Top Test Taking Strategies for Passing Certification Exams

Learn the Best Way to Study for a Test

Students often ask educators like me, “what is the best way to study for a test?” The fact of the matter is that there is no single best way. Learning is a voyage of self-discovery. The person who can answer that question best is you!

When it comes to certification tests, the massive number of acronyms, new concepts, dozens of new definitions, performance skills to master, coupled with everyday family and life responsibilities, can feel overwhelming to anyone. Information Technology (IT) study resources can be thousands of pages long, and that’s not including test labs, practice questions, graphs, diagrams, and other exam-related content.

Try out these strategies and see which ones are most helpful to you. By experimenting, you can learn how to improve your test-taking skills and make the whole process easier for yourself.

My name is Gary Bell. I have spent the last 13 years of my life teaching IT courses and the 15 before working in the IT industry. Over time, I have discovered test-taking tips that I have incorporated into my own IT exam preparation. Below you will find strategies both for studying and for test-taking. Before long, I’m sure you’ll learn to be a test-taking pro.

Preparing for an Exam

Not everyone is a natural at committing information to memory. I am someone who is not, so I’ve had to work on my test-taking strategies. Hopefully, they can help you too. Below are my tips on how to learn to study for your cert exams.

1. Bookend any Lists

Many exam objectives focus on mastering lists (or sequences of steps) before sitting for an exam.

When committing a list of steps to memory, try this simple trick. Learn the “bookends” first. Here’s an example: for a six-item (step) list, memorize the first and last steps first. For example, consider the following list of CompTIA’s A+ troubleshooting best practice steps that appear in the 2019 version of this certification: CompTIA A+ Best Practice Troubleshooting Steps:

  1. Identify the problem

  2. Establish a theory of probable cause

  3. Test the theory

  4. Establish a plan of action to resolve the problem and implement the solution

  5. Verify full system functionality and, if applicable, implement preventive measures

  6. Document findings, actions, and outcomes

Troubleshooting usually begins with verification (identification) that a problem exists – the first step. Upon resolution, document everything associated with the problem and the resolution – the last step. Now you know two steps.

Now try to learn two more of the steps. It should be fairly obvious that you should verify (test) your solution before you complete documentation (Step 5). And before you confirm full system functionality, one must perform the fix (implement the solution) (Step 4).

Now, there are only two more to go. Do you think you could come up with a plan for the last two (Steps 2, 3)?

By solidly knowing one or two or three steps in any list, I can often figure out a test question answer even if it’s about a step I did not pay much attention to. This method also applies to the content within the steps. To truly prepare for questions related to steps or lists, you must prepare their content. For example, if you were asked, “Which step would a technician typically ask the user?” The answer is Step 1 because it is part of identifying and verifying a problem condition exists.

By strongly committing a few steps to memory, you can use your general knowledge to deduce the rest of the question’s answer.

2. Repeatedly Repeating Learning

Some material is essential not just for the test but for your future job performance. Looking up resources on the job certainly works, but that activity can be slow and may indicate a tech is underqualified.

I developed a method for my test prep, which I call Time Allocation Absorption (TAA). This strategy involves continuing to drill certain information after you’ve learned it so that it gets deep in your memory. This method works well for short word-and-description material I need to master and is one of the best ways to study for an exam.

Here’s how it works: I create a small stack of flashcards with information from the test. I start by spending some time learning the first card until I know the answer from either side. Next, I go to the second card and repeat the process. When satisfied, I go back to the first card and repeat for cards #1 and #2. If I get both correct, then the process moves to card #3. If I get it right or incorrect, I go back to #1 and repeat through the first three cards. If I miss one, I start over. If I get them all correct, I move to card #4. I repeat this process until I complete the entire stack.

By the time I reach the final card in a 20 card stack, in theory, I have seen card #1 twenty times, card #2 nineteen times, etc. I do not assume that I know the first few cards and skip over them. As a result, I reinforce what I have already learned.

Repetition accelerates learning.

The repetition process should begin to permanently etch port-number associations into my long-term memory. For content that needs a little work, just reshuffle the cards and place any unlearned content towards the front.

3. Focus on the Important Parts

Exam preparation requires memorization, at least in the beginning, but not all content needs to move beyond that stage. Some content may be worth memorizing just for an exam. Be careful here. I tend to classify some content as retainable just for the exam, and then I magically seem to forget it.

Keep in mind that much of the content is well worth learning (committed to long-term memory), not only for the cert exam but also for landing your next position. You never know what type of pre-employment assessment you might encounter. You definitely want to be prepared by retaining as much content as possible.

4. The ABC Method for Knowing When You’re Ready

Practice assessments are the best way to know how you’re going to do on an exam. You should be taking lots of them before the big day. Here’s an excellent way to know that you’re ready:

First, take as many practice tests from various authors (publishers) as possible, not just from one. Only studying one set of questions from one publisher could be a bit misleading if you are expecting similar exam questions. Exams could offer very different question formats. Exposing yourself to varying question formats can only be beneficial.

Second, consider the ABC method. Use chapter quizzes and/or full-length practice exams. Create a chart with three columns and label them A, B, C. Down the left-hand side, number the quizzes or tests you might be taking. If there are 11 quizzes, there will be 12 rows numbered from 1-11. Row 12 can be labeled Total (average %).

Now track your scores on each of these assessments. Study the questions you got wrong like you usually would, and then retake the exam and chart your score in the next column. Hopefully, you can see growth from your last attempt.

My goal is to keep repeating the above process until my scores are at a minimum of 90%. Hopefully, I can do this by the time I reach the C column. If not, I may have to expand the columns beyond A, B, and C. Repeat the process until all quizzes and practice exams are well in the >90% range. Once I reach that plateau, I schedule the exam.

The key to this strategy is honesty about your scores. There’s no shame in doing worse than your last attempt. Ideally, you will get to a place where you can consistently ace practice exams and feel ready to ace the real deal.

5. Attitude and Emotion

Here’s a surprising strategy. Our attitude and our emotional ability to work with technologies may be essential in IT career success. Considering attitude, do you really want this IT position? What’s motivating you?

Regarding emotional ability, do you have the “emotional stability to be more responsible, better able to focus on the task at hand and pay attention, be less impulsive with more self-control, and improve your scores on achievement tests?” It takes time, practice, experience, and patience to become proficient with IT skills. If you faithfully desire to succeed in an IT career, then the journey will become much easier.

Before an exam, make sure that your attitude is in the right place. Consider your motivation. What is it that drives you to succeed? Keep this in mind while you’re studying. Before the exam, take a few minutes to meditate and calm yourself.

6. Buckling Down

Find out what study strategies work for you, and then pursue them. You can learn all the tips and tricks you want, but nothing beats simply spending more time with the material. Make sure you regularly set aside time to study so you can slowly commit everything you need to memory (and keep it there).

Sitting for an Exam

Okay, so you’ve studied your heart out, and now you’re ready to take the test. How do you prepare for test day and keep a cool head until the last answer?

1. Use Common Exam Tips

First, let’s refresh our memories on common tips that work for most people:

  • Prepare for exam day. Get a good night’s rest, make time to have breakfast, and get to the exam on time.

  • Read the question, every word. Watch for words like is or is not, always or sometimes.

  • Learn to identify distractors and to ignore them, as they have nothing to do with the question.

  • Eliminate the obviously wrong answers first, then consider what’s remaining.

  • Consider reading the answers first, then the question.

  • If allowed, start by writing out a brain dump of important info you’ve memorized on a scratch sheet.

  • Be aware of time spent on each question, and don’t let a tough one take up too much of your time. Come back to it if needed.

  • Use all of the time available to you. If you finish the exam, go back over your answers to look for any mistakes.

  • Take deep breaths and stay calm. Panicking will not do you any favors!

2. Don’t Change Answers

Studies and test-prep classes often stress this rule, and it’s worth keeping in mind. You’re less likely to get a question right if you go back and change it (unless you’re confident that you got it wrong the first time).

Changing an answer can result in a 45 percent chance of getting the question correct. Leaving your first answer “as is” produces a 53 percent chance of getting it right. Using those numbers, you could get eight more questions answered correctly on a 100 question exam. That could easily mean the difference between a pass or fail.

CompTIA, an IT industry certification provider, also supports this strategy. In their course material (IT Fundamentals) testing suggestion section, they state, “Studies indicate that when students change their answers, they usually change them to the wrong answer.”

3. Skip Questions and Come Back

Consider skipping the harder questions and returning to them later. Keep in mind that any unanswered questions are questions you get wrong, so you’re better off answering as many questions as possible. Don’t waste your time getting stuck on a question that is worth as much as an easier question.

Some certification exams present performance-based questions. They seem to appear towards the beginning of exams. The recommendation is that if you cannot work out a satisfactory answer quickly, skip it and come back — answer the rest of the easier questions first. Also, consider marking any other question (i.e., multiple-choice) for “review” if you find yourself spending excess time on them as well.

After completing the last question, return to the questions you have marked for review. In most cases, you will have more than enough time to complete all questions. Each question counts the same on most tests, so the strategy is to get the highest number of questions correct, not necessarily the hardest.

Summary

Never allow a single exam to define your career. Regardless of if you pass or fail an exam, your next charge is to press on. If you pass, do not relax, take the next cert in sequence, attend the next webinar, seminar, or training class, but ABL (always be learning). If you fall short on an exam, identify what needs to improve, and go back and succeed.

Try out these strategies and see which works best for you. Every learner is different and needs to use the techniques that work for them. Give yourself the best chance to succeed by tapping into all the resources available to you. Don’t overlook enrolling in a class at ACI Learning with personalized instruction and flexible schedules.

Much success,

Gary Bell


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