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Licensing and Certification Exams – Get the Most From Test Preparation Courses

By Dr. Geri Markel On 

“Yikes – Help Me Pass My Exams”   

“I’m exhausted.”

“I’ll never pass!”

“I didn’t pass, and now I have to retake the examination. Ugh.”

These are frequently heard comments from professionals taking licensing or certification examinations. So how can you prepare for such tests productively?

It seems that no one these days is immune from test preparation. Nearly every professional is required to pass a licensing examination and participate in continuing education programs. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and engineers face licensing exams as they begin their careers. In 2016, over 74,000 graduating lawyers took the multi-state Bar Examination.

Once in their fields, professionals such as teachers, real estate brokers and financial advisors must accumulate continuing education credits or additional certifications. Technicians also confront the need for multiple certifications as they learn new processes or handle new equipment.

Tests and Certifications Take a Toll on Adult Learners

In a good economy, employers may cover both the costs and time off required for training and certification. These days, however, more workers and job seekers are forced to shell out their own money to take exam preparation courses, while making time for these courses on top of their regular schedules and responsibilities. Therefore, many emerging and current leaders turn to accelerated learning programs: “boot camps,” online courses, compressed semesters or weekend learning retreats.

These sessions can be expensive, stressful and physically exhausting. For example, one university offers an off-site summer program for teachers in which a class that normally takes four months is compressed into 10 full days, consecutively. A review course for a medical-specialty board licensing exam lasts five days, runs from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and includes evening discussions. Most of these courses are soon followed by a high-stakes examination.

So how can participants organize their time and energy to get the most out of educational courses like these?

Here are 10 tips to help you achieve maximum productivity when you attend a certification preparation course:

Before the course

  1. Study the results of your practice exams, pretests or previous standardized exams of a similar nature. Identify the reasons for any incorrect responses that could be classified as “silly mistakes.” These may include missing key words or details due to fatigue, stress, hasty reading or a lapse of attention. Be alert for these stumbling blocks during future practice tests and use strategies to combat them. For example, subvocalize as you read the questions and visualize each choice, so that you don’t miss important words or details.
  2. Identify incorrect responses that are based on the format of the questions. What types of questions are you most apt to miss? Does your difficulty have to do with faulty inferences or trouble with problem-solving?
  3. Identify incorrect responses that result from gaps in basic knowledge. Ask yourself whether you’ve memorized the information sufficiently. Have you reviewed the details to the degree that you can access them rapidly?
  4. Review each section of practice exams and note the questions and topics that you do and don’t know. List the components that need attention, and indicate the depth of detail that is required.

During the course

  1. Commit to getting the most out of the time, money and effort you are spending on the review course. Get ample sleep so you are alert and ready to learn. Prepare yourself to focus: practice yoga, meditation or mindfulness; exercise; and eat some healthy food before class.
  2. Understand that the capacity to absorb and retain information is limited. You need to focus on the topics that require the most attention and concentration. Skip lectures that involve information you already know. Use that time to review areas in which you need the most practice.
  3. Take minibreaks during long lectures. Look at the handouts to identify information you already know. When these topics are addressed, allow yourself a few minutes to stretch, breathe deeply, evoke a positive image and be a cheerleader. Say, “By pacing my energy and attention, I’ll learn more and be less stressed.”
  4. Similarly, use your time effectively during lectures or sessions that you do not need to attend. For example, if you are fatigued, a 30-minute nap can be beneficial. If exercise stimulates your thinking, climb some stairs, walk around the building or, if weather permits, walk outside. You can also find a quiet area and work on practice questions. Consider “mass practice” of the types of questions or topics that you need to master. For example, answer 10 to 20 questions on the same topic or 10 to 20 questions that require memorization of basic knowledge. Next, practice 10 to 20 questions that require problem-solving.
  5. Use a step-by-step approach. As you learn each critical piece of information, repeat it and write or sketch it in your notes. This aids short-term memory and longer-term retention. If you are watching video or audio presentations, break them into smaller chunks. Use a timer to stop and review every 15 to 20 minutes.
  6. Prior to participating in discussions, make a list of questions for which you need answers and don’t shy away from taking part. Be sure to ask follow-up questions if you need more information.

By using these tips, you can get the most out of prep courses—with the least stress And you’ll be ready to pass those licensing and certification exams with ease.


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