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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Outsmart the Cert Exam

If you consider yourself a poor test taker - welcome to the Club, as many IT Professionals can run circles around a network but perform poorly on standard multiple choice tests. There is nothing more frustrating than realizing that you know your tech but can't apply that knowledge  properly when taking a technical certification exam. This could be because tests give you the heebie - jeebies and you are in constant panic mode during the exam, or it could be that you haven't yet acquired the test taking skills necessary to properly analyze a test question to arrive at the correct answer. I have helped thousands of technical professionals prepare for certification exams and these are the nuggets of test taking knowledge that I have gleaned throughout the years. I hope that they can be of benefit to you when preparing for a cert exam.

Test Prep 101 - Five things you should do before a test:
1. Be technically prepared. You should download the exam objectives list from the exam provider and ensure you adequately learn the relevant subject material. NO EXCUSES!
2. Get adequate rest. You have to be at your best both physically and mentally.
3. Do some deep breathing to relax your body. There are many online sites that will teach you basic meditation techniques. They are easy and cost nothing, and you need the mental focus, so just do it.
4. Figure out what time of day works best for you when scheduling the exam. Some folks are at their best in the mornings while others need time to get their engines started and do better in the afternoon or evening. Figure it out and schedule your exam to match your most productive time of the day.
5. Review the following analytical approaches to answering test questions. Instill these items in the back of your mind and practice the techniques BEFORE you take the real test.
A test question is staring you in the face...what do you do? 
First things first - always read the question carefully and think of an answer before you read the choices. You either are going to understand the question or not. If you understand right away, then use Approach A, and if you don't have a clue what is being asked of you, then use Approach B. Keep in mind these approaches are for multiple choice type questions.
Analytical Approach A:

o   If you understand the question clearly, then scan the choices for the one that most closely resembles the answer you have pre-formulated. If you don’t understand the question, go to Analytical Approach B.

o   If your answer is not one of the choices, then read all the choices carefully and start to eliminate choices. This process of elimination allows you to arrive at the correct answer by eliminating from contention those which cannot be correct. Use the dry erase board provided to write down the question number and cross out the choices that are obviously wrong.

Example: Q1. A, B, C, D

·         When you narrow your choices to two, try each choice against the question to see which makes the most sense.

·         Don’t second-guess yourself. If you make an educated guess the first time around, don’t go back and start changing your answers haphazardly.

·         The only time you should ever change an answer from your original is because you are ABSOLUTELY sure you answered it incorrectly the first time.
Analytical Approach B:

If you are having difficulty even understanding the question, dissect it first using the following methodology:

Break down the question into its core components. A multiple choice question is typically composed of three parts:

Part 1: Body

§  Choose the simplest interpretation. Do not overthink the question and make it more complex than necessary. Do not think “real world”.

§  Be careful with Acronyms. You may already know the feature by a different name.

§  Unfamiliar phrases may describe a familiar concept or feature but using nontraditional words.  Example: AD Domain Services Installation Wizard instead of DCPROMO.

§  Some questions have incomplete information so be careful not to make assumptions unless absolutely necessary due to lack of detail or ambiguity.

§  Be careful with distracters. A distracter is something which compellingly and confusingly attracts in the wrong direction. Don’t be seduced into focusing on distractive or extraneous information.

Part 2: Emphasis

There is typically a key phrase or requirement that the answer choice hinges on. You need to discover the emphasis of the question in order to select the correct answer choices.

 Example Question: “You live in a rural area. One day around noon, you develop chest pain and suspect you are having a heart attack. It typically takes an ambulance 45 minutes to arrive at your home. You need to leave your home and begin travelling to the hospital as soon as possible. What should you do?”

A.      Get on your bicycle and ride to the hospital.

B.      Call an ambulance and wait

C.      Wait for the UPS driver who makes deliveries at 12:30 to arrive and take you to the hospital

D.      Hook up some jumper cables to your car battery and self-defibrillate

In this question, the emphasis is on “You need to leave your home and begin travelling to the hospital as soon as possible” and therefore the correct answer to the question is answer choice A. Nowhere in the question did it mention that there was a requirement that you arrive alive at the hospital.

Part 3: Answer Choices

·         Be careful with a partial choice. This is a choice that is missing information but may still be the correct choice once all other choices are eliminated.

Example Question: “Which of the following will guarantee you financial freedom?”

A.      Investing in the Facebook IPO

B.      Robbing a local bank

C.      Cashing in your winning jackpot lottery ticket

D.      Panning for gold in the Colorado outback

The best answer here would be C, because you have in hand a winning lottery ticket even though nowhere in the question did it say you purchased a ticket. Don’t argue with the question – just go with it.

·         Many of the choices are given a look of superficial plausibility so you must read carefully. A well designed test question will have distracter information in the body that if you are seduced into focusing on, will have corresponding answer choices to complete the seduction.

Example Question: “The American presidential election is held every four years. Democrats and Republicans typically increase their political attacks against each other in an election year. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as President, defeating John McCain. It is rumored that in 2012, Obama will declare war on Canada and annex Mexico in an attempt to combat the growing federal deficit. Which primary issue will voters probably focus on during the 2012 election?”

A.      The state of the economy

B.      The war against terror in Canada and Mexico

C.      The abuses of presidential power

D.      The difficult logistical challenges of adding two more stars to the American flag

E.       How the United States is going to fight three wars at the same time

F.       The morality of dirty politics

 First you should pick up on the fact that the question is asking about the opinion of all possible voters not just the ones that read rumors off the Internet. So if you ignore the rumor of Obama megalomania, then you can also ignore answers B, C, D, and E. By using basic analysis, you have just eliminated most of the answer choices. Now that you have narrowed it down to A or F, you can make an educated guess that Answer A is a better choice as dirty politics have always been around and have never aroused the passions of the average American as the size of their paycheck does.
 Who will be tripped up on Multiple Choice Questions?

·         Panickers who inhibit their memory from operating by failing to read carefully, getting overwhelmed with the breadth of knowledge and also those who have a hard time visualizing.

·         People operating by real world instinct instead of relying on test analysis skills as their instinct will cause them to overlook stated facts and let emotion override reasoning.

·         People who are technically unprepared because of lack of knowledge or experience or both.
Other Test Taking Tips:

·         Guess intelligently when analyzing a question doesn’t seem to help: 

o   Don't guess until you've eliminated all the definitely wrong responses.

o   Factors that should influence your guess:  Look at the facts and ask yourself, so what? The issue that jumps out is likely to be the issue that the correct response addresses.

o   Beware of distracters.

o   Beware of certainties: always, never, cannot, must.

o   If two answers are opposites - one is probably true. Look for answer pairing if the question asks for you to choose multiple answers.

Example Question: Which of the following statements are true? Choose 2.

A: Lawn grass grows .5 inches a day.

B: Lawn grass grows 1.5 inches a day.

C: Lawn ornaments are typically seen in Florida.

D: Lawn ornaments are typically seen in Saudi Arabia.

Even if you didn’t know the growth rate of grass, you can see that you need to make a choice between A and B answer choices which are paired, and between C and D which are also paired answer choices.

o   Don't get bogged down by things you don't know.

o   Don’t choose an answer because it looks exotic and new.

o   Be prepared physically, be well rested, and eat well.

·         Pay attention to timing. Figure how much time you have per question and keep an eye on the clock to give yourself time to re-visit the questions you left blank or incomplete.  Remember that some exams may have multiple separately timed sections.

·         Maintain your focus and concentration. If you need to get up and stretch, splash cold water, drink more caffeine, do so.

·         If all else fails, choose B or C! A few studies show that those answers are correct at a slightly higher rate than A or D.

·         For lengthy scenario based testlets, read the questions first before reading the scenario. That way when you do read the scenario, you will already have an idea of what areas to pay more attention to as you search for clues that will help you answer the questions.

A final word of advice - keep your cool. If you get to the test center after reading this blog post numerous times and you still find yourself frozen when staring at a test question, it means you are in panic mode and you need to refocus and take control. Have you ever witnessed a martial arts student get into a brawl and forget all their defensive blocks and techniques and instead descend into a blur of flailing arms and legs? That is the equivalent of what you are going through when you can't maintain focus and follow the analytical approaches outlined here. It takes much practice and mental control, but the more you practice, the easier it gets - like anything else in life.

I wish you much luck on your certification exams.
Note: Portions of this document are derived from Michael Josepheson, Evaluation and Grading in Law School, AALS Section on Teaching (1984).

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About Me

Fort Collins, Colorado, United States
I have been a techno geek for as long as I can remember. Making complex technology simple is my mantra and I enjoy teaching others that technology doesn't have to be rocket science mummo jumbo but can be expressed in simple easy to understand everyday terms.

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