Evaluating different methods of preparing for a certification exam, Part 2
Posted on
June 5, 2023

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Note: To read Part 1 In this series, click here.

What are the best methods of preparing for a certification exam?

My favorite subject to write on, and certainly one that I keep abreast of, is certification study methods. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and many different ways to study and prepare for an IT certification exam. It's always exciting to discuss this topic knowing that each individual certification candidate has different strengths, and each will use their own mix of preparation methods to succeed.

I wrote about exam preparation methods in the January issue of Certification Magazine. For that article, I discussed self-study using reading or listening material, instructor-led classes, boot camps, product documentation for vendor-specific technologies, and on-the-job training. This time around, I'll focus on five more different study approaches.

Each of the following of the following exam preparation methods can help secure a passing score:

1) Practice exams
2) Online courses
3) Mailing lists and online forums
4) Computer-based labs and simulations
5) Community college courses

Practice exams

A practice exam is an alternate, ungraded version of a real exam. A practice exam has the same format as the actual certification exam, meaning that if your practice exam has 20 multiple-choice questions and four essay questions, then so will your actual exam. The practice exam looks and feels like an actual exam, so it is a good way to familiarize yourself with the test-taking experience.

Practical, hands-on types will really get a boost from using this method. I personally love this approach and frequently take numerous practice exams before attempting an actual certification exam.

More important than its format, however, is the content of your practice exam. It should cover similar material as what will be on the actual exam. Not exactly the same, of course — you won't see any of the same questions on the actual exam. (Avoid brain dumps. Memorizing actual test content is a violation of both ethics and policies, and ultimately serves no one's best interests.)

Practice exam questions do cover the same distribution of subject matter, however, and are at a similar level of difficulty, as the actual exam. You'll get a clear idea of what will be expected of you when it's time to head to the testing center, or log on to take an online exam.

Practice exams are not proctored and don't have restrictions on using study material such as guidebooks. Your responses are not recorded and scored. But you do get feedback at the end, so you'll know which questions you got right and wrong, and you'll know which content to focus on while you continue to study and review.

What are the best methods of preparing for a certification exam?

You can also almost always take a practice exam as many times as you like. In some cases, you may see different questions each time you take it, providing you with a fuller and richer review of subject matter.

Some tips on practice exams that will make them go smoother. Try to simulate the conditions you will experience when you sit for the actual exam. If your actual exam is online, take the practice exam in the location where you will be taking the real exam. If your exam will be at a testing center, make sure you're familiar with the facility and try to replicate those conditions.

If the actual exam is timed, take the practice exam in the same amount of time that you will have. Use the same resources you'll be allowed to use on the real exam. Don't use any resources to take a practice exam that you wouldn't be permitted use during the actual exam.

If you have access to multiple practice tests, try taking one at the beginning of your study window to get a baseline sense of what you know and how long it will take to learn what you don't know. After you have completed your studying, take another practice test.

There is a psychological phenomenon called the "testing effect" that shows that when you take a test under testing conditions, you have to retrieve information from your memory, making it easier to recall at a later time. Taking practice exams is essentially retrieval practice, because you are actively recalling information, which leads to an improved ability to recall it later on when you take the real thing.

For both visual learners and those I like to think of as being "real world" learners, taking a practice exam is highly beneficial. On the flip side, there are the people who are terrified by the mere thought of taking an exam and practice exams can be beneficial in a "face your fears" sort of way. It helps to see that a real exam wouldn't be that bad.

Online courses

What are the best methods of preparing for a certification exam?

Online learning includes both instructor-led and self-paced, self-guided online courses. Online courses are available to learners across the globe via computers, tablets, and even smartphones. This can be a highly effective form of study, as evidenced by the proliferation of online degrees and certificate programs.

Online learning is similar in many respects to traditional classroom learning, only with the entire experience conducted over the internet. Students access lectures, assignments, and assessments online. It is an interactive learning experience that utilizes technology to provide students with a personalized learning experience.

For anyone who has a busy schedule without predictable study intervals, this can be an excellent approach. Online courses are typically available whenever and wherever you have internet access, so you can work in study time whether you're a busy parent, a full-time working professional, or a military servicemember stationed overseas (to offer just a few examples).

Online learning typically involves completion of a set number of course segments, each including some mixture of reading material, videos, lecture, review exercises, and more. There are online courses that directly address specific IT certifications, and many others that cover particular subject matters where you need more practice or greater understanding.

Some online training courses come with a certificate of achievement, digital badge, or other course completion reward. You can also often access a much wider range of reference materials than may be readily available in an in-person classroom environment. Many online courses are also integrated with a learning management system (LMS) to help measure progress toward educational goals.

Mailing lists and online forums

There are many forums on Reddit or similar mass-effect social media sites that can help a person learn and review IT certification subject matters. I personally have signed up for Listserv-type mailing lists to connect with like-minded professionals and stay abreast of various IT topics and trends.

I find that both of these approaches tend to lack substance intrinsic to them. This is to say that they typically provide links to someone else's resources and reference materials. This is a good way to gauge what other people in your situation have found to be effective and helpful, but it tends to be less effective as a firsthand study approach.

Computer labs and simulations

What are the best methods of preparing for a certification exam?

Labs and simulations have excellent potential to engage students in so-called "deep learning" that empowers understanding — as opposed to "surface learning" that requires only memorization. Simulations are among the most often used pedagogies in industry and government.

Simulations can be used to learn everything from flying a plane to conducting a surgery. A few select business schools have a resource like the Hughey Center for Financial Services at Bentley University, where a former alum donated money to recreate a Wall Street trading room, complete with the ability to simulate any market event.

Simulations designed to help learners study for IT certification exams are typically computer-based, and use various interactive scenarios to replicate real world situations. You might troubleshoot malfunctioning computer equipment using one simulation, or walk through a cybersecurity breach using another. The focus is on learning actual hands-on processes and procedures, as opposed to memorizing facts.

Many IT certification exams, especially more advanced exams, involve a lab component where the examinee must use live tools to complete various exercises. Practice labs function here much like the previously discussed practice exams.

Individuals who love learning exactly how something is done will benefit from this method of studying.

Community college courses

This is a widely available resource that is often overlooked. Group learners who love a high level of cohesion and learning from (and with) others in a physical environment will excel here. Community college courses tend to be inexpensive (especially by comparison with university courses), cover appropriate material in a real-world environment, and tend to have highly experienced professionals teaching them.

About the Author
Nathan Kimpel

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills includes finance, as well as ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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