Think Twice Before Taking This Conventional CFA Advice

Want to pass your exams? Start preparing the right way.
My email is and I'm preparing for
By Rachel Bryant, author of Direct Path to the CFA Charter

The same CFA advice is repeated over and over: set up a quiet study place, and let it be your study sanctuary. Only study in this one spot. The thing is… scientific research says to do the exact opposite. So does my experience in the CFA Program.

Varying the location in which you study means you will remember the information better, according to multiple research studies dating all the way back to 1978. Studying in different places helps the brain form deeper, more general memories of the material, rather than subconsciously associating the CFA material to the beige walls and cherry wood desk of your established “study spot.” According to an article in The Greatist, “Research suggests… that every time we move around, we force the brain to form new associations with the same material so it becomes a stronger memory.”

The research suggests that you can simply switch the room or place that you study and improve your retention. You can do this and still avoid distractions. You might be easily distracted and thus you might have set up a study sanctuary to eliminate potential diversions. This makes sense and I know your dilemma. My husband is so ADD that he won’t let himself face a television when we go to restaurants together, because otherwise he would spend the whole dinner glancing up at the television’s moving pictures. However, you can switch rooms and still maintain a quiet, distraction-free environment. Just roll your office chair into another room and shut the door.

There are numerous articles, psychological studies, and scientific books supporting the need for varying your study location (I’ve attached links to a number of articles at the bottom of this blog post). Unfortunately, as a Science Times article states, “schools continue to teach students methods that have been proven to be ineffective.” Similarly, according to the New York Times article Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits, “some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong.” In this article, Benedict Carey writes:

There are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying.

The findings can help anyone… But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Studying in One Location Is Particularly Risky for CFA Candidates

For CFA candidates, the advice to study in one location is particularly dangerous because the CFA exams cover so much material and are so far in the future. Remembering the material more deeply is the key to passing, but decades of scientific research says that the single location strategy has the reverse effect.

You also don’t want your brain making subconscious associations between the CFA material and a specific location. If you only study the CFA curriculum in the comfort of your quiet work space, what happens when you step outside that room to go take the exam? You won’t be taking the CFA exam in your study spot—you’ll be taking it in a brand new, foreign location. One of the best things you can do to prepare for this reality is to study in different places, even if simply in different rooms. If you’re truly committed to passing, throw open the door, embrace variety, and study somewhere else.

This made a significant difference as I studied for my CFA exams. Varying my study place helped me to remember the material better. It didn’t matter where I was—I could recite CFA equations anywhere. This also made me a more confident CFA test taker. I wasn’t emotionally or physically attached to any specific study place, so it didn’t matter that my CFA testing location was a scary hangar-like cavern resembling the loading dock from Star Trek.

I didn’t know research existed that supported my approach – I simply wanted to get as much studying done before dinner time as possible, which meant studying on my commute to work, during lunch in my office, and reviewing flashcards while exercising. Anything to win back more time with my family and friends in the evenings. It turns out that this approach of studying in different locations was the scientifically sound way to go – even if I didn’t know it!

“If you challenge conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.” – Michael Lewis

Sometimes, conventional advice is good until it’s not. In 2007, the advice that buying a house was a good investment worked until the crash of 2008. Similarly, studying in your sanctuary will be comfortable and cozy until the reality of test day arrives. The whole point of this process is to pass your CFA exams, so make sure you’re always preparing for that moment.

Studying in different places may feel jarring at first, and I completely understand and empathize with you. It was a weird transition for me, considering that I had been taught my whole life to sit in a quiet room and study until my brain hurt. Yet, the switch made a big, positive impact to my retention level and my test scores.

I like to remind candidates that almost everyone in the CFA Program studies hard. Pairing the hard work with reality-based techniques—like new study locations—turned my candidacy status into a CFA charter in two years. You want to make sure that your hard work translates into a passing score.

Consider the research and, for a change of pace tomorrow, consider studying in a library, coffee shop, or another room. If you’ve got any questions, drop them in the comments below!

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


Leave a Comment