The pros and cons of using AI tools to prepare for your next certification exam
Posted on
December 4, 2023

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

Can AI help you pass your next IT certification exam?

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools are everywhere. From students preparing for their final exams to bloggers looking for content ideas, a wide variety of people are turning to tools like ChatGPT to help them not only in their work, but also in their personal lives. It's only natural to wonder whether these artificial intelligence tools have applications in the world of information technology (IT) certification.

As with many other specialized knowledge domains, the answer to that question is complicated. There are some great applications for AI tools in the world of IT certification, but candidates should approach them with an appropriate level of wariness. Let's take a look at some of the ways that ChatGPT and similar tools can best help you prepare for your next certification exam. We'll also look at areas where a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted, and consider some ways that AI might help with certification in the future.

How can AI best assist you?

The current generation of AI tools are built upon large language models (LLMs) that specialize in interpreting and creating human-like text. They don't have specialized knowledge of information technology or certifications, but they do have a strong ability to create text based on the material they've been trained on. Understanding how these tools work can help us better discover ways that they can assist us as we prepare for certification exams.

Let's look at a few ways that you can use AI to prepare for your exam, along with some sample prompts to help get you started.

Customized study plans

Can AI help you pass your next IT certification exam?

Technology certifications often cover a vast amount of material and it's common for candidates to have strong expertise in some areas and be completely new to other topics covered on the same exam. One-size-fits-all study plans can't accommodate these differences in background, but AI tools can help you design a study plan based on the resources that you'd like to use and the topics that you want to emphasize.

For example, here's a prompt that you could use with ChatGPT to help you create your own study plan for global IT certification leader CompTIA's Network+ exam:

Create a personalized study plan for the CompTIA Network+ exam. I'm at an intermediate level, comfortable with networking concepts but looking to strengthen my knowledge in security protocols and network troubleshooting. I learn best through visual materials and written content, dedicating about 10 hours a week to study in short, frequent sessions. Devise a plan that suits my preferences.

Once you have a plan in place, you can keep an active session open with the tool as you work through the plan, updating it on your progress. Just give it a quick check-in every week, letting it know what you've completed and where you're falling behind. AI tools never get impatient or frustrated and they can help you revise your plan if you get off track.

Content summarization

The mountains of study material available for different certifications can be overwhelming. You might be using a book, video course, and set of practice test questions to help you prepare. Those resources sometimes just aren't enough, however, to help you understand a particularly tricky topic. AI can help you sort things out by explaining a topic different ways until you finally get it.

Imagine that you're trying to understand synthetic transactions, but you just don't get how they work in the real world. You might begin with a prompt like this one:

I am preparing for the ISC2 CISSP exam but I am confused about a topic and would like you to better explain it to me. The topic is "synthetic transactions" and it is covered under objective 6.2, "Conduct security control testing." Please explain it to me in easily understandable language.

Let's say that the tool's response helps you get the basic idea, but you still don't understand how they work in the real world. You can ask for exactly that information with a follow-up prompt:

I now understand what synthetic transactions are but I don't understand how they are used in the real world. Please give me ten examples of real-world applications.

Flash cards and quizzes

Can AI help you pass your next IT certification exam?

There's no better way to assess your readiness for an exam than to try your hand at some practice questions. Flash cards help you memorize acronyms and other details, while quiz questions can reinforce the concepts that you've learned. AI tools can help you with both of these. Here's an example of a prompt that can do just that:

I'm currently studying for the Cisco CCNA certification and I'd like to focus on the Network Fundamentals domain today. Could you quiz me on various topics within this domain, including IP addressing, subnetting, and the basics of network protocols? I'm aiming for a mix of multiple-choice and short-answer questions to test my understanding and retention. Give me one question at a time and wait for my answer to each before moving on. If I get the question wrong, explain it to me.

The beauty of this is that it's highly customizable. Whether you'd like questions on a particular topic or want to drill down on the layers of the OSI model, you can ask for exactly the resources that you need to fine-tune your exam preparation experience.

Locating resources

ChatGPT and other LLMs have read a significant portion of the text that is available online, including the comments made by many other exam candidates. You can leverage this expertise to help you find supplemental resources to help you prepare for the exam. Here's an example of a prompt you can use to give that a try:

I am preparing for the ISC2 CCSP exam and am currently using the Official Study Guide and the Official Practice Tests. I'd like to find some additional resources that can help me prepare. What would you suggest?

Where should you remain skeptical?

Can AI help you pass your next IT certification exam?

There are some great ways that AI tools can assist you in your certification journey, but they're not a silver bullet that replaces all other content. Here are a few of the reasons that you should think of AI tools as adding value to, rather than replacing, popular study guides and video courses.

Quality of Content — AI tools generate text based on their training data, but they don't possess the nuanced understanding and expertise of human subject matter experts. As a result, there may be limitations in the depth and accuracy of the content they provide. Take answers provided by AI tools with a grain of salt and, if they sound suspicious, cross-check them with other resources.

Lack of Human Curation — LLMs can generate lots of content, but they don't necessarily understand what they're doing. They lack the human touch that allows an expert instructor to provide added value. They've also never taken a test themselves!

Low Quality Questions — LLMs tend to generate practice questions that are more straightforward and fact-based than the nuanced scenario-based questions found on many real certification exams. They can assist you in assessing your knowledge, but they're unlikely to give you a realistic sense of whether you're ready for the actual test.

Depersonalized Learning — AI tools can offer you personalized advice, but they can't truly understand your unique learning journey. Personalized mentorship, peer interactions, and subject matter experts still play pivotal roles in effective learning.

The bottom line here is that we're not yet at the point where it's a good idea to make using AI tools the focal point of your certification preparation experience. These tools can be very helpful, but for now it's best to think of them as supplemental aids, rather than as a primary resource.

What's on the horizon?

Can AI help you pass your next IT certification exam?

The current generation of AI tools do serve as valuable study companions, especially if we remain aware of their limitations. It's important to remember, however, that these are just the earliest tools out there. There is much more to come as the field matures. Expect to see exciting developments in the world of AI-assisted certification training over the next few years. Here are a few things to watch for:

Dynamic Learning Experiences — Nobody wants to spend time learning material that they already know. Imagine AI-driven learning that adapts to your progress and preferences in real-time. The future may bring us dynamic study plans that optimize your preparation journey as you go, ensuring maximum efficiency.

Adaptive Testing Environments — AI could revolutionize certification exams themselves, offering adaptive tests that tailor questions based on your demonstrated knowledge. A few exams already use this approach to a limited extent, but AI could further enhance adaptive testing, reducing the length of exams and increasing their accuracy.

Virtual and Augmented Reality Learning — As VR and AR technologies advance, AI could take you on immersive learning journeys, letting you explore complex IT concepts in interactive virtual environments.

Artificial intelligence tools demonstrate a lot of promise for assisting candidates preparing for certification exams, both today and into the future. Leveraging these tools judiciously can help students better understand material and focus their limited preparation time on the areas where they have the greatest room for improvement. Today, we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg of the exciting ways that AI will transform certification programs.

About the Author

Mike Chapple is Senior Director for IT Service Delivery at the University of Notre Dame. Mike is CISSP certified and holds bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in computer science and engineering from Notre Dame, with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Idaho and an MBA from Auburn University.

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