge retention and make you engage with the content. We prefer our reliable paper, pen, and highlighter, but what method of note-taking works for you? It may be using a tablet, a Word document, OneNote, or another method. Don’t be afraid to try new things, particularly if you don’t already have a method you prefer. The method matters less than the fact you should consistently take notes.
- Flashcards – Make your notetaking pay back in dividends by creating concise flashcards for key concepts that can be then be used as study aids later. You may even want to purchase the multicolour pack of flashcards and organize them by topic area. We’ll loop back to this tool shortly.
3. Memory retention
It is difficult to transfer what is in your short-term memory to your long-term memory. If you have ever wondered why you still remember the words to a childhood song you sang daily but have not sung in a decade but you cannot remember concepts from the fourth-year undergraduate exam you crammed for a couple of years ago, the reason is that through repetition one entered your long-term memory and one did not. The CFE is a long game. You need to intentionally use strategies that will move the concepts you learn preparing for the CFE into your long-term memory.
- Spaced repetition – Spaced repetition is a learning technique that involves reviewing and revisiting material to recall the information as you are about to forget it. It is based on the findings by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who discovered that without reinforcement, most of the information is forgotten within the first hour and continues to decline rapidly from there. If you do not want to see an entire day of studying lost, integrate spaced repetition into your studying.At the end of the day, take a few moments to jot down a summary of what you have learned. This should be no more than 5-10 sentences and in point form. For example, if you debriefed a case with several assessment opportunities (AOs), you may write “Five rev rec steps under IFRS, labour variance formulas, WIR analysis,” etc. At the end of the week, take one hour to review these summaries. If when reading the summaries, you are not able to recall some of the details learned (e.g., you do not remember what the five revenue recognition steps for IFRS are, or where to find them in the CPA Handbook), take a few minutes to refresh your memory – go to your debriefed case and review your debriefing changes for a particular AO or review the Densmore scenario flowchart. When you come back the next week to begin studying, review the previous week’s summaries and your corrective actions list.
- Self-quizzing – Self-quizzing involves actively testing yourself with material you developed or acquired as a retrieval practice. These memory tests will reinforce neural pathways to build long-term memory. You can easily integrate this into your CFE preparations by making flashcards of technical topics you are struggling with. If there are topics you have seen on a practice case or in the scenario flowcharts but still cannot seem to remember the details, consider creating flashcards. Review these weekly or as often as needed for 5-10 minutes. Another way to self-quiz is to periodically write down key concepts or facts from memory. This could be done for commonly tested topics (e.g., the steps of your CFE Day 1, 2 and 3 case approaches, or for common quantitative analysis triggers). If you struggle to accumulate valuable content on the blank page during this free-write, review the concepts in your scenario flowcharts workbook or Densmore session notes to help you build long-term memory.
4. Understanding Concepts
Some learners find it easy to memorize concepts but challenging to understand them, integrate them with other learned topics, or apply them which all suggest a lack of understanding. It is not enough to know the material – you need to know what it means. While our team of experienced instructors is always available on the Densmore online forum to answer your questions, there are other methods you can also try that are proven to increase understanding and knowledge retention.
- Teach it – One of the most effective strategies for retaining and understanding knowledge is to teach it to another person. This is best done with another CFE candidate who can provide feedback or contradict your oversights. Some candidates believe finding a study partner is optional but having one will significantly contribute to your success on the CFE. If you do not have a friend or colleague taking the CFE with you, use the Densmore forums to find a study partner. To read more about how a study partner can help you pass the CFE, visit our blog, “Why a Study Partner Makes Sense”. If your CFE prep study partner is not available at the end of the study day to “teach”, find a roommate or even a family pet, and you will have a captive audience as you explain the many tax credits available to them.
- Mind Mapping – Mind mapping is the process of creating visual mind maps to connect related concepts and improve understanding. You can use colors, images, and keywords to make the mind map visually appealing and memorable. An example of where this type of map could be used is for mapping the process of selecting which report to use for Assurance special engagements.
5. Boredom and burnout
It is no secret that online learning is tiring. While employing all of the above strategies will help reduce boredom and burnout, sometimes you just need to take a break.
- Pomodoro Technique – The Pomodoro Technique involves studying for focused intervals followed by short, frequent breaks to refresh your mind. This method has been shown to improve concentration and knowledge retention while reducing burnout. Study in 30-minute intervals followed by 5-10 minute breaks. If you feel confident, extend your study intervals to 45 or 60 minutes, but if you find your focus is failing, take a short break to reset.
- Taking Breaks – It is important to take breaks throughout your study day, but you should use your breaks well – stretch, do a meditation on a mindfulness app or YouTube, take a short walk, or refresh your coffee. Try not to use this time on social media – the information overload can distract your mind from the concepts you’re learning. Instead, schedule time on TikTok, Snapchat, and IG in your mornings and evenings so you can stay connected without reducing the effectiveness of your study time.
You have come this far in your journey to your CPA and demonstrated you can succeed. While the CFE is like no other exam you have written before, we are here to help, and with a proactive and intentional approach, you can navigate the challenges of online learning and be as successful on the CFE as you have been in the rest of your journey.