Studying for IT certifications can seem daunting. Some exams, like the CCNA, appear overwhelming at first glance. There are just so many topics to learn!
How can we best prepare for our certification journey? How should we approach our studies to get the most out of them, and to do so as efficiently as possible?
The essential part of studying effectively for certifications is not necessarily studying harder, but studying smarter. Here are some tips to make the most out of your study time that will lead you on the road to exam success.
Make a Plan and Stick To It
Before delving into you exam-study head on, it is helpful to get a clear overview of what the exam is really about. Once the details are clear, it is then easier to begin piecing together a road map or plan of attack.
The first step is to visit the vendor of your particular certification’s website to find out more about the exam. How many questions are there? What type of questions will appear on the exam? What is the time limit?
Next, you should locate the exam topics and print them out. Getting intimately familiar with these topics is important. What is on this list is what you can expect to be quizzed on when sitting the exam.
Once familiar with the exam topics, it is beneficial to create a study guide. It can be as simple as mapping each exam topic to your resources. Here is a hypothetical example:
Configure inter-VLAN routing
Watch: Nuggets 18-20
Read: Ch. 13
Lab: Lab #3 from workbook
Making a study guide is not mandatory, but will help you to stay organized and have a clear overview of the material.
With a road map in place, you can now set up a study schedule. Get out that calendar, estimate your spare time available for study and make a realistic weekly schedule. It is important to be realistic here, and not overdo it. If you have two hours available on Monday, for example, maybe two nuggets and one chapter of the book is reasonable for that day.
With a study guide and a schedule in place, the workload has been divided into meaningful, manageable chunks. Sticking to a schedule maintains a consistent sense of accomplishment and control.
Take an Active Approach to Studying
When studying, the more you can engage with the material the better. You want to take an active approach to studying and not be merely a passive recipient of information.
Do not be tempted to lay back and watch the videos in the same manner you watch a show on TV. Rather approach the videos in a similar way to reading a textbook:
- Stop and reflect after the instructor has explained a topic. Try to explain, in your own words, what the topic is about.
- Do the quizzes that pop up in the videos.
- Take notes.
- If a particular topic is difficult to understand, jot down some questions to be researched and answered later.
- At the end of a video, try to summarize the key points before moving on.
When reading – whether it is a cert textbook or a vendor whitepaper, a good strategy is to first scan the pages you are going to read. Take note of the headings and text in bold in particular. This will give you some clues about what the content is about and what you need to pay attention to. Then focus, and do one section at a time. Take notes along the way. After completing a section, stop and reflect. Summarize in your own words – what is this subject about? What do I know about it? How would I explain this to a friend?
In this way you are engaging in active learning – you are actively participating and engaging your brain by taking notes, reflecting, and summarizing information.
Your Study Toolbox
What are some specific tools that can aid you in your studies?
Mindmapping. A mindmap is a diagram of the relationship between different subjects. It follows a tree-like structure where the main subject is in the middle – the root. Then all items relating to the root form multiple branches with leaves. Mindmaps are a great way of showing the bigger picture, and the interrelationship between items. You can create mindmaps with pen and paper, or there are digital alternatives for free or on a budget.
Notetaking. When taking notes it is important to find a balance between extracting the most crucial pieces of information and writing down everything the instructor says, or rewriting the entire book! You do not need to write down everything, but you do want to write down enough so that upon finishing a video or book chapter you need not revisit that video or chapter again. Instead, you can rely solely on your notes and mindmaps to review the material. The act of notetaking on its own is a form of active learning and helps retention since you are really engaging with the material. Software like Microsoft’s OneNote and Evernote are good alternatives and offer a neat way of organizing your material. Your notes can be synced across all your devices, so they can be reviewed anywhere.
Keep a list of questions to be answered. Sometimes you will come across a subject that is too challenging to understand right away. Writing down a question to come back to later is a good idea. For example, “A designated port is the port on a segment that has the best path to the root bridge”. Is it talking about the bridge’s overall cost, i.e. the root port, or the root cost of the actual port in question that is being determined to become the designated port? Sometimes you will find that a question gets answered along the way in your studies. Other times you will be researching this question further by searching the Internet or labbing it out yourself.
Mnemonics. A mnemonic is a memory device that helps you to easier remember several items in sequence. This is particularly useful for longer lists, models and technology states. Here are some examples:
- The layers of the OSI model: Physical, Datalink, Network, Transport, Session, Presentation, Application – «Please Do Not Throw Sausage Pizza Away».
- The DHCP process: Discover, Offer, Request, Acknowledge – «D.O.R.A».
A good way to measure your progress is by testing yourself using notecards and completing practice exams.
Using notecards is a classic, time-proven way of memorizing items and testing your knowledge. What makes notecards such an efficient way of studying is related to what was mentioned above about active learning. Since there are no multiple-choice answers right in front of you to pick from, the brain goes on a deliberate search to find the answer, thus really engaging you in the process.
Through CBT Nuggets you get access to Kaplan’s premade flashcards, which are excellent. You can, of course, make your own, as well, whether you are going the classic route using physical cards, or the digital route using some software like Anki.
Kaplan also offers practice tests that simulate the real exam. You can use these to gauge your progress. Doing practice exams exposes the topics you need to focus more on, and they can give you a rough estimate as to when you are ready to sit the exam.
Lab – Embrace Problem Solving
Once your understanding of a topic is at a sufficient level – go ahead and lab that technology. Whether it is on hardware or on your simulator of choice, labbing reinforces your theoretical knowledge and often results in those «A-ha» moments where everything just clicks. Labbing is another form of active learning where you are physically engaging with the process.
Doing labs is not just about configuring by-the-book best practice scenarios, however. Use it as a laboratory for experimentation and testing. Break your configuration. See what happens to y if you break x. Some of the strongest learning occurs when troubleshooting problems.
Repetition, Reinforcement, and Reiteration
When we are learning something new we are transferring information from short term memory to long term memory. Learning complex subjects often takes time and repeated exposure to the material.
Our brains literally change as we learn new information. Forming new memories involves our neurons forming bonds, and by repetition, these bonds grow stronger. Just think about it, learning any new skill requires repetition – shooting a basketball or swapping between chords on a guitar. This also equally applies to understanding technology topics like the OSI model or how DNS works.
In your certification studies, you should use repetition to your advantage. Learning complex technologies requires you to «live it for a while». Your understanding expands as you come back to subjects again and again. Also, for IT certifications some things just need to be rote memorized, such as common TCP and UDP port numbers or private IPv4 class ranges.
Repeatedly going over your flashcards, notes, mindmaps, and doing labs will reinforce and sink the information deep into your brain. With time, you could not forget it even if you tried.
Joining a study group, or teaming up with a friend that is studying for the same certification as you, is a good strategy. You can bounce ideas off each other, ask questions if you get stuck on a topic, and share resources. The certification path is easier if you have someone to collaborate with.
The CBT Nuggets Slack community is a great spot to collaborate with other learners. You can ask questions and join in discussions about certification topics. It is also an opportunity to answer questions, which is, in turn, an effective way of reinforcing your own knowledge.
The Slack community also offers a mentoring program where you can be assigned a mentor that will meet with you weekly and offer guidance. Currently, there are mentoring programs for Cisco, Microsoft and VMware certifications. The #cisco-learners chat is the most active community.
There you have it. These are some study tips that will benefit you in your certification studies. Use these tips to your advantage. Become an active participant in your learning and you should be on the road to exam success.
Anders Fauskanger lives in Bergen, Norway and works for a large healthcare provider. He is currently studying for CCNP Routing and Switching and is a CCNA mentor for the CBT Nuggets Learners Community.