Practice Exams and Other Skill Drills
As someone who makes an important part of his living from designing and building certification prep materials, I’m often asked about the key elements of assembling a set of such materials to tackle specific topics or exams. While I’m not sure I can decide if books are more important than practice exams, or vice versa–and the lines between the two are getting ever more blurry since many books now include practice tests, and so many practice tests reference specific prep titles–I don’t think anybody can argue that practice exams are a must-have item when prepping for any certification exam.
Interestingly enough, there’s often more to taking certification exams nowadays than simply answering multiple-choice questions (whether scenario-based or not). Increasing exam requirements based on simulations, interface management and other kinds of interactions with the systems, tools, utilities and so forth means that drilling on skills is also becoming part and parcel of the exam-taking process—and hence, of the exam preparation process as well. So we’ll go beyond the practice exams to look at other types of skill drills as well.
Here again, the lines between what were once add-on products like simulators or value-added services like online interactive labs and practice exams are also getting blurry. Also, just as books increasingly include practice tests as part of their “basic package,” those practice tests increasingly include simulators, interface mock-ups and outright skill drills as part of their capabilities. Though this may seem bewilderingly complex, it’s really just a plain-and-simple case of market dynamics at work: As certification programs raise the bar with interactivity, simulations and skills testing, the preparation materials that support candidates in their quest for credentials must follow suit. That’s what makes a look at the various players and their capabilities in this space so interesting.
Test Vendors and Publishers
A quick survey of practice-test vendors and cert-prep publishers breaks the world up into two categories, and the lines between those categories get fuzzy in a hurry as you look more closely at who’s doing business with whom. Table 1 lists leading practice-test vendors and mentions publisher alliances; Table 2 lists leading cert-prep publishers that include practice tests with their books and mentions practice-test vendor alliances, where applicable. Things might appear pretty tangled up on a first look, but again, market dynamics make such interrelationships eminently reasonable. (Note: My apologies in advance if my take on what makes a “leading player” leaves certain players out; these markets are too big and are changing too fast to make exhaustive coverage practical—or even doable!)
Even though so many books provide at least one practice test these days–many of them provide more than one, and most of them provide software-based practice tests on CD or via download–I still recommend that exam candidates purchase at least one additional set of practice exams. A little careful cogitation produces an ample list of reasons why, even though this adds an average of $70 to the cost of a typical collection of preparation materials (and for some topics, costs can be considerably higher):
- Normal requirements for initial self-assessments, learning checks and pretest or final knowledge assessments mean at least three complete, disjoint question banks are needed. Most prep books contain no more than two complete banks; many contain only one complete bank. Practice-test vendors usually offer two or more complete banks to their customers.
- Coverage from different vendors guarantees that more viewpoints and perspectives will be tested than any single source or vendor could deliver. This leads to better-rounded knowledge bases and skill sets.
- Sometimes, question banks included with books may be “teasers” or incomplete products; buying at least one practice-test product guarantees access to two or more complete question banks.
- Because practice-test vendors focus their efforts only on building practice tests, their offerings are often more representative of the real exam (and perhaps less representative of a related study guide or other prep book) than the materials included with some books. This may (or may not) explain why stand-alone practice tests often attain better peer reviews than those bundled with books, courses or other products.
Because my recommended strategy when preparing for certification exams means repeated practice-testing until scores exceed passing scores by a margin of 5 to 10 percent (to account for typical and measurable stress-related declines in exam performance on the “real thing”), it may be necessary for some candidates to purchase more than one set of practice exams on certain topics. Since this is almost always cheaper than retaking an exam, it’s a cost-effective strategy. Those who fail to heed this advice and work against a smaller collection of questions will inevitably memorize those questions and their correct answers—this is helpful only when real exams and the practice exams used are quite similar. When the real thing diverges from the practice bank, performance can plummet—that’s why the biggest collection of questions you can afford to compile is most likely to deliver the desired results.
Other Skill Drills
I’ve already mentioned simulators and virtual labs as an increasingly important part of an exam candidate’s preparation regimen. These kinds of products are essential for exams from numerous vendors–especially Microsoft and Cisco topics–and should therefore be included in your collection of preparation tools and materials. Such products or services can sometimes be quite expensive, so they’re not worth investing in unless it’s well-known that the exams require access to such tools or services.
Certain vendors have an unbeatable advantage when bundling products with their books or classes. For example, Microsoft is pretty much the only vendor still able to include limited-use versions of operating systems and BackOffice components on bundled CDs with prep materials. Other vendors must turn to simulators or emulators to compete. Be sure to factor such advantages into your choice of training materials. (A lot of course providers and instructors include such elements only because they make software available at low cost.)
There are plenty of other low-cost/no-cost tools and services to which exam candidates can turn to expand their question banks and their intellectual horizons when preparing for exams. These include the following:
- Question-of-the-day (QoD) services: Web sites and/or mailing lists like those from Cramsession.com are renowned for the breadth and variety of QoD services they support. Other, more narrowly focused sites (www.certguide.com) provide similar offerings.
- Flash cards: Whether they’re stand-alone (as in offerings from Cisco Press for #640-607), bundled with other products (as in many new Sybex Study Guide titles), generated from practice tests (as in offerings from PrepLogic and Self Test Software) or simply “made by hand,” flash cards can offer a useful drilling tool for individuals for whom repeated exposure to materials and questions facilitates learning.
- Labs, step-by-step exercises, case studies, scenarios and other “learn by doing” or “learn by analysis” materials: Many study guides, computer-based training and other training materials excel at putting candidates through the paces necessary to learn and master key activities and skills tested on certain exams. These features will gain increasing attention in peer reviews and ratings as they become more essential to passing various exams. They’re already key ingredients in many performan