Practice Tests, Self-Assessments and Skill Drills

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As formal learning methods are increasingly applied to certification programs and preparation, aspiring candidates will find an ever-broader range of options to help them through the certification process. Formal learning methods today recognize three major milestones in the certification process, and it’s increasingly the case that candidates can (or must) work with tools at each step along the way:

  • Assess: This preliminary step runs candidates through a systematic inventory of exam objectives, topics, concepts, skills and so forth. Competency and knowledge in any area indicates that area won’t require extensive preparation or review. Lack of competency or knowledge in any area indicates elements that must be included in learning and preparation plans and materials. The latter elements therefore define the skills and knowledge gap that candidates must close before they can test.
  • Learn: From a general perspective, this step consists of mastering the terms, concepts, tools, techniques and skills that the certification seeks to verify. Formal learning methods narrow this step to simply closing the skills and knowledge gap that the assessment stage uncovers.
  • Measure: From a general perspective, this step consists of testing candidates on their knowledge of concepts, tools, techniques and so forth, and of checking their level of skills and competency on the operational side of the certification.From this perspective, practice tests, self-assessments and skill drills can all play a pivotal role throughout the first two steps of the process and in making sure candidates are good and ready to succeed in completing the third step.


    Though not as common as either practice tests or skill drills, self-assessments are designed specifically to analyze skills and knowledge gaps in their takers. Even better, most self-assessments are also designed to create learning plans designed to remedy the very gaps they detect. Thus, it’s not unreasonable to re-use self-assessments as a kind of ongoing measure of exam readiness, though it’s probably more accurate to use multiple self-assessments at various stages of preparation to avoid assessments that may become inflated owing to repeated exposure to the same question banks.

    Self-assessments are excellent tools to help certification candidates get started preparing and to measure exam readiness. That probably explains why certification sponsors and practice-test vendors are starting to get in on this act.

    In April 2003, Microsoft partnered with practice-test vendor MeasureUp to offer “skills assessments” on the Microsoft Web site ( In their first six months of availability, more than 150,000 of these assessments have been completed, according to numbers obtained from MeasureUp. This nearly matches the total number of Microsoft certifications earned during the same period, so clearly candidates are taking advantage of these tools to help them determine where to focus their efforts in preparing for exams.

    I expect to see assessments becoming a more standard part of the certification preparation process in the near future, so that you’ll start finding more of them at sponsor Web sites, as part of learning systems, in study guides and other preparation aids and so forth. Because I’ve long advocated using practice exams plus a review of exam objectives and prep materials to perform manually what assessments do automatically (analyze results, perform gap analysis and construct a remedial learning plan), this offers great value for cert candidates, even if they must pay for assessments.

    Practice Tests

    Although practice tests don’t always perform gap analysis and propose learning plans in response to test results as self-assessments do, best-of-breed offerings increasingly aim at aiding learning, as well as assessing exam readiness. That is, most of the better practice test vendors take time to explain both correct and incorrect answers to their questions and often point to additional resources and information as part of their answer discussions. This is a deliberate value-add designed to help candidates improve their skills and knowledge when they encounter questions that may indicate further learning is needed.

    Using a practice test to assess exam readiness is reasonably easy, assuming that the practice test effectively models the real thing. In that case, candidates must aim for a score that’s at least as high as the passing or cut score on the real exam before they consider moving from the practice court to the testing center. Because the stress of taking a real exam can often depress exam results, no matter how well prepared a candidate might be, I usually recommend that candidates shoot for a score that’s 10 percent higher than the cut score to compensate for such effects.

    Using a practice test to plan further learning may take extra effort, depending on how much information the practice-test vendor provides in its answers. At a minimum, candidates must map questions to specific exam objectives (or related topics or subtopics). At the top end of this scale, candidates should also map questions to related study aids, training guides and other technical background materials, hands-on labs or exercises or whatever’s needed to expand their understanding of and ability to deal with the subject matter in the exam situation. Those who fail certification exams, in fact, are advised to memorize as much of what they didn’t understand on the exam as possible for the very same reason—namely, to allow them to analyze their skills and knowledge gaps after they leave the testing center, and to plan the right kind of remediation to ensure a passing score on their next try.

    Skill Drills

    Although practice tests try to model real exams as much as possible and include far more hands-on activity than certification exams did as recently as three years ago, skill drills take the crucial dimension of building experience one step further. That is, skill drills should take certification candidates through multiple passes over key tasks, activities, analyses and troubleshooting situations that they’re likely to see on exams. The guiding concept is to provide a safe, well-supported environment in which candidates can explore, learn and refine their understanding of and ability to interact with important tools, utilities, consoles and other items with which they must contend in the exam situation.

    Practice exams do indeed require more hands-on interaction and more actual experience with systems, software and tools nowadays, but they don’t always provide the ideal vehicle through which to learn about such things. Skill drills on the other hand, would include elements of training and familiarization (if not downright desensitization, which is where the repetition and rote practice involved in drilling comes into play), as well as providing exposure to the kinds of situations and problems that test-takers are likely to encounter in the real thing. In fact, this is where labs and simulators often do what skill drills should, in that they’re designed to provide safe, well-documented and well-supported interaction to help certification candidates get comfortable with hands-on exam content.

    After reading this description, I imagine at least some of you are asking, “Where can I get a skill drill?” Alas, it’s now time to bring reality crashing down: While many training companies and cert-prep vendors are working toward this model, there really aren’t any stunning model demonstrations just yet. Today, the closest you can come is a good online lab or simulator backed up by a well-designed set of labs or hands-on exercises. But as certifications become more performance-oriented and hands-on skills

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