Several CompTIA exams now contain performance-based questions, which test an IT professional's ability to solve problems, in addition to the traditional multiple-choice format.
We asked CompTIA authorized training and content partners how they're integrating this new format into their training, and how all students can best prepare for the new questions. Here is their advice.
Know What to Expect
Performance-based questions are included along with multiple-choice questions in the CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ exams. The CompTIA A+ 800 series exams, introduced last year, include performance-based questions. The 700 series of the exams do not.
Multiple-choice questions in CompTIA exams ask a candidate to select one or more correct answers to a specific question, and the candidate clicks on the correct answer or answers. However, performance-based questions require the candidate to perform a task or solve a problem in simulated IT environments.
For each performance-based question, the exam prompts the candidate to perform a specific task or solve a specific problem. A simulated environment is then launched in which the candidate completes the required steps.
Learn Tasks, Not 'Speeds and Feeds'
"There's a big difference between learning the content so you can perform on the job and learning it to pass the test. If you prepare to do the job, you should be able to pass the test."
"CompTIA is one of the best at providing very comprehensive exam objective listings," said Abernathy, who frequently takes CompTIA exams in order to create Kaplan study guides and practice tests. "So I'll take that objectives listing, say for the CompTIA A+, and I'll think 'I know the knowledge-based stuff for this—the speeds, the sizes, the number of bits—but how would I apply that knowledge base in a real world environment as a technician?'"
Without performance-based questions, a candidate might be able to pass an exam by just memorizing information, said Abernathy. "Now you have to take that same material and use it."
"There's a big difference between learning the content so you can perform on the job and learning it to pass the test," said Dusthimer, a former training instructor who is now editor-in-chief for certification at Pearson Education.
"If you prepare to do the job, you should be able to pass the test."
Use What You Have
Use any available home equipment to help learn the tasks needed for your exam. "Most people have a laptop or some sort of PC, and broadband or DSL," said Richard Millett, product lead and senior instructor for CompTIA Delivery Partner Firebrand Training in London. "That's sufficient for them to do a lot of what they'll need."
Use the Internet
Need to learn to do something for your exam, but don't have the needed hardware? Search the Internet. Vendor websites, YouTube tutorials and tech forums offer rich information about the components, technologies and processes found in exam objectives. "If you want to do something on a computer, somebody somewhere has done a YouTube video about it," said Millett.
Abernathy agreed, noting that Microsoft's TechNet Virtual Labs for Windows offers virtual environments in which to learn specific Windows-related tasks—for free.
"It's not a locked down environment," she notes. "You are playing around in a virtual Windows 7 machine, so you can do anything that's possible within the Windows 7 environment."
Get Hands On
"Students are going to have success on the performance-based questions if they actually practice the skills," said John Walther, a technical instructor for CompTIA Delivery Partner Knowlogy in Tyson's Corner, Va. "You certainly want to learn and understand the theory, but you have to be able to apply the theory in hands-on experience— either in a simulated environment, on your home computer practicing, or in a work environment."
"Candidates have to practice what they've learned until it becomes second nature, so that when they see a question or a scenario, they know exactly what the next step would be to solve the problem," Dusthimer added.
Organize What You Learn
When studying for exams with performance-based questions, candidates "have got to be able to think more broadly," said Millett. "They can't just cram facts; they've got to link facts together." For example: If given a scenario, would you know how to plan and implement a basic SOHO network based on a predetermined list of requirements? "Bottom line, candidates have to pay a lot more attention," Millett said.
When studying for CompTIA exams, Abernathy makes charts and bullet lists of information. For example, charting the common networking protocols, cable types and their features can help you become more comfortable with the required material. Sometimes those charts and lists can be found in study materials or online, but making your own can help you better remember the information.
Use Practice Exams
Practice exams can also be very useful in preparing for exams. "The really good practice exams are very similar to what candidates are going to see in the CompTIA tests—not the same questions, but the same kinds of questions covering the same subjects," Dusthimer said.
Kaplan's Abernathy encourages candidates to drill down in the practice exams and any resources or tutorials they might contain. For example, Kaplan's practice exams explain the correct answer, gives reasons why the incorrect answer is incorrect and might delve deeper into the subject matter. "If you just focus on the question, you are missing all this extra stuff," she said.
Commit to Scheduling the Exam
"I'd tell my students: When you think you are ready, schedule your exam a month out, 45 days out," said Pearson's Dusthimer. "Then spend the next month going back through all the materials, the simulators, practicing again and again. Take more practice tests, or simulator exercises, and re-read the chapters."
Schedule your exam and commit to preparing for it, urges Aima Rotella, senior manager of Content Development at Kaplan IT Certification Preparation. "Otherwise, with so much information out there, you could study 10, 12 months and never see the inside of an exam room."