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This post talks about more effective ways to prepare for a modern cloud certification exams. It starts off by describing why the most common approaches get poor results, then suggests an alternative 5 step process I’ve found to be effective.
Let’s start by asking what the most common approach is: buy an online video course from Udemy or Pluralsight, watch the videos one after the other while taking the odd page of notes, sit a practice test, and book the exam.
What’s wrong with this approach?
Choosing the course: Udemy and Pluralsight heavily focus on quantity, not quality. Hence there will be a million and one exam focused courses that skirt the surface of the subject and are quickly abandoned by students and teachers alike. The course creators especially are heavily incentivised to create new content for new users, rather than looking after their existing courses/users with a steady stream of bug-fixes and course updates to keep pace with the cloud providers.
Don’t be fooled by the $4,000 5-day bootcamps — way over priced
Don’t be fooled by the 3,000 page text book — any book that long will be well out of date, long, long before it makes it to press. The cloud works at internet speed, not glacial speed
Choose a course that teaches real world skills not the exam syllabus: the end game is “be better at a better job” not a badge & interviewers see straight through people who crammed the exam without learning the skills.
Watching the course: watching a 15-minute video is horrifically ineffective at loading information into the brain, even if you were paying 100% attention (let’s be honest, you won’t be paying full attention), and worse, many people watch their courses on fast-forward and skip modules making it even more difficult for the brain to pick things out and store them for later use.
Not doing the labs: labs are hard, they take ages to do, cost a bit of cash, and often don’t work as intended (especially for those unmaintained Udemy courses), so people often skip them and just watch the videos. But this misses out a huge amount of learning, as you make mistakes, then diagnose and fix them.
Doing labs is also a fab way of cementing info into the brain: you are much more likely to remember something you DID, than something you were PRESENT AT when the video played. As to cost — even the most expansive expensive lab is unlikely to cost even $1 and most are free or < $0.10. The time you are committing is worth vastly more than that.
Using notes: taking good notes is hard, hence many people either don’t take notes, or just write down everything the teacher said; and If anything is less effective at getting information into the brain than (not) note taking notes it’s downloading somebody else’s notes and the slides.
Downloading things to your laptop is a million miles from getting the info in those notes into your brain. Some people want longer explanations -> in which case go to the cloud provider’s official documentation. Those documents have a *much* higher chance of being up to date and accurate than some notes you found on the internet.
Lastly, taking notes can only ever be part 1, accounting for 20% of the effort. Part 2 (80% of the effort) is using the notes: revising, reviewing, flash carding to get that info in the brain & keep it there.
Taking a practice test: it’s easy to take a practice test and see if you pass (spoiler: the first few you take, you will fail, especially if you did the above). Then you resit the test, and because you’ve just seen the answers you can remember question 1 was A, question 2 was b, and so on.
The second big exam mistake is using exam dump sites. These are not your friend, they are often extremely misleading, giving wrong answers and setting bad expectations. Also: they wont be around when you need the skills — they aren’t there in interviews or on the real job & if you relied on them, you will get found out easily & then it will be bad.
Not using the knowledge after the test: all knowledge rots. If you don’t put those skills to use you will quickly use them. But how many people take a cert then immediately set out to never again use that knowledge?
Each of these steps can be improved on significantly, meaning the chances of a pass are higher and the chances any of the knowledge sticking around past the week of the exam are drastically higher.
Choosing the course: find a course creator that maintains their courses for the long term and is interested in teaching real-world skills rather than facilitating exam dumps.
Also: find a community, where you’ll have a load of people to inspire you, to keep you honest and motivated, to ask questions. Become active. Treat it like a gym — gym buddies increase your success chances.
Doing the course: this seems obvious: pay attention. Watch every video and do every lab, in order. No skipping. The objective is to learn not to be present when a video plays. So, if you aren’t learning or the info isn’t going in, stop and take a break.
Using notes: There is no direct link between watching the course and your long-term memory. None. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can do something about it. The videos and labs are ONLY there to explain things to you long enough for you to create really good quality notes based on what’s in your short-term memory, and those notes are primarily there so you can work out everything you need to put on your flash cards. Then you create your flash cards and use them for spaced repetition -> which is how you *really* get information from your short-term memory into long term memory, from where you can actually use it to pass the exam, and in your work. The notes aren’t really there for you to refer to later. If at a later date you need to refer to something, refer to the official online documentation. You know that’s going to be up to date and correct. Your notes? Maybe not so much.
Linking knowledge: Make sure your flash cards attack knowledge from multiple sides, so you can recall information from front to back, top to bottom, side to side, and back again. You can’t just have one card that says Q: “What are the elements in the innovation mindset” A: “Talent, Empowerment, Structure, Strategy, Environment, Innovation” you have to use multiple cards covering:
Above all: make sure you are actively linking all knowledge (i.e. revising your flash cards, doing spaced repetition) from day 1 and until at least the exam day).
Most of the the knowledge nuggets that end up on flash cards come from the course and its labs. But you’ll probably also make a load of cards from the official documentations, conference videos, the learning community you joined, and the practice papers you sat.
Note: the above only works, if you are creating your own flash cards from your own notes, based on your own understanding gained from watching videos, doing labs, and reading the docs: you can’t use other people’s flash cards, that’s fake learning (parrot learning) & if you do that, you won’t be building on a solid foundation -> you have to first UNDERSTAND, then get that understanding on paper in your words, then convert your notes into your flashcards.
Practice papers: There are two uses for practice papers: understanding what the actual exam looks like (you’ll get this by the 3rd question, so stop worrying after that) and checking how good your flash cards were. So, the best way to use the practice papers is:
Further thoughts on practice papers:
Not using the knowledge after the test: seems obvious, but if you don’t use the knowledge, it will rot. So even if you cant get hands on with the subject areas in a professional setting, you should probably revisit your favorite lab, or flash through some cards again.
The above is my theory, developed while prepping for a wide range of professional exams. It’s based on a 5 step process:
1. Understanding by watching videos and doing labs
2. Getting the understanding down on paper while its fresh in memory (ie within minutes)
3. Converting the notes to flash cards & doing spaced repetition with the cards
4. Validating and iterating flash card coverage with practice papers
5. Revisiting knowledge post-exam to keep at least some of it
I’m sure I’ll evolve this thinking as I do more certs — but am very interested to hear how others do it & how this system can be improved. Comments open!
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