Cross the Finish Line: Tips for Winning the IT Race

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There are many reasons you might want to pass one or more certification exams. You may be seeking a new or different career, desirous of adding new responsibilities or skills to your repertoire or needing to demonstrate proof of existing skills. Regardless of your reasons for achieving a certification, it is imperative to focus on passing the exam itself, as well as mastering the skills the certification represents. Some certification exams do a better job than others at testing for the requisite skills needed to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill. Ultimately, it is up to you to make sure you study not only to pass the certification exam, but also to pass the test that life will give you as you seek to use these skills.


There are essentially two types of certification exams: those that ask you to take a test in the form of a multiple-choice or other knowledge-based exam format and those that have you go through a simulation of the product or skill itself to show that you know how to perform certain tasks or troubleshoot problems. Regardless of the test format, your ability to study for the exam and learn the material will be critical to your success. Techniques that are applicable to each of the testing formats, as well as tips that will apply in both cases are covered in this article.


Some certifications are specific to a vendor, such as the ever-popular Microsoft certifications. Earning a certification on products like Microsoft’s acknowledges you as an expert in those products and technologies. Other certifications are vendor-neutral and are not tied to particular products or brands. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) is the world’s largest provider of vendor-neutral certifications and has certified more than 600,000 people to date.


Brain Matters


In order to pass a certification exam, memories need to be formed and new skills obtained. There are two fundamental forms of memory: declarative and nondeclarative memory. Declarative memory contains material that is available to the conscious mind and can be expressed. Examples of declarative memory at work include the ability to list types of servers or recall the various functions of a Web server. Nondeclarative memory is the type of memory necessary to perform skills. Nondeclarative memory is often associated with motor skills such as riding a bike or learning to ski, but there are certainly aspects to the role of an IT professional that require performing skills. Someone acquiring an A+ certification and seeking to become a hardware repair technician would need the motor skills to replace a hard drive or install a sound card. Both declarative and nondeclarative memory is necessary to be successful in the IT profession and to pass most certification exams.


Learning Styles


In order to form memories and develop new skills, a variety of techniques may be used. Choosing the best techniques for you will depend on what type of learner you are: visual (you learn by seeing), auditory (you learn by hearing) or kinesthetic (you learn by doing). No person uses one style of learning exclusively. Additionally, using techniques that combine multiple learning styles will reinforce your retention even further. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who pass certification exams use more than two methods of study to prepare for the exam, so using multiple methods will dramatically increase your likelihood of passing.
Lutz Ziob, general manager of Microsoft Learning, is an advocate of using more than one learning method to study for a certification exam. “The best study tools are those that combine more than one learning method,” said Ziob. “For example, a good e-learning product will combine auditory and visual learning tools, such as allowing you to choose whether you want the material visually displayed or read aloud. Most training companies today seek to combine learning styles for different audiences, realizing that you may have all learning types in a single classroom or using a single e-learning product. Basically, my recommendation is to seek out the newer versions of learning products that are already, in themselves, a combination of the learning styles.”


The right place to start passing a certification is to know thyself. It is critical to assess your learning style prior to strategizing about how to study for a certification exam. Gene Salois, vice president of certification for CompTIA, stresses the importance of learning styles in passing exams. He suggested, “Study using your own personal learning style. Some companies may tell you that e-learning, for example, is the best way to prepare for an exam. No one learning method is appropriate for everybody. Find out what works best for you.”


It is also imperative to use different learning methods to study. Salois said, “Ensure a good study diet. Just as a good diet cannot be gained by eating one type of food, effective learning cannot be gained from a single test-preparation product. For instance, even if you find that you learn best by visual methods, don’t just go and buy just one book and make that your sole source of information. Buy a variety of manuals; combine them with other visual tools such as an electronic tutorial, flash cards, etc.”


Jeff Michael, a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) learns best visually. “If I were to characterize myself as one specific learning style, I would say I am visual,” Michael said. “I have to read the material to fully understand it. I feel like I am missing things if I am not reading the material in its entirety. After I do that, I can fill in any blanks by interfacing with the technology.”


Doug Notini, a director of training for the certified instructors at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers of Boston is another visual learner. He said, “Everybody is going to be different; I am a visual learner. One method that worked well for me was to use cue cards. There is something about reading something and then writing the information down to make the cue card—it makes the information stick in my mind.” In writing cue cards, Notini uses both visual learning techniques by reading the information and seeing it again on flash cards. He also employed kinesthetic learning as he wrote the information down.


It is no surprise that we see such an emphasis on visual learners. Visual learning is the prominent learning style for around 65 percent of the population. These types of learners work best when reading, referencing notes, seeing diagrams and viewing pictures. Visual learners will respond well to Web-based training that is graphically rich and to course content that has visual depictions of key concepts.


The second type of learning style is auditory. Those who prefer to learn in an auditory fashion make up around 30 percent of the population and prefer the spoken word above all other learning methods. They prefer hearing the instructor talk about the technologies or hearing an audio accompaniment to a Web-based course. Most auditory learners want to hear information first, before attempting to read it and make sense of it. Some even find it beneficial to read aloud to themselves to fully grasp a concept when an instructor is not readily available.


The last learning style is kinesthetic. Kinesthetic learners learn by doing and are the minority, coming in at around 5 percent of the population. They learn skills by imitation and practice and often use their hands a great deal when conveying information. Kinesthetic learners benefit from hands-on practice and from simulations. Many learning companies offer the opportunity for learners to use virtual labs, which allow candidates to practice on high-end hardware without having to invest in the technology themselves or risk their company’s infrastructure as they are learning. By devoting some of your study time to hands-on activities

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