State-of-the-Art Cert Prep Tools

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Today’s IT job market is a hard one, where growth and employment prospects can at best be described as cautiously optimistic. The certification aftermarket is likewise tough, as all kinds of outfits from training to publishing companies vie for the dollars of those pursuing credentials.

But what’s tough on the one hand for sellers is good on the other hand for buyers. I think this explains why the feature set for certification prep materials continues to expand and why so much “value-added” material is showing up.

Let me recount a laundry list of interesting recent developments designed to add to the learning experience for certification preparation, then explore some buying strategies. By the time I’m finished, I think you’ll agree that vendors are working hard to improve and expand on the learning experience as candidates prepare for certification, and that the collection of available goodies is clearly on the rise.

Here’s my laundry list of certification preparation features that are designed to improve, enhance and increase the quality of candidates’ learning experiences.

More and Better Self-Assessment Tools
From vendor or cert sponsor Web sites to self-study, online or classroom training materials, more and better knowledge and skills assessments are being included. These offer real value to those who take them seriously because they help to focus learning and study where it will do the most good. As tools to use to assess exam readiness, they also serve the useful purpose of letting you know when you’re ready to tackle the real exam(s).

Tighter Integration of Learning Materials
Increasingly, training and self-study materials include reading, practice questions, drills and simulations, test item analyses and more. But what makes learning more effective and easier to steer is when these separate elements cross-reference one another—for example, for those who need to work on specific exam objectives and related skills and topics, it’s extremely helpful if links from those objectives to related reading, practice questions, skill drills, simulations and so forth are easy to find and follow. Although the grid of elements is often far from complete, I’m seeing increasing integration of such materials (and the more those materials cost, the more likely this is to happen).

More and Better Skill Drills
With exams moving toward real-world configuration tasks, problem-solving, troubleshooting and task orientation, certification candidates need to be ready to face simulated systems and software and to cope with whatever scenarios come their way in that context. Given increasing use of simulation, interface driving and other workplace tasks, you’ll find varying degrees of such capability in certification materials from the study-guide level up. You’ll also find increasing access to carefully monitored and maintained labs online, where you can interact remotely with real environments (or sufficiently good simulations to be indistinguishable from the real thing).

More Ways to Learn (or Channels of Information Delivery)
From electronic versions of printed materials to PDA downloads of flash cards and exam items to games or other unorthodox forms of concept and skill reviews, you’ll find vendors offering more ways for you to learn than ever before. Given cognitive psychologists’ understanding of different learning styles for different students, this increases the odds that some package you purchase will meet your learning style needs.

More and Better Delivery of Hands-on Experience
From evaluation or limited functionality versions of real software to high-quality simulations of same, certification preparation materials increasingly stress development and practice of real-world skills, problem-solving and everyday tasks. They do this by spending more time explaining what’s involved in performing such tasks, taking students through the steps and activities involved in such tasks and in providing ways for them to gain experience by repeatedly practicing such tasks. This is probably the single biggest real value-add in this whole collection of elements.

Improved and Enhanced Question Drills
Answering certification exam questions is becoming less a matter of mastering individual facts, concepts, definitions and so forth. Rather, it’s more a matter of reading (or viewing) and comprehending complex scenarios, understanding business and technical needs and reasoning one’s way to the best available solution. In keeping with this trend, certification preparation materials devote more resources and energy to crafting question drills—and the explanations, explorations, practice and learning that surround them—that help students learn the material, while also developing and improving analytical and problem-solving abilities. Not coincidentally, the best of such material also presents and explains current best practices, in light of how they address common needs, situations and scenarios.

More Dynamic Materials
Certification candidates recognize that exam integrity concerns demand frequent question turnover and item refresh. Savvy prep-material vendors recognize this and provide access to online updates, news and information and even offer additional training materials, questions, drills and so forth when they’re needed. This turns what once involved a purchase of static study materials into a purchase that still delivers such materials, but that also includes elements of a subscription to vendor updates until the candidate has passed the exam (or some period of time—often one year—has elapsed).

Improved Access to Mentors or Experts
Though access to a savvy, knowledgeable professional is still what makes instructor-led training so valuable (and expensive), other forms of cert prep are starting to include metered or moderated access to such people as well. Some products offer a certain number of e-mail inquiries to their buyers, others offer unlimited questions for a metered amount of time, still others offer pay-as-you-go access to experts for explanations, examples or advice. But the expert human element of the preparation process is served in some ways through all these approaches. Here again, they show up as part of all kinds of offerings from online courses to practice exams to certification bundles.

More for Your Money
Hopefully, it’s obvious that not many individual offerings incorporate all of these elements in any single package. Likewise, obtaining more of these features at once involves higher purchase costs. Nevertheless, it’s also the case that what you got for your money two years ago pales by comparison with what you can get for that same money today—and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about $30 to $50 self-study books or $1,500-plus online training courses with associated bells and whistles.

Know What You’re Paying For
When it comes to shelling out for certification preparation materials nowadays, it helps to get a clear sense of not just how much you must spend to buy any particular item but also to build your own laundry lists of what each purchase buys you.

For years, I’ve recommended that self-study cert candidates purchase an Exam Cram, a study guide and at least one set of practice exams to help them get ready for their tests. I’ve also discussed the value and virtues of other ancillary products that one could add to this minimalist approach, such as flash cards, question-of-the-day services and other low-cost/no-cost items.

Even in a budget-constrained model for cert study, there’s no point in buying duplicate materials unless you plan to use them to improve your odds of passing an exam on the first try. Thus, if your study guide includes a decent simulator—as is the case, for example, with Cisco titles from Cisco Press, Sybex Books and other publishers—you may not n

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