This feature first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Last year, more than 1 million Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification exams were taken by students all over the world. (That’s according to Certiport, a subsidiary of Pearson VUE that administers the MOS exams for Microsoft Learning.) MOS is a very popular certification, especially with high schools, and that popularity is exploding as more states are purchasing certification exams for high schools.
This mean a lot of teachers will be asked to prepare students to pass the MOS exams. Those doing so for the first time are likely to find themselves asking some or all of the following questions:
- What are the exams like?
- How are the exams administered?
- What will I need to add to, or take away from my current lesson plans?
- Where do I go to learn about MOS best practices?
- When are students ready to take the exams?
- How do I give individual remediation to students?
Answers to questions about how to administer the exams and details about each exam can be easily found at Certiport.com. Tracking down answers about best practices, tips for instructors, and best materials to use can be more difficult.
Publishers and vendors love to say that they “map” to this or that certification, but they rarely provide best practices, tips, or a step-by-step guide for individuals seeking certification. It’s often left up to educators and trainers to figure things out for themselves.
The help you need
Over the past 10 years, I have been around almost every part of the MOS exams. I’ve met with teachers, and worked with publishers, resellers, practice test companies, and Certiport itself. In that time, I’ve learned a few things about getting students certified. What follows are some of the tips I have picked up over the years.
Commitment — Getting students certified means being committed to making it happen. There will be plenty of obstacles to overcome, including a not insignificant learning curve for first-time teachers. It is important for everyone involved to be committed to the end goal of certification.
From teachers to principals and, at times, district administrators, everyone needs to support the effort. Being committed to the end goal is the only way to break through challenges, and keeps everyone focused to boot. It also doesn’t hurt if teachers receive a bonus for students getting certified.
Learn, Practice, Certify — This three-step outline is a proven model for helping students pass certification exams. It works best if you size up the various Microsoft Office applications and tackle them one at a time. Start with the easiest Office tools, like Outlook and PowerPoint, and work your way toward the hardest exam: Excel.
Practice tests are a huge help in knowing when students are actually ready to take the exams. Gmetrix practice tests are often purchased with the exams, and look and feel a lot like the real exams. The recommendation is that, once a student can score 900+ in the Gmetrix test certification mode at least three times, then they are ready to take the exam.
Confidence — When teachers are confident, students become confident. The best way to gain that confidence as a teacher is to study for and pass the MOS certification exams yourself. Having that experience is critical. You’ll also have an excellent answer when students ask, “Are you certified?” Finally, by actually preparing and taking the exams, teachers will become both comfortable and familiar with the process and materials they will be using to help students get certified.
Use Great Courseware — Choosing the right MOS courseware, will have a huge impact on the overall experience — and, ultimately, the success — of both teachers and students. School budgets may limit choices, but if possible look for a publisher that uses technology to teach technology. It makes learning more engaging and generally save teachers valuable time.
Look for a courseware that offers the following: a variety of learning materials, self-paced course progression, plenty of practice and review tools, remediation, assignments, assessments, and reporting tools. Here’s a tip: Give smaller companies a chance, because they are typically hard at work solving the thorny issues and up-to-the-second challenges that big publishers may be reluctant to tackle.
At TestOut, we offer an MOS training solution, Desktop Pro Plus, that covers all of the suggestions on the list above. Even better, however, is that Desktop Pro Plus includes fully integrated MOS practice tests at no additional cost. Schools on a tight budget can now have access to both study materials and practice tests in the same low-cost package.
Self-Paced Learning — A great teacher can have success with any approach, but there are some advantages to using a self-paced model when certifications are the goal. This is not an easy transition for some teachers as, when students tackle the material at their own speed, teachers may feel they are no longer teaching at all.
The opposite is true, of course: While some students race ahead, teachers are able to concentrate on students who need individual help and encouragement. The exceptional students, meanwhile, stay engaged and move through the material without falling victim to boredom.
Students who need more time generally feel less anxious and frustrated when they can proceed at their own pace, and become less likely to fall behind and give up mentally. Teachers can also enlist the best students, those who consistently finish their work early, to help others who are struggling. Star students who are shy about helping others can often be enticed by extra credit and classroom recognition.
Teach beyond the certification — I spoke with a teacher in my community recently who talked about teaching to the exam questions. I had heard this before, but I thought about it for the first time as a parent. Our kids need to learn how to use the Office tools beyond just what is required by the exams.
Students should learn the 80 objectives outlined by Microsoft, and not just the 25-to-35 that are tested by the MOS exams. In addition, teachers who use the Gmetrix practice tests to both teach the material and train for the exam practice aren’t really helping their students prepare to succeed in the real world. Those kids may excel at taking (and passing) the MOS exams, but they won’t excel at actually using Microsoft Office.
No substitute for practice — This is not referring to the practice tests, but to the importance of day-to-day practice in applying new skills. Like math, students need to learn by doing. Watching a lecture or video is not enough. They need time to practice skills in different ways, and do it over and over. The more they click on the ribbon, tabs, and dropdown lists, the more they will learn, even if they are making mistakes.
The more they practice the skills they are learning, the more proficient and confident they will become. This also comes back to using great courseware: Be sure that what you are getting comes with practice labs that both help students learn the right way, and eliminate confusion.
Competitions — Once a year, Certiport hosts an incredible worldwide student competition. It is the Olympics for Microsoft Office, as students compete to be the best in the world at using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Participating countries send their best students (those who had the highest scores and fastest times).
In the United States, Certiport holds a separate competition to determine who will represent the nation. Each school should strive to have some students qualify for the competitions. In addition, schools (and ideally districts) should have their own competitions and recognize students who get the highest scores and the fastest times in each application.
Here’s a tip for teachers: Students who show promise should take the exam over and over and over and over again. It doesn’t cost anything, but Certiport chooses students with a perfect score at the fastest times. The more they take the exam, the faster they get — and to be in the competitions they need to be fast!
Worth the effort
While MOS certification has challenges, it is worth it in the end. Not only do students earn a certification that is valued in the workplace, but teachers and students both gain the satisfaction that comes when a student who has struggled, but kept working hard, passes their first exam. Seeing those smiles and excitement, and watching as self-confidence blossoms and grows, makes it all worthwhile.