How to Optimize Your CPA Exam Study Plan

cpa exam study planMany of us dread study plans, but it is a critical tool in time management — making sure we complete the review course, are not behind our studies, and have enough time buffer if something urgent comes up.

Besides, a good study plan “spaces out” the revision time, which helps immensely in retention. What’s this spacing effect? Let’s find out below.

Research on Spacing Effect

The University of California – San Diego conducted a large-scale research involving more than 1,300 participants aged between 18 to 72 years old.

Part 1

Each participant was faced with 32 difficult questions, for example, which European country likes spicy Mexican food the best? (Answer: Norway)

If they didn’t get it right, the researcher told them the correct answer. A few more questions later, the researcher repeated the same previously incorrect questions and if participants still didn’t get it right, correct answers were given again. This was done until the participants knew the answers to all 32 questions.

Part 1 is meant to simulate how students learn about a topic the first time.

Part 2

After a certain period of time (from 3 minutes to 3 months, depending on participants), they faced the same 32 questions again. This time, answers were given to all questions regardless of whether the participants answered correctly.

Part 2 is meant to simulate how students review and revise a topic.

Part 3

After a certain period of time (from 1 week to 350 days, depending on participants), they faced the same 32 questions but in the “exam” mode. This was meant to test what they have learned.

Result and Conclusion

The experiment may seem complicated but result is straight-forward: The more time between the “revisions”, the better the performance.

This is called the “spacing effect” — if we don’t allow enough time between the two study periods, we still remember the materials quite well, and therefore, the effectiveness of the second revision is lower. As discussed in previous post, repetitive testing/ revision is key to success and we want to maximize the impact from each revision.

On the other hand, if the time between the two study periods is too long, we may have forgotten everything we learn and that’s also not a good strategy.

How to Create Our Optimal CPA Exam Study Plan

The goal is find out the optimal time needed to space out the study periods.

It varies from one to another, but as a rule of thumb (based on the research):

  • If we are to prepare for an exam a week later, we do much better if we study every other day.
  • For an exam a month later, we might want to do it once every week.
  • For an exam a year later, reviewing once very 25 days is a good idea.

With this in mind, go work on your CPA exam study plan now!

Research Reference

  • Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102.
  • Cepeda, N. J., Mozer, M. C., Coburn, N., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2009). Optimizing distributed practice: Theoretical analysis and practical implications. Experimental Psychology, 56, 236-246.

About the Author Stephanie Ng

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley) and the publisher of this and several accounting professional exam prep sites

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