The Use and Abuse of Practice Exams

I had originally intended this post to be in reply to a comment made in a different forum, but posted it here since it applies to certification exams in general. Someone was complaining that they failed one of the exams, yet they were getting 90% on one of the popular exam sims and questioned its value.

I try and be careful about using the exam simulations as study material. I think the issue with the preplogic, transcender exams and the like is not that they have no real value compared to the actual exam, it's that they are really only good for one use. Once we have seen the questions, we know the answers, regardless if we actually understand the actual materials presented on the question.

Long questions with scenarios are especially culprit. Then later, when we test again, we already know the answer and get it correct on the practice exam - driving up our score. I know I have seen the scenario of a previously answered question and just clicked the answer.

Most of the sims inlcude 3 or 4 practice exams, here is the order that I try and use the assessment exams:

1. At the beginning of my study for an exam, I take one of the assessment exams. For most exams, be prepared to fail that exam. It's ok. This one is to see how well you understand the material when you start your study. I use this exam to see where I need to focus hardest on my studies.

2. When I feel like I have learned the material and I am ready to take the test, I take a second assessment exam. The scores should be better. I use this exam to review what I still need to study. Now, instead of studying everything, I focus on just what I missed.

3. I take the 3rd assessment exam a few days before I am scheduled to take the actual exam. This is my final chance to see where I am still lacking before I sit for the exam and to really hunker down and try and nail the materials that I am still struggling with.

When I was studying for the 70-290, I was addicted to the assessment exams. Every textbook includes them as well as some of the others that were available to me during my study. They provided very little actual study help, and most of us don't even take the time and stop and use the review features that most of the exam questions include.
By the time I was studying for the 70-270, I fed my addiction of assessment exams with the review questions at the back of the chapters - the exam sim equivalent of non-alcoholic beer. Still, I did not waste the money that I put into review exams by going over each question over and over until I got a perfect score. Taking 500 practice exams is not an effective way to learn your subject material!

The things to remember here is that you never want to see the exact same question twice. You will get a false sense of security about how well you know the material.
If you take the assessment exam just once, you will be surprised at how close your scores are to the actual exam. This especially my experience with the Network+. I only used the assessment exam included with the textbook (Network+ Guide to Networks, 4th ed.) and scored pretty close to the score that I got when I took my last of 3 assessment exams.

I really feel that exams simulations should be used for assessment of where you are with the test material, not for study material.
There are only 10 types of people in this world - People who understand binary and people who do not.


  • Non-Profit TechieNon-Profit Techie Member Posts: 418 ■■□□□□□□□□
    I agree completly. I found this when studying for the Security+ exam. I noticed that i was recognizing the preplogic questions and that is why I was scoring higher.

    I took a few months off from studying, bought a couple more books and read them. Then just before taking the real test, I reviewed the last preplogic test that I had yet to take. I did fairly well on that so I knew I was ready. And I passed the exam on my first shot.

    I really hate reading about people complaining they failed exams when they did perfect on the practice questions. All you have to do is read hard and try to live what you are studying.

  • JDMurrayJDMurray MSIT InfoSec CISSP SSCP GSOM GSEC EnCE C|EH Cloud+ CySA+ CASP+ Linux+ PenTest+ Security+ Surf City, USAAdmin Posts: 12,773 Admin
    deneb829 wrote:
    I really feel that exams simulations should be used for assessment of where you are with the test material, not for study material.
    A huge problem is that many test prep exams themselves are not accurate with respect to the content, format, and context of questions that are on the actual exams. As Non-Profit Techie points out, people can score very high on practice exams (from a variety of sources), but still fail the actual exam. This is because either the prep exam authors don't understand how to write test prep material for that exam, or they purposely created a weak exam simulation.

    I love to use the exam simulation format for learning material. Either as a basic flashcard tool or with complex, multiple choice question. You don't see study material presented like this because of the time and difficulty required in writing hundreds of questions just to test on variations of a single topic. Still, I like this format because it's a fast way to digest information, and it keeps me focused more than reading 100 pages of mundanely-written text does.
  • KaminskyKaminsky Member Posts: 1,235
    I think that if you take them at face value and realise that it is highly unlikely that these will be on the actal exam (well.. hopefully!) you can get benefit from them in getting your brain into the right way of thinking for the actual. Some I have come across and especially chapter tests are pretty lame and are just for regurgitation which is not what I want personally in a certification. I want to understand why, not just know why from a book. (probably why my studying is taking so long I suppose)

    For those that take these shortcut routes to pass with no real understanding I will say one thing. You are highly likely to get found out soon enough but if not and we are working side by side down the line and they are asking me questions for which they should know the answer, do not expect any help from me and do not expect me not to blow the whistle on their lameness. I chose the hard route to know and understand what those letters will say I am supposed to understand. Anyone who hasn't is not only a competitor for work but a fake and potentially stopping me from putting food on the table for my wife and kids so do not expect any sympathy or help.

    Apart from that, there are other benefits with these products though. There is a well known one (whos name shall not be mentioned here but was recently sued by MS for the closeness of their questons to actual exam questions) which I found to be quite good. Not because of the actual questions or the woefully pitiful sims but for the explanations for each of the choices and why they were wrong and the actual answer was right. I found this very usefull when studying and revising topics. Where they got this detailed info is anyone's geuss. In house technical author, ripped from a book, I've no idea but they were usefull.

    Braindumps in general as a list of someone else's experiences and details of the sort of questions are pretty awfull and I would like to think not accurate representations of the questions they come across. These can lull yuo into a false sense of security and should be steered well clear of. Nice that someone wants to help other students but...
  • Ed RooneyEd Rooney Member Posts: 52 ■■□□□□□□□□
    I try to use a couple of exam engines. I usually work in study mode, where I can check and/or research the answer. I usually use the questions included with the book or other legal sources for the practice questions, then I save an exam engine, usually Boson, for exam mode testing. That way I have never seen the exam before. I also use a smaller block (typically 30) of questions for the exam modes, so that I don't burn through them all.

    There was a day when a ditch digger could pirate a Transcender and memorize them until they got their mcse. Hopefully that day is gone.
  • Megadeth4168Megadeth4168 Member Posts: 2,157
    I first read at least one book before jumping into practice exams.... With the exception of the end of chapter tests that are in most books.

    I find that practice tests are one of my best study tools because I go back and look up every wrong answer I get. I find that once in a while I will have been correct when marked wrong after I look more in depth into an answer.

    If I were to just memorize every practice test then it wouldn't do me that much good for the real exam... But, If I understand all the answers from the practice tests and why they are correct then that helps me a lot more for the real thing.
  • IncInc Member Posts: 184
    I start using tests approximately a month before exam. Since then I usually already have read (and hopefully understood) the material more than 2-3 times.

    After first testing I know which areas need improvement.

    All results are recorded in excel spreadsheet so I can track my progress.

    Rinse and repeat until 100% is correct. And all questions which are not correct get a thorough research.

    That way I am avoiding exposure to question pool early on and it gives me more detached view on current knowledge level.

    Do not hurry :)
  • deneb829deneb829 Member Posts: 292
    Inc wrote:

    All results are recorder in excel spreadsheet so I can track my progress.

    That way I am avoiding exposure to question pool early on and it gives me more detached view on current knowledge level.

    Do not hurry :)

    I like the idea of a spreadsheet. Can you give an example of how your spreadsheet looks?
    There are only 10 types of people in this world - People who understand binary and people who do not.
  • IncInc Member Posts: 184
    deneb829 wrote:
    I like the idea of a spreadsheet. Can you give an example of how your spreadsheet looks?

    No rocket science there, really :)

    To use this template, copy-paste it into empty excel sheet and then use Data->Text-To-Columns, setting delimiter to |

    Attempt | Score | Time (min) | Date (DD.MM.YYYY) (optional) | Wrong answers | Slip
    1. | 50% | 50 | 01.01.2007 | 50 | 5
    2. | 70% | 30 | 05.01.2007 | 30 | 3
    3. | 90% | 25 | 07.01.2007 | 10 | 2
    4. | 100% | 20 | 09.01.2007 | 0 | 0

    I didn't use the date column, since the time span was less than a month (as I stated before - the tests are left for last few weeks before exam).

    Slip - answer you knew but for some reason answered incorrectly (a slip of pen or because of confusion) - I usually reviewed my answers and checked that these kind of mistakes are eliminated.

    You can make separate sheets for each chapter test and/or exam mock tests or merge them into one sheet, all a matter of taste.

    I created 3 sheets for working with Testout package:

    * chapter tests
    * examsim tests
    * typical exam

    My sincere advice - read each question thoroughly and pay attention to answers too.
  • LukeQuakeLukeQuake Member Posts: 579
    A very interesting thread.

    I'm completely the opposite. I tend to take practice exams and score a lot less than I do on the actual tests. Every question that I get wrong I fully read the explanation and try to find out why I got that particular question incorrect. I will then refer to Books / Online material to enhance my knowledge of my weakest areas.

    I tend to only just achieve passes or just fail on the practice exams but the interesting thing is that I've obtained 800+ scores in all of the MS tests (bar 1).

    The reason for this I feel is my ability to focus when the pressure is on. When I’m at home taking practice exams I tend to have music on and am laid back in my chair not really concentrating on the questions. However, when I’ve shelled out £125 to take an exam and the pressure is on I knuckle down and use what I’ve learnt to walk out of the Vue centre with a pass sheet and a big smile on my face!
    Microsoft Certifications: MCITP:EA, MCSE:S, MCSA:M, MCDST, MCTS: Vista Config, MCITP: Ent Support
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    Other: Marathon Certified Consultant (HA, FT and VM), ISEB InfoSec Management Principles and Security+
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  • DirtySouthDirtySouth Member Posts: 314 ■□□□□□□□□□
    Exam practice questions are great, but they should be considered only just one part of the entire learning & practice process. For me, once I read and understood certain concepts, I'll then go and do a bunch of practice tests to see how I'm doing.

    There are alot of questions that are just simple facts that you really don't have to "understand", you just need to KNOW. For example...

    Question: What is the default port for Telnet?
    Answer: 23

    You don't really have to understand anything beyond that, but rather just know the facts. I know for the CCNA, there were TONS of little facts like this that practice questions reinforced. This is why I'm not totally against certain brain ****. I think they have their place. At the same time, there are ALOT of theory or simulation questions that require you to have a deep understanding of the topic.
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