Are You Ready? Making Better Use of Exams
The previous post discussed how #CCENT or #CCNA practice exam scores couldn’t come too close to predicting your real exam score. That’s too bad, because many people want to use their exam scores to help decide if they are ready to pass the exam. The good news: you can make a few choices that make your practice exam scores more useful as a self-assessment tool. Not perfect, but much better.
Also, before diving in… this topic, by it’s very nature, is a bit squishy. If you read this, and want a specific, discrete answer, you will not find it here. The nature of the issue is that you cannot know how you will do until you take the real exam. This post just helps you make better use of the self-assessment tools that you have.
Now on to some strategies for how to use these practice exam scores. And weigh in with the survey if you haven’t already – I’ll get to this in the next post on this topic.
From the Beginning: Familiarity
This one may be obvious, but it is worth stating: if you have seen some of the test questions before taking the practice exam event, you will probably make a higher score than if you hadn’t seen the question.
So why bring it up at all? Because you can choose to save your exam questions until the end of your study, so you will not have seen them before. You can also choose to use them while learning – learning facts, building analysis skills, and to connect ideas together.
So, you have a choice to make:
- Do I save all my exam questions for practice tests?
- Do I save some of my exam questions for practice tests, and use some when studying?
- Do I use all my exam questions for study, and buy another exam question product for practice tests?
If you take your practice exams using questions that you have never seen, great. The exam score will be more realistic. If not, then just accept the fact that your choice makes the practice exam scores a less effective predictor of how you will do on the real exam.
Style Check: Joe Friday or Sherlock Holmes?
When taking your practice exam, give an occasional thought to the style of questions. Then think about what percentage of the questions that are more like the style of two famous detectives: Joe Friday or Sherlock Holmes.
For those of you who did not benefit from the literary and media references…
Joe Friday was a character in the TV series Dragnet, who famously interviewed all witnesses with a complete deadpan approach. He focused on facts, and was often parodied as having a one-track mind: “just the facts, ma’am”.
Did your exam have a lot of pure fact-based questions, with no need for analysis, puzzling through a scenario? For example: “ARP gives hosts a way to discover what information?”, with answers like “IP Addresses”, “MAC Addresses”, “TCP Port Numbers”, and “DNS Names”. Completely factual.
Sherlock Holmes, from the many books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tackled the most complex criminal cases in London in the 19th century. He was famous for taking a few disjointed facts, applying his great analysis skills, and solving the mystery. He was famously quoted for, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
Hopefully, no one needs to have Holmes’ skills to answer an exam question. However, did your practice exam have a lot of questions that require you to play Sherlock Holmes? Did you have to take a little info from the question, add a lot of reasoning, to come up with the answer? For instance, do the questions show you config, or show commands, or figures of network documentation, asking you to mentally fill in those holes? Put that question in the Sherlock column.
Style Check 2: Exam Realistic or Not?
Style Check 1 is the first step in a process of deciding how exam realistic the practice exam is. You need to decide if your practice exam was easier than the real exam should be, about the same, or even more difficult.
As you might guess by now, a larger percentage of Joe Friday questions means the exam is too easy, and a larger percentage of Sherlock Holmes questions is too hard. You can think about many other factors to decide id the questions are exam realistic, but to be honest, the rest of the factors are hard to quantify. Even the Joe Friday / Sherlock Holmes angle is hard to quantify. But it gives you a way to at least try to objectively answer the question:
Is your practice exam too easy, just right, or too difficult?
The following approach is squishy, but again, that’s the nature of the topic. However, it’s better than taking a wild guess. Based on your percentage of Joe vs. Sherlock:
- If more than 40% Joe Friday questions, ignore your results; it was far too easy. (Use these questions for studying facts, but not for self-assessment.)
- If 20-40% Joe Friday questions, with the rest more like Sherlock’s, then the test is pretty close to being realistic.
- If less than 20% Joe Friday questions – meaning more than 80% Sherlocks – then it may be a little too difficult.
What to do with this info? If your practice exam is realistic, then your score is a little more trustworthy as is. If it is too easy, it may be useless as a predictor. If it is too difficult, you may be ready to score higher than that on the real exam.
I’m sure a few of you are wondering about the questions that come with my books. I think they’re a little tougher than average than the exam. They do tend to be a little longer. Why? We actually intend them more as learning tools, to help you learn the topic well, than as a self-assessment tool. But as a self-assessment tool, they’re a little more like Holmes questions.
(Before you ask, I just don’t give opinions about other company’s exam products . But you can scour the Cisco Learning Network (CLN) for opinions from people who have used the exams. I would suggest ignoring comments from people who “heard from others”, or give you a summary of what other people wrote.)
A Strategy: No Guessing, Consciously or Subconsciously
A final suggestion to make your exam scores be more meaningful: do not guess. If you look at a question, and you do not know the answer, do not answer it. If you can rule out some answers, but not enough to rule out all the wrong answers, do not answer it.
If you follow this strategy, you know how many points you picked up by guessing: 0. If you guess, you don’t know how many you picked up by guessing, so your exam score is less meaningful.
For instance, say you do not guess, and get 80% correct. You know that for some questions, you ruled out some answers, but still chose to not guess. You probably could’ve guessed and gotten… 85%? 87%? Certainly more than the 80% score. By not guessing, you get better data.
Also, be careful to no subconsciously guess! We’ve all taken enough tests to develop the skill of ruling out answers. Writing well-crafted wrong answers (called distracters) is actually a challenge, so some questions will have some pretty-obvious incorrect answers. If you use this strategy, just make sure you do not fall into your old habits – good ones for guessing on a real exam, but a bad habit if you take this bit of advice.
If you plan on thinking about your practice exam scores as a way to gauge whether you are ready, do not just go into the process blind. Accept that no matter what, it’s only a general indication of whether you are ready – but make it a better indicator by saving some questions for the practice exams, not guessing, and adjusting your score based on how hard you think the exam really was.