Monday, January 23, 2023

Q&A on certification exams, exam prep, and test-taking skills

Part 2 of 2. This blog post is co-authored by Ajayi Anwansedo, PhD and William Assaf, who met and worked together at The Futures Funda STEM non-profit which offers introductory coding and web development classes to teens and adults.

In the previous blog post, we discussed the why, what, when and how of taking a certification exam. Here, we'll go through a variety of related Q&A, answering from our different perspectives. 

Q&A on certification exams

Question 1: How to start preparing for a certification exam?

William: Start by understanding who the intended audience of the certification exam is. Is it a fundamentals exam covering concepts, or is it (more commonly) a cert exam looking to test years of experience? A fundamentals exam (like Microsoft’s AZ-900 Microsoft Azure Fundamentals or Google's Cloud Digital Leader or IBM’s C1000-068: Foundations of IBM Blockchain Platform V2) is intended to get newcomers rolling in a field with no prerequisites. A fundamentals exam will cover more book learning, but a more advanced exam will ask scenario-based questions, intending to test experience. For a fundamentals exam, usually the provider will provide a significant amount of onboarding information, because they want you to pass and start gaining experience! Other exams like DP-300 or AZ-305 are intended to test experienced professionals with years in the field. For a more advanced exam, you need to be working in the field already and gaining that experience. First step - make sure you’re targeting an exam that is meant for your level of experience.

Ajayi: You prepare for the certification exam by asking the following questions - “What is the certification exam about?“, “Why do I want to take this certification exam?”, “What are the benefits of taking the certification exam?” and “How will my career be affected if I do not take the certification exam?” You can help yourself prepare for the certification exam by answering these questions. Additionally, they will keep you motivated to finish the process.


Q2: What kind of test questions are the most difficult for item writers to create?

Ajayi: Multiple choice questions (MCQ) can be difficult to create. MCQs are composed of the question and a selection of possible answers. The test-taker must choose the correct answer from the selection of possible answers. First, the item writer must determine the type of question to create – direct questions, single statement questions or complex questions. Then they must decide if the test-taker can select only one answer or multiple answers. In terms of answer options, it is necessary to strike a balance between making the questions neither too simple nor too complex for test-takers to guess. The item writer must also decide whether the incorrect options should be variants of the correct option or differ significantly from it. Usually, there is the best option, a correct option and all the other options are distractors.

William: Questions that are based on the exact order of operations are tricky to write, and test-takers should understand why. Oftentimes in system setups, there is no specific order necessary, but there are common or best practice orders. But certification exams cannot test best practices or industry standards. A build list question often includes extremely specific complications to force one exact order of operations. Advice for test takers: look for those complications in the question's text, they are there for a reason and are a clue to what wrong solutions can be eliminated. 

Q3: What issues with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) do you see in some certification exams?

William: Cultural bias is definitely a challenge for exam question writers. There’s a famous SAT question that included an analogy to a “regatta” (a fancy boat race). Many students would not understand this question for no other reason but not to have been exposed to that type of event in their lives. This cuts across socioeconomic and racial lines, not just geographic lines. Many questions involving sports have the same problem because not everyone is familiar with the rules of cricket or racquetball or baseball. Using regional phrases or cultural idioms in an exam can be biased too. This is why item writers, reviewers, and subject matter experts for a cert exam must be from a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences. Questions should test technical credentials, not racial, socioeconomic, geographic, or cultural backgrounds.

Ajayi: To piggyback off William’s sentiments – the same can be said about soccer and football, fries and chips, and trashcans and dustbins. It’s the responsibility of the test taker to recognize that certain items may have different names or meanings. The content of the exam is tailored to the specific industry, but shouldn't be exclusive to a culture or region. In terms of inclusion, there can be accessibility issues in developing questions/answers that cater to various types of learners (Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic learners) and different types of abilities (intellectual ability and physical ability).

Q4: How do you study for certification exams? 

Ajayi: Identify the certification you want to take from the company’s website. Review the certification preview page for important information about the certification. For IBM certifications, the certification preview page contains the certification overview, recommended skills, requirements, exam objectives, exam resources and FAQs. In the exam objectives session, you will find the number of questions you need to answer correctly to pass the exam. You will also find an outline of the exam content and the percentage of exam questions taken from each content area. Next, ask for tips from someone who has taken and passed the exam you are about to take. These tips will help you avoid making the same mistakes others have made. Then determine your study habits – how you like to study; in groups or by yourself, best time to study, and so on. Understanding your study habits can make your study plan efficient. Next, create a study routine and plan. Also, review questions early in your study process.

William: Use the preparation materials provided by the company behind the subject matter, of course. Start by reviewing a syllabus and study guide for the exam. In the case of Microsoft, they are now offering free practice tests for many Microsoft certification exams. Practice tests can be used to validate what you know about the technical content. If you see something on the syllabus, study guide, or practice tests that you don't know or haven't worked with yet, that's where to start. When it comes to actually learning the material covered on the test, study by doing. Take this from some who has written books for Microsoft – don't study only by reading books, study by gaining experience with the features and products covered on the exam.

Q5: Why become certified? How would it help my career?

Ajayi: A standard reason to get certified is because it is required to qualify for certain roles or projects. Generally, people get certified because of past, present, and future events. Remember the time when you had to work on a project and you had no idea what you were doing, or the time you did not get that role because you did not have enough experience? These past events may influence your decision to get certified so that you will be better prepared for similar situations in the future. At present, you may want to get certified because of the company, new role, or new project requirements. You may want to equip yourself with the knowledge or tools to perform better in your current role, to stand out from the crowd or make your team better (team metrics). Future reasons to get certified may include increasing your earning capacity, marketability, and credibility. Other reasons include promotion, career advancement, prestige, and personal development.

William: I always say that the process of preparing for a certification exam is more beneficial to your skillset than the certificate itself. Having taken many SQL Server certification exams, there are parts of the product I only know because of my preparation for past exams, because I never encountered them at work. Most helpful are the times I get hands-on with something new to learn it before the exam. There are also many examples where the prep for a certification exam allowed me to be immediately familiar with new customer challenges. Those are times I can say that exam prep directly benefited my work product.

Q6: What is the main purpose of certification exams?

William: Fundamentals exams are meant to encourage adoption, especially of cloud services. Higher-level exams are intended to test a candidate's specific solutions delivery experience, not their memorization.

Ajayi: Certification exams are used to gauge an individual’s expertise in a particular profession or content area. 

Q&A on test-taking skills

Q7: It’s the day of the exam. I’ve studied, what should I do now?

Ajayi: Everyone has a state of mind where they are most productive – What is yours? and how do you get yourself into that state? Some people have rituals. For me, wearing the same hairstyle for every exam helped. Your thing could be to wear comfortable clothes, eat your best food or no food at all– whatever gets you into that state, do that.

William: Get good sleep the night before. Eat something with protein. Wear comfortable clothes. Go into the exam with confidence that regardless of the outcome, your career has already benefited from the preparation process.

Q8: What should I do in the final few minutes before an exam begins?

Ajayi: I would say be calm and be quiet. Although, I have seen test-takers chatting until it's exam time and still getting good scores. Like I said in the previous question, do what works for you.

William: Review a quick reference card or test prep if you like, but otherwise, try to make sure your heartbeat is calm and cool. Take a few moments to quiet your mind before.

Q9: What strategies should I remember during the test?

William: Remember, each correct answer must be 100% correct and the other answers are 100% incorrect. (Lawyers enforce this!) At no point should the right answer depend on best practices or industry standards or unofficial naming conventions. Don't assume that's what the question is asking, always look for details or requirements to eliminate wrong answers.

Ajayi: If it is a lengthy question like the questions in the PMP exam, read the last statement or the statement containing the question first, before reading the entire question. This way you are not distracted by unimportant details. Read and understand all the answer options before choosing your answer.


Q10: What should I do if two answers appear to be correct?

Ajayi: Understand the “ask” of the question. Go to court. Attempt to defend your answer. Explain why you think either answer is the best answer. Remember there is a correct and the best answer. Have scenarios and examples.

William: There will be some details in the question text to make only one answer is 100% correct. Go back through the question text, reading carefully anything you may have read quickly at first. There will be some detail in place to eliminate one of the answers.


Q11: What test-taking advice could I share with my kids?

Ajayi: Make sure they know how to prepare for the test in advance. This helps them to be more relaxed as the test date approaches and during the test. Tell them Rome was not built in a day. They cannot complete the test content in a day. They need to have a study routine and plan. Tell them to relate and connect whatever they learn to their everyday life and what they already know. This helps them retain and recall the content during the exam easily. Tell them to answer the questions they are sure of first, then go over the others carefully. Tell them to have fun.

William: Build their confidence through their successes, even if through other subjects in school. Build their confidence through a process of preparation. Build their confidence with repeatable processes so that a kiddo has confidence in their preparation before an exam. And make sure they eat breakfast!

Q12: How do I build confidence with my test-taking skills?

William: Remember that an exam, especially a certification exam, is beneficial to you because of the preparation process. The preparation process, especially where you get hands-on with something you hadn't yet encountered at work or school, is time well spent. The exam itself is just the final step of a journey.

Ajayi: Practice, Practice, Practice. Be your own examiner.

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