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Oh, those certification (cert) exams! There’s so much content!

“Help! Is there any way to streamline the learning process in preparation for my next certification exam?”

The massive number of acronyms, new concepts, dozens of new definitions, performance skills to master, coupled with busy family and life responsibilities, can feel overwhelming to anyone. Information Technology (IT) study resources can be 500-1,500 pages. Content is often supplemented with learning labs, practice questions, graphs, diagrams, and other exam-related content.

Do test taking strategies or shortcuts exist? Are there any study strategies that can make this easier? Anything helps!

My name is Gary Bell. I have spent the last 13 years of my life teaching IT courses, and 15 years before that working in the IT industry. Over time, I have discovered test taking tips that I have incorporated into my own IT exam preparation. If you are open to either new or amended exam preparation strategies, see if these same strategies can work for you, too.

Preparing for an Exam

I have always suspected that some individuals are better test-takers than others. They seem to have secret ways to prepare for exams or a gift to perform well taking exams. I seem to fall in the category of “others.” Because of that and because of the volume of information to be studied, slowly and methodically over the years I have developed some personal strategies to assist in absorbing huge amounts of new information. Maybe they can help you, too. Below are my tips on how to prepare for a test and build up your test preparation skills.

Attitude and Emotion

Here’s a surprising strategy. Our attitude and our emotional ability to work with technologies may be key in IT career success.

Considering attitude, do you really want this IT position? Or do you feel you are compelled to accept a position because of the feeling, “I need to feed my family?”

Regarding emotional ability, do you have the “emotional stability to be more responsible, better able to focus on the task at hand and pay attention, be less impulsive with more self-control, and improve your scores on achievement tests” (Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, publisher, Bantum, 1997, p. 284)?

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman expounds on why emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ. Developing IT skills is hard enough. It takes time, practice, experience, and patience to become proficient with IT skills. If an individual faithfully desires to succeed in an IT career, then the journey will becomes much easier.

Before an exam, make sure that your attitude is in the right place and that you’re not in emotional turmoil. Don’t let recent life events distract you from focusing on the exam.

Exam Objectives

Match study material to exam objectives. Supplemental IT content is usually included because it may be related to the topic being discussed. However, if it is not listed in the exam objectives, consider absorbing that material later. Keep a copy of exam objectives handy for quick review, and let these objectives guide where you spend your study time. This is one of the most important test preparation strategies when it comes to spending your time wisely!

Bookend Preparation

Many exam objectives require becoming familiar with steps, or lists of courses of action. Most anyone can master memorization, or learning one list. Often there are many lists (or sequences of steps) that should be mastered before sitting for an exam.

Make it simple. Learn the “bookends” first. Here’s an example: for a six item (step) list, memorize the first and last steps first. These steps are usually very logical and easy to remember. For example, consider the following list of CompTIA’s A+ troubleshooting best practice steps that will appear in their revised and updated version of this certification due in 2019:

CompTIA A+ Best Practice Troubleshooting Steps

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Establish a theory of probable cause
  3. Test the theory
  4. Establish a plan of action to resolve the problem and implement the solution
  5. Verify full system functionality and, if applicable, implement preventive measures
  6. Document findings, actions, and outcomes

Troubleshooting usually begins with verification (identification) that a problem actually exists – the first step. Upon resolution, documenting activity associated with the problem and resolution must be recorded – the last step. Now you know two steps.

That leaves only four more to grasp. Try for two more. It should be fairly obvious that you should verify (test) your solution before you complete documentation (Step 5). And before you verify full system functionality, one must perform the fix (implement the solution) (Step 4).

Now, there are only two more to go. Do you think you could come up with a plan for the last two (Steps 2, 3)?

The more important I think the list content is relative to the objectives, the more apt I am to learn (memorize) all the steps. Less important lists, at least in my view, tend to just get the “bookend” treatment. By solidly knowing one or two or three steps in any type of list, often I can figure out a test question answer even if it’s about a step I did not pay much attention to.

This method also applies to the content within the steps. To be truly prepared for questions related to steps or lists, you must be prepared for the content within the steps. For example, if you were asked “Which step would a technician typically ask the user?” The answer is Step 1, because it is part of identifying and verifying a problem condition exists.

Short of learning every list in maximum detail, it is better to know 1-3 steps of a given list well, as opposed to, “I sort of remember that in the textbook, but I can’t quite remember the exact order or what was in the steps.”

Time Allocation Absorption (TAA)

Some material is essential to know not only for exam preparation but also to be able to function quickly and efficiently in the field (job performance). Looking up resources certainly works, but that activity can be slow and may indicate a tech is not ready for the task at hand.

I developed a method for my test prep which I call Time Allocation Absorption (TAA). A more simple description might be called Mini Index Card Method. This strategy allows more focus (time) to areas most needed. This works well for short word-and-description material I need to master, and is one of the best ways to study for an exam.

Two examples are IP port numbers and acronym identification. Here’s how it works. I create a small stack of index cards (any color) cut into two pieces (½ size of a standard index card). Using the port number example, I write the TCP/IP protocol on one side, and the associated default TCP/UDP port number(s) on the other side.

Test Taking Strategies 1 Test Taking Strategies 1

Referencing exam objectives, I produce a card for every listed protocol or port number. I do the same for the acronyms. The acronym goes on one side, the full-word representation on the other.

Now here’s the learning method. In no particular order, I read the first protocol; recite to myself the associated port number, if I know it. If not, I flip the card and peek at the answer, spending a brief moment memorizing.

Next, I go to the second card and repeat the process. When satisfied, I go back to the first card and repeat the process for card #1 and #2. If I get both correct, then the process moves to card #3. If I get it correct or incorrect, I go back to #1, and repeat through the first three cards. If I miss one, I start over. If I get them all correct, I move to card #4. I repeat this process until the entire stack is completed.

Notice what is happening here. When I reach the final card in a 20 card stack, in theory, I have seen card #1 twenty times, card #2 nineteen times, card #3 eighteen times, etc. all the way to the end. I do not pretend that I have nailed down the beginning cards and skip them. What I am doing is reinforcing what I should have already learned.

Repetition accelerates learning.
The repetition process should begin to permanently etch port-number associations into my long-term memory. For content that needs a little work, just reshuffle the cards and place any unlearned content towards the front. For more information on this technique, check out this video demonstration.

Self-Assessment and the ABC Method

How do you know if you are exam-ready? Is it just a feeling, or is there an objective signal stating that you are ready? At some point the decision must be made. It’s time! How do you really know when?

Assessments! Assessments are your best friend!
The only way a student pilot will ever get to fly an airplane on his/her own is by the grace of an assessment by a licensed and experienced pilot instructor. For IT people, the same principle can apply. Assessments can greatly help determine your state of readiness.

Assessments (or practice tests) evaluate one’s ability to answer questions related to the content. Here are two methods to consider.

First, take as many practice tests from different authors (publishers) as possible, not just from one. Consider using at least three authors that offer multiple quizzes and tests. I typically use three to five authors. Why so many?

I have noticed with this method that there seems to be many questions that are strikingly similar comparing one author to another. To me, this is a clue that I had better be sure I am familiar with the question, the correct answer, and the wrong answers. Right or wrong, I assume that most of the question writers are also certified. Maybe they know something that I should too.

Watch out! IT industry questions can come is surprisingly different formats. Only studying one set of questions from one publisher could be a bit misleading if you are expecting similar exam questions. Exams could offer very different question formats. Exposing yourself to varying question formats can only be beneficial.

Second, consider the ABC method (my term). Use chapter quizzes and/or full-length practice exams. Hopefully they are provided with your study material. Next, on a sheet of notebook paper or using a word processor, create three to five columns and label them each A, B, C, to start (D and E are optional). Down the left hand side number the quizzes or tests you might be taking. If there are 11 quizzes, there will be 12 rows numbered from 1-11 and row 12 can be labeled Total (average %).

Test Taking Strategies 3Now take the first quiz (Row 1-A). I prefer taking this assessment before I read or study the content. I do not look up anything, or cheat myself, or pretend I know the answer. I want to record exactly what I know and do not know. I finish all the quizzes in the first column (A), and record my honest scores for each.

I study the content. Then I take the same quizzes for the B column, and never in the same day. (Even I can remember an answer if it was reviewed a few minutes ago.)

My goal is to keep repeating the above process until my scores are at a minimum of 90%. Hopefully, I can do this by the time I reach the C column. If not, I may have to expand the columns to D or E. Strive for 95% or higher. Repeat the process until all quizzes and practice exams are well in the >90% range. Once I reach that plateau, I schedule the exam.

Notice the log on the right that I used for a cert exam. Some content I had a better understanding than others in the beginning. One caution is I try to avoid (not pretend) I know an answer when I really do not.

I mentioned earlier that it is possible to prove that changing an answer creates more wrong answers than right answers. Well, in the process above, I noticed that when I change answers, I very often get it wrong. I have not actually logged that kind of data, so I cannot verify it even to myself. But I am totally convinced that changing an unsure answer is not in the best interest of getting the most answers correct.

Learn vs. Memorize

Exam preparation requires memorization, at least in the beginning. Some content may be worth memorizing just for an exam. But much content is well worth learning (committed to long-term memory) not only for a cert exam, but to be able to function when landing that next position. You never know what type of pre-employment assessment you might encounter. You definitely want to be prepared by retaining as much content as possible.

Be careful here, but I do tend to classify some content as retainable just for the exam. Then I magically seem to forget it.

Buckle-down Method

Certification exams are not necessarily easy. I do not recommend “shortcuts” as a primary strategy. Every exam subject deserves our best efforts: the buckle-down method. It’s the real “shortcut” for long-term success.

Sitting for an Exam

Common Exam Tips

This is just a reminder of common strategies that can apply on most any exam:

  • Prepare for exam day. Get a good night’s rest, make time to have breakfast and get to the exam on time.
  • Read the question, every word. Watch for words like is or is not, always or sometimes.
  • Learn to identify distracters and to ignore them, as they have nothing to do with the question.
  • Eliminate the obvious wrong answers first, then consider what’s remaining.
  • Consider reading the answers first, then the question.
  • If allowed, start by writing out a brain dump of important info you’ve memorized on a scratch sheet.
  • Be aware of time spent on each question and don’t let a tough one take up too much of your time. Come back to it if needed.
  • Use all of the time available to you. If you finish the exam, go back over your answers to look for any mistakes.
  • Take deep breaths and stay calm. Panicking will not do you an favors!

While I cannot verify that these strategies are solid, I have spoken to individuals who swear by them.

Don’t Change Answers

The first strategy requires no study effort. None. Only “question awareness”. Avoid changing an exam answer in which you are unsure, also known as – guessing. Leave your first intuition (answer) alone, and move on.

When I first started graduate school, my professor explained this concept to my class. She explained that changing an answer can result in a 45 percent chance of getting the question correct. Leaving your first answer “as is” produces a 53 percent chance of getting the question right.

Using those numbers, a test-taker could get eight more questions answered correctly on a 100 question exam. That could easily mean the difference between pass or fail.

CompTIA, an IT industry certification provider, also supports this strategy. In their course material (IT Fundamentals) testing suggestion section, they state, “Studies indicate that when students change their answers they usually change them to the wrong answer.”

I have used this strategy ever since I first learned of it. Is there any way to prove that it works? Maybe. That will be addressed later in this writing.

Skip the Hard Ones

From personal experience, other cert takers, and suggestions provided by industry exam providers, consider skipping the harder questions, and return to them later.

Some certification exams present performance-based questions. They seem to appear towards the beginning of exams. The recommendation is that if you cannot work out a satisfactory answer quickly, mark it for review (if your exam allows it). Continue and answer the rest of the questions that might be more quickly answered. Also consider marking any other question (i.e., multiple-choice) for “review” if you find yourself spending excess time on them as well.

After completing the last question, return to the questions you have marked for review. In most cases you will have more than enough time to complete all questions. Each question counts the same on most tests, so the strategy is to get the highest number of questions correct, not necessarily the hardest.

This method works! In 2002, I spent too much time on the first five questions of a Network+ exam. Suddenly, I realized I was almost out of time to answer the remaining 85 questions. In a sweating panic, I blasted through the rest of the questions. The result was good. But the journey (pressure) of getting there was miserable. I learned the hard way. You don’t have to.

Summary

Never allow a single exam to define your career. Regardless of if you pass or fail an exam, your next charge is to press on. If you pass, do not relax, take the next cert in sequence, attend the next webinar, seminar, or training class, but ABL (always be learning). If you fall short on an exam, identify what needs to improve, and go back and succeed.

Never allow a single certification exam to define your career.

Perhaps by applying these test taking strategies and study strategies for exam preparation, you will feel more confident about your career progress.

Much success,

Gary Bell