Mind matters

December 2022

Mark Foley has five top tips for mastering complex exam topics.

Complex exam topics can be anxiety-provoking. But nothing beats the ‘eureka’ moment when concepts finally click.

Challenges in CIMA’s CGMA professional qualification journey will differ for everyone, but the ‘P’ papers, meaning the objective exams under the performance pillar, are likely to top the list for many.

Whichever exams or concepts you find most challenging, the good news is your brain can form and strengthen connections with the right study techniques.

If you get confused during revision, try these tips for making sense of complex topics.

Look at the big picture

Before diving head-first into complex material, take a macro view of the study text for the topic you’re reviewing.
If you’re working with a textbook, review the table of contents first and chapter introductions to understand the objectives of the material better. Or, if there is a particular topic you’re struggling with, try reading the headings, subheads and bullet points throughout that chapter or reference material to get an overall grasp of the concepts before homing in on the details.

Study in short, consistent bursts

Research shows that pacing yourself rather than cramming can strengthen your brain’s retrieval and storage capabilities. Aim to structure your study time to include breaks, leaving time for your brain to absorb concepts.
Our brains thrive on a balance of focused and diffuse thinking, so try reading over a complex topic and then letting it simmer for a day or two before returning to the material.
In addition to spreading out your study time, it can help to break complex topics into smaller pieces. For example, if you’re struggling to understand financial instruments, try focusing on one type at a time, such as futures or options.

Try explaining concepts in different ways

If you’re struggling with a concept, it might be tempting to memorise the definition and move on. However, concepts often build on one another throughout the CIMA journey, so it’s

worth taking the time to truly understand each major topic in CIMA’s CGMA syllabus.
One way to test whether you have a solid grasp of a concept is to try explaining it in a variety of ways, such as:

• Thinking of an analogy using a subject of particular interest to you, such as football or cricket.
• Drawing a simple illustration or diagram of the concept.
• Listing real-life examples that illustrate the scenario.

You could also try using the Feynman technique, which involves explaining a concept in the simplest terms possible, without jargon, to someone else. As the other person asks questions, they may reveal gaps in your knowledge. You can then focus your studies on filling those gaps before explaining the concept again.

Switch study techniques

Try switching to writing or question practice if you’ve been pouring over a textbook for hours.

Other potential learning modes include:

• Watching videos on the topic.
• Writing an explanation of a concept.
• Listening to podcasts on the subject.
• Creating a mind map connecting the concept to related topics.
• Making flashcards of key points.

The point is to try several techniques until your brain latches on to the material.

Find a tuition provider

If you’re not already working with a CIMA Registered Tuition Provider, consider finding a course provider to help guide you through the material.

Tuition providers know the exams inside and out and receive regular updates about any exam changes. You can choose between in-person, online and hybrid study options.

When you’re struggling with a complex topic, nothing beats expert guidance.

Mark Foley, Director of Relationship Programmes – Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA