Maximize Learning with the Right Tools

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Everybody needs a buddy, right? A wise man once defined a friend as someone you can count on to bail you out of jail. A buddy is the guy sitting next to you in the cell, laughing about what a great time the two of you had last night. In your quest for IT certification, your friends are the real-world skills that can be obtained only through years of working in an IT environment and through on-the-job training. Your buddies are the guys you can rely on to make sure you pass those pesky certification exams.

Because, as we all know, real-world skills and certification are two very different things. The problem is you often need those pieces of paper to get the job you’ve always wanted or to be promoted within your company.

Who should you pick as your study buddies? The following study buddies make up my “certification dream team”: the guys I want backing me up before I walk into the testing center.

The Nutty Professor
If you can afford it, there is no substitute for instructor-led certification preparation classes. While e-learning, distance learning, and videos or computer-based training (CBT) disks all have the benefit of letting you learn “at your own pace,” it is this feature that prevents most certification candidates who employ such methods of study from achieving their certification goals. Most of us, when left to our own devices, do not have the fortitude or willpower to choose study over the other responsibilities of life. The advantage of actual classroom learning is that it forces you to set aside a certain amount of time each week that is devoted entirely to learning and preparing for the exams. And because the classes usually are expensive, we force ourselves to attend.

Father Time
In more than 10 years of advising certification candidates, I can tell you the No. 1 predictor of whether students will pass their certification exams or fail is their ability to manage their time. I have had certification candidates with management information systems degrees and 20 years’ IT background fail to obtain their certification, and I have witnessed construction workers with no IT experience and very littlie aptitude pass as many as 10 certification exams in six months. How is this possible? Simple: The blue-collar worker had good time management skills. The experienced network engineer didn’t.

Purchase a good book or video on time management. It will help you in all areas of life, but it is particularly helpful when you have a clearly defined goal such as passing your certification exams in a timely manner — before the technology you are studying becomes outdated.

Larry Lab
Most certification candidates I know prefer to study in the privacy of their own home. The problem is home is not usually very private. There are distractions everywhere: screaming children, televisions, telemarketers and usually a spouse wanting to tell you about his or her day. Find a quiet place where 100 percent of your time can be devoted to studying for a specified period. Most colleges and private training centers have labs, which are basically private rooms equipped with computers, desks and reference materials. If you don’t have access to a state-of-the-art lab, find another quiet place to study such as the library. If you must study from home, make sure the room in which you study is free from interruptions and distractions. Ask the family to spend a few hours at the mall. Turn off your cell phone. Make sure your study place has a large desk and a computer. Make sure your chair is comfortable but not so cozy that you fall asleep. The room should be set at a comfortable temperature — too warm and you run the risk of getting groggy, but if it’s too cold, mental capabilities will begin to diminish.

Study Guide Stan
There are two essential types of books you will need if you are serious about getting certified: textbooks and study guides. Textbooks come with class, and although they often map to certification and are useful in this regard, the primary purpose of textbooks is learning real-world skills. Study guides have a different purpose altogether: They help you pass your certification exams. The problem most certification candidates face is deciding which study guide to buy. One popular online reference library of study guides boasts that it provides “more than 3,000 study guides at your fingertips.” This is information overload. You actually need only one or two quality study guides (along with your textbooks, notes from class and practice tests) to succeed. How do you pick a few from the multitude of study guides available in the market? If you are attending instructor-led classes, ask your trainer or instructor to recommend a few. If you are going it alone without the benefit of classes, find a buddy who already has obtained the certification you are pursuing.

Marvin the Mentor
Don’t confuse Marvin with the Nutty Professor — your classroom instructor usually serves quite a different purpose than your mentor. Your classroom trainers usually are available to answer questions before or after class and of course during class, but they have a schedule to keep. A mentor is someone who is willing to invest personal time in you, outside of class, and help you accomplish your certification goals. The mentor is more of a trusted counselor than a teacher. Mentors will help you study if you stumble and fail an exam. If you are sick and miss a few days in class, a good mentor will work with you to go over what you missed, so that you can stay on track and graduate in a reasonable time frame.

More and more private training and certification centers are making mentoring available to their students. Many such training companies have forgone instructor-led classes altogether in favor of e-labs that are staffed with mentors. Students in these e-labs traditionally learn via video, CBT disks or the Internet. Meanwhile, the mentor is available in the lab to answer individual questions.

If you enroll in one of these programs, don’t make the mistake of confusing a mentor with a proctor. Training companies often use these terms interchangeably, but they are two very different types of people. A proctor is an employee of the training company who basically baby-sits the lab. Proctors help get your machine set up and load it with the right CBT disk, etc., but they are not well-versed in the technology you are studying. When choosing an e-lab program, make sure to ask the training company to provide you with the credentials of the mentor who will be overseeing your lab. If you are studying Oracle, and your “mentor” only knows Cisco, this will be a major problem.

Practice Test Pete
It is true what they say: Practice makes perfect. This is especially true when preparing for IT certification tests. Most exams are difficult, and you will want to take plenty of practice tests before taking the real thing. As with study guides, IT certification practice tests can be found everywhere. The best practice tests have the following features in common:



  • They provide similar questions to ones you are likely to see on the real exams. Notice I did not say “actual” questions — this is called cheating. I have encountered, however, some practice exams that provide questions that are nowhere close to the actual questions you are likely to see on the real exams. It was like studying for the wrong exam.
  • They explain wrong answers. Good practice tests will grade your test when you are finished and will tell you which answers you got wrong and why you answered those questions incorrectly.
  • They provide the correct answers. I am always amazed when I run across practice tests that tell you which questions you missed but then fail to tell you what the correct answer was.
  • They diagnose your weak areas. Many practice tests not only tell you which questions you missed but act
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