What, me Worried? Five Tips to Improve Study and Comprehension for Passing Certification Exams
Studying for and passing a certification exam is challenging and anxiety-producing.
I admit to feeling stressful each time and spending numerous hours preparing for my exams. It helped me in all cases to memorize key aspects of the underlying Body of Knowledge, which exams like CBAP, PMP, or PMI-PBA are based on. Even in an exam designed to be application-oriented vs. recall-based, memorization is still helpful. Relying on your experience to help you answer questions correctly is not a winning strategy.
Given these exams are based on their applicable bodies of knowledge, you need to learn and memorize critical parts of them to apply your knowledge accordingly.
When I attended college many years ago, I majored in psychology. It was an interesting major, but I did not pursue anything directly related to it. One aspect of my studies that has been useful in my career in the training field has been the psychology of learning. Here are 5 tips to improve how you learn and help you remember important concepts for your certification exam.
- Regular studying. It is generally more helpful to study in smaller chunks and do it regularly. Set up a schedule that you can comfortably maintain and won’t be a burden on your life or family. I recall a favorite morsel of mine from a psychology class in college: “resting improves retention.” I was fond of joking about the importance of resting and when I took breaks from studying, I claimed to not be goofing off, but improving my retention!
Since resting does enhance retention, schedule 2-3-hour blocks of time that you can commit to. Try to avoid marathon 40-hour, week-long cram sessions right before your exam.
- Use acronyms and mnemonics. At Watermark we have long been fans of mnemonics to help improve retention. So, what are mnemonics? The web site GradePower Learning describes them as “Associating the first letter of each item with a word, phrase, or rhyme, [and] can make information easier to recall. These tricks are especially useful to help remember lists and ordered information.”
Given the wealth of information you need to absorb to pass an exam, mnemonics are useful to many people. They help you memorize what may seem like arbitrary lists or, if not arbitrary, then perhaps new or unusual items. For example, when I studied for my PMP I was not familiar with all the ways to handle risk. I knew a couple of them, but not the “official” ways to handle risks. The four types in alphabetical order I had to memorize were accept, avoid, mitigate, and transfer.
Using the first letter of each type yields AAMT, which is not very memorable as a mnemonic. If you rearrange the letters an anagram results in MATA, still not a memorable word – unless it makes you think of the spy Mata Hari from World War I! I remembered the 4 risk responses by thinking it was “risky” to be friends with Mata Hari and I had my mnemonic.
- Use a chaining technique. Like a mnemonic, a chain is used to “Create a story or sentence around a bit of information so that it can be more easily recalled.” An example of chaining would be our mnemonic “ASGIP.” It applies to the 5 tasks in BA Planning and Monitoring for the CBAP and CCBA exams:
- Plan the Business Analysis Approach
- Plan Stakeholder Engagement
- Plan Business Analysis Governance
- Plan Business Analysis Information Management
- Identify Business Analysis Performance Improvements.
By itself, the mnemonic is meaningless, but you could invent a sentence like “A Significant Goal Inspires Planning” and then it becomes easier to recall the main parts of the tasks.
Some people prefer the mnemonic contain the same words as the items you are memorizing. That is helpful but can be more difficult. For the above example the chain might become “Approach Stakeholder Governance using Information Performance.” (I had to insert the word “using” to make the chain work for me.)
- Use acrostics. A variation of the chaining technique is called acrostics, which “are words comprised of the first letters of other words.” To help memorize a formula such as Earned Value (an important PMP formula), you could create a type of acrostic called “WPtAB.” Expanded, it means Work Performed times Approved B It’s based on the PMBOK definition of the concept: “Earned Value (EV) is the value of work performed expressed in terms of the approved budget assigned to that work for an activity or WBS component.” You still need to recall the acrostic, but it serves as a memory conduit and triggers your recall.
- Repetition cements learning. The chegg.com article mentions repetition in 4 of their tips for studying. Here are their tips applied to studying for a certification exam:
- Listening. Have a friend read flashcards out loud to you and answer verbally. Doing flashcards by yourself is fine but using auditory and verbal channels adds additional learning dimensions.
- Doing. Do practice exam drills and simulations until you achieve scores of ~80%. This may mean answering several hundred or even thousands of questions to achieve the benefit. A caveat: the repetition is not meant to memorize the practice questions, but to solidify knowledge of the underlying material.
- Writing. Take notes as you read a body of knowledge or study guide. Create your own flash cards and practice exam questions. Write out “memory sheets” of important concepts, especially those you have difficulty remembering. For me it was helpful to write out various formulas like PERT and Earned Value for my PMP exam study.
- Reading. We encourage reading the relevant body of knowledge for your exam at least once, then read a study guide or re-read the BOK to get the benefit of repetition. Re-read your “memory sheets” to reinforce important or troublesome items.
Exams based on Bodies of Knowledge containing 500+ pages of information can be daunting. I described 5 techniques and know there are many others. Using techniques like those described above will improve your comprehension and increase your confidence. Plus, memorization can help after the exam – I still use MATA and similar mnemonics to this day!
 “8 Memory Techniques for a Better Study Session,” Downloaded March 18, 2020, https://gradepowerlearning.com/8-memory-techniques-better-study-session/.
 “8 Memory Techniques for a Better Study Session”
 Richard Larson and Elizabeth Larson, CBAP Certification Study Guide, 3rd Edition (Watermark Publications, 2018)
 “How to Improve Memory for Studying in 27 Ways”, downloaded March 18, 2020, https://www.chegg.com/study-101/improve-memory-studying/
 “How to Improve Memory for Studying in 27 Ways”