When I took a psychology class in freshman year, my professor had an interesting theory about learning mathematics. He said, "most people are scared of math because they didn't practice enough math problems. Actually anyone can be good at math. If you practice enough math problems, sooner or later, your mind will start to figure out how the numbers work together."

I've been suspecting what my professor suggested was actually the pattern recognition of math questions. To prepare for the actuarial exams, one of the common ways is to keep practicing the released past-years exam questions. After doing all the problems a few times, you will be familiar with all types of problems which are most commonly asked.

Just like learning a foreign language or playing piano, the more you practice the exam questions, the faster you can recognize what topics it is asking and the quicker you retrieve a solution from your memory.

I found an article "Pattern Recognition vs. Real Understanding" from Capitalism Magazine and it explained very well about how a student can develop the skill of pattern recognition and apply it in exam.

Solving differential equations is an art. There are quite a few techniques, and the trick is to recognize which technique will work on the particular equation of interest....Does this sound familiar to you? Sometimes I do feel this "subconscious, automatized ability" while solving certain kinds of exam problems. And usually, if I knew I passed the exam, I could faintly recall how to do the exam problems two months later.Faced with the application of differential equations to physics, Dave discovered that he had developed a subconscious, automatized ability to look at an equation and instinctively just know what technique to use. But he had never explicitly identified what he was doing, or why that was the right approach to solving this particular problem.

What he possessed was not real knowledge, but an acquired talent of pattern recognition, which—as it always does—faded when it was no longer in use.

Pattern recognition may not be the best way to learn math, but definitely it's an effective way to pass the first 4 actuarial exams.

Based on my experience, the SOA has been trying to come up with some creative problems set for last few settings. And I think they are trying to break this pattern recognition habits of the exam-takers. Hence, you still need a basic understanding of the core concepts in order to do well on the "unexpected" questions that you've never seen before.

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