Follow through: Convincing IT students to take certification exams

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This feature first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Tech students often complete certification courses, but don't always take the exam.Not surprisingly, most students taking a computer class have an interest in information technology (IT). They typically have at least a rough idea of our modern world’s reliance on IT and the need to learn enough about the subject matter to operate basic computer technology. What they often lack, however, is an appreciation of the effort required to master the subject matter.

One of the best methods of helping a student master IT concepts and processes is with certifications. A good certification course is designed so that each module builds on the ones that went before, which enables students to see how all of the knowledge fits together.

The good news is that certification-driven IT courses are increasingly included in the curriculum of high schools, colleges, and universities, with a large percentage of students taking advantage of the opportunity to sit for and pass a certification exam. Yet while a majority of students typically pass the class, too many stop short of actually taking the certification exam.

There are a number reasons that students fail to take certification exams even after completing a course that has left them well-prepared to take and pass an exam. When asked why they passed the class but skipped the certification exam, students commonly report that all of their energy has been expended just by getting to the end of the class, or that they don’t have time for the certification exam, or that the cost of the exam is prohibitively high.

IT instructors are often like parents: We want the best for our young charges. We already know that certification can help land a job (or promotion), can improve or refine important skills, and can lead to higher salaries. We want our students to appreciate these same truths, but sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, students just don’t want to sit for that exam.

What can be done to motivate reluctant students to finish what they’ve started and get certified? Here are a few useful tips to help your students make it across that important finish line, a final step that can make a huge difference in their lives.

Career Development

Students presented with the opportunity of a certification often ask, “Am I really interested?” or “Is this important?” One effective way to help students answer these questions — and increase their desire to study for and pass an exam — is to regularly remind of them of the numerous studies showing that certified workers on average achieve higher salaries than non-certified workers.

Regularly practice with your students how they can present themselves and their certs to potential employers during an interview. Teach them how to stress the importance of certification as an independent third-party validation that they have the skills and knowledge to do the job.
IT Professionals and Internships

Drawing connections to real life and actual work environments can make a deep impression on young minds. Invite IT professionals to visit your classes and have them talk about the respect that peers and management have for employees who are certified. About how management often views certified professionals as self-starters with expertise in a specific domain. Being certified shows an ability to set and achieve goals by individuals who are professionally minded and serious about their careers.

When possible, take students on field trips to places where IT professionals work. Let them see firsthand the important jobs of highly-paid professionals and the skills and knowledge needed to fill those positions. A visit to a data center or an office of a cybersecurity professional is enough to excite any IT student.

Always be on the lookout for internships. Internship positions are often available as close-to-home as the very academic institutions where students already spend most of their day. There are often also local companies happy to offer internship posts to certified students. If a student knows they can get real-world experience, and maybe even make some money as well, they will be more likely to tackle the exam.

Stress the benefits

Often, students study IT because they love technology and have heard that employees in technical positions are well paid and enjoy a greater range of career opportunities. Yet, many students don’t understand why, precisely, organizations value employees with demonstrated IT skills and knowledge.

It’s important to help students understand how businesses and organizations use technology to solve problems and be more competitive, efficient, and effective. Firsthand observation of how working IT professionals utilize technology to create products and services for their customers and stakeholders can get students excited about the actual nutsand-bolts potential of technology.

Sharing examples of new IT employees who leveraged their skills and knowledge to help an organization affect positive change is a good way to show the benefits of certification. Also, make sure to stress how these sorts of employees are increasingly rewarded for their contributions and less likely to be downsized.

One cert leads to another

Passing one certification exam both builds confidence and provides practical experience that will make it easier to pass future exams. And the benefits of certification that come with an entry-level credential are amplified by additional certs. Each higher-level certification opens up new possibilities, whether by familiarizing the certification holder with new technologies, or preparing them for greater career responsibilities.

Mastering new technologies by studying for and passing certification exams can earn even a young employee a seat at the table when decisions are being made regarding the IT needs of an organization. Others will look to them as a reliable source of information and direction.

Build their IT confidence

Certification exams can be tough and many students lack confidence in their ability to prepare for and pass an in-depth exam. Remind students that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The same thing goes for preparing to take an exam. Help your students build their IT confidence by mastering each section of a certification training course before they move on. Practice exams and labs are a great way for students to develop mastery and gain confidence.

Direct experience can also build confidence. Instead of just having students memorize test questions, provide opportunity for hands-on practice via robust simulations with technology. Lab simulations and even physical hardware repair work great.

You can also recognize students at assemblies and in daily school announcements. Imagine what a boost it can be for a student to be mentioned in front of the entire school.

Competition

A bit of healthy competition between students and classes can motivate them to study and complete certification preparation milestones. Just make sure the competition doesn’t get out of hand. Everyone should be able to compete and achieve certification without resorting to cutthroat tactics.

Gamification is an excellent way to foster healthy competition: Make studying into an activity. Award points for each course module mastered and track scores. Set deadlines and goals for mastery that encourage the class to cheer one another on. Post the accomplishments of individual participants for all to see. A certification wall is a terrific idea for making everyone aware of each student’s triumphs.

Vouchers

Tech students often complete certification courses, but don't always take the exam.Remove the excuse that the exam “costs too much” by obtaining as many vouchers as possible. If need be, solicit local partners or hold a bakesale or some other activity to help defray the cost. Bear in mind while securing this assistance for those who need it most, that it may actually be helpful for the student or their family pay some of the cost — having a bit of skin in the game can help them appreciate the seriousness of the exam.

Show and tell

Let your students know that you know what it takes to earn a certification by talking about your own certs. Explain how you worked to master the topic. Display your certificates alongside those of your students. They will appreciate the fact that you aren’t asking them to do something you haven’t done.

As instructors, we all want our students to achieve success and we need to do whatever we can to help them get there. Their IT success reflects on us, but, more importantly, it can set them on the path to a financially rewarding and gratifying career. Don’t let your students drop out of the race before crossing the finish line. With a little creativity and positive mental energy, you can help them follow through.

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Ken Sardoni

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken Sardoni is vice president of course development for TestOut Corporation. Prior to joining TestOut, he held executive management IT positions at Oracle Corporation and Steton Technology Group. Ken has also held faculty appointments at the University of Denver and the University of Phoenix.

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