Getting Started, Part 6: Using Practice Questions

More than Just for Last-Minute Practice

The need for practice questions may seem obvious: to get the cert, you have to pass a test, and that test has questions - so practice by answering questions on those same subjects. However, there is more to consider than just the need to practice answering questions, and beyond the choice of which practice questions to buy. Today we'll walk through those issues, and wrap up this series on getting started with Cisco certs.

A Surprising Divide: Knowledge vs Application

If you read/view your primary learning source, and absorb a high percentage of the material, you're still not ready for the exam, even the ICND1 exam. Why? Cisco exams require you to master the application of what you learned. You can't pass a Cisco exam by simply recalling and listing facts.

First, let me tell you what I mean by application. Take ARP, which is a simple protocol. To test your knowledge, a test question might ask:

Host A and B are on the same VLAN. Host A already knows host B's IP address. Which protocol can be used to learn by host A to learn host B's MAC address?

Then the answers list ARP, and some distracters, like DHCP, ICMP, and RIP. Pretty much a slam dunk if you know the basics of ARP.

Cisco exams, even the entry-level ICND1, ICND2, and CCNA exams, assess whether you can apply your knowledge of functions like ARP. For example, using that same figure, a question used to assess skills with ARP might run something like this:

Question: All interfaces in the figure are up and can forward traffic. However, only the routers have sent any messages, and they have only sent routing protocol messages (RIP-2). None of the host computers connected to any of the LANs have sent any traffic yet. In other words, none of the hosts or routers have learned any dynamic information, except that the two routers have learned all required IP routes. Host A then succesfully pings host C. Which of the following answers list how the devices in this network use ARP?

  • A. Host A tries to learn host C's MAC address by sending an ARP broadcast
  • B. Host C tries to learn router R2's MAC address by sending an ARP broadcast
  • C. Router R1 tries to learn host A's MAC by sending an ARP broadcast
  • D. Host C sends an ARP Reply at some point in this process
  • E. Router R1's ARP table lists host A's MAC and host C's MAC

Just as an aisde, feel free to give your answer(s) in a poll at the end of this post. I put the poll there just to hopefully avoid spoiling the answer.

This second question requires that you be able to apply your knowledge of ARP, plus other related concepts, to a simple network. It requires that you know when a device sends an ARP Request, when it sends an ARP Reply, that devices can learn another's MAC by looking at a received ARP Request (which is a broadcast), that routers do not forward ARP messages, and the like. It also requires that you know when ARP messages are not needed. And it is clearly a more challenging question.

One Way to Use Practice Questions: to Learn Application

Practice questions may be great for late-stage review and self-assessment, but they can also be very valuable to bridge the divide between knowledge and application. Sure, any good primary study resource will show you examples that discuss different protocols, functions, and commands. However, the better way to learn application is to be forced to apply the concepts yourself, and then realize what you got right, and what you didn't.

Some sets of questions may be stronger or weaker to be used to learn how to apply concepts. However, most will at least have some questions that make you dig in beyond the simple recall of facts.

Another Reason: Practice for Exam Day

The other and more obvious purpose for practice questions is to get ready for the actual exam. To that end, I encourage you to go to this link, and learn about Cisco's question types early in your study.

An Early Choice: How to Use Questions that Come with the Book

In keeping with the "getting started" theme of this series, you have a choice to make early in your study: how to use practice questions. First, most people but an exam cert guide book as one of their books, and these books typically come with practice questions. So, you have some questions already. The choice as to how to use these questions hinges on your decision about whether to spend more $$ on additional practice questions.

Finding practice questions isn't hard, but finding ones you think are worth the time and money is a little harder. There are simply too many sources to even begin to list them here. However, for perspective, even a cursory Google search reveals sources of free questions and sources for practice tests that run from $20 to $100. A search at the Cisco Learning Network shows several posts where folks ask the question "which test vendors to use". A search at Amazon shows more products that have questions in books, some with CD-based software with a testing engine, and some without. Some have only multichoice questions, and some have the more sophisticated question types, like simulator questions.

For the sake of argument, let's say to get quality question content, you'd spend #20-$30, and to also get robust testing software with all the Cisco question types, like Sim questions, you'll spend up to around $100.  So, early on, I suggest you spend some time looking into the question of whether you will spend money on more questions.

Then, if you can/will spring for more questions, then consider using the ones that come with the book for review - chapter review, part review, or even final review.  In other words, use them primarily for learning to apply the concepts you learned, and to round out your learning. (With my books, for instance, we actually design the questions to help you practice the application of the concepts, with the idea that you use them for review and learning more than for self-assessment.) Then use the second set of questions for late-stage review and practice.

For example, in my books, you can use a customize button to deselect questions from all chapters except one, and the software will servce only questions associated with that chapter, for easier review.

While both sets of questions can meet both goals, if you use one set of questions for both goals, you can become a little too familiar with them while you practice, and then you start getting the questions right because you memorize them, not because you actually had to apply concepts to a new scenario.

Not spending more $?

If you instead know that you won't spring the $$ for more questions - maybe you used that money on an extra used LAN switch for CLI practice - then you might consider avoiding using these questions for review while reading, and saving them for late-stage review. That way, when you use them at the end of your study process, you won't be getting the questions right just because you remember the questions and answers.

Watch out for Cheaters

Now, to a totally different issue that folks new to Cisco certs need to keep in mind: some practice test vendors cheat. The biggest culprit, in my opinion, would be a company that sells "brain dumps" - question sets taken direcetly from the real exam. For instance, they might send 20 people to take the exam, leave the testing center, and write down every detail of every question. Or, they bribe a worker at the testing center, bring in a camera, and record an occurrence of the exam, and put those exact questions in their question sets.

Cisco rightfully frowns on brain dumps, and Cisco tries to stop them. But Cisco also frowns on anyone using brain dumps when prepping for a Cisco exam. While difficult to enforce, Cisco does have the right to de-certify anyone who breaks their rules, and those rules includes the fact that we as test takers should not partake of brain dump questions.

Cisco's policy certainly does beg several questions - in particular, how do you avoid using brain dumps? So, for the newbies to Cisco cert land, I asked Cisco is there was a list. They made a very reasonable response: they don't list known brain dump sites because that likely increases the use of such sites. For anyone who would choose to avoid them, such a list might help, but for those who would instead use that list to find better ways to cheat, posting such a list makes cheating more likely. So Cisco doesn't post a list.

From a practical perspective, if the question vendor claims things like "our questions from the real exam", or lists testimonials like "When I took the exam, I realized that I had already seen most of the questions on my practice test from vendor X", then I'd say stay away. And a good way to check is to search on CLN for "brain dump", or ask a question on CLN about the short list of vendors you're considering, as to whether anyone out there thinks the company is a brain dump kind of company.

Answer Poll

That's enough. Hope you've enjoyed the series. Post any final related comments/questions for the entire series here, and answer the earlier ARP question in the poll below.


Related Posts:

So You Want to Get STarted in Cisco Certs - Now What?

Getting Started Part 2: Primary CCNA Study Source

Getting Started, Part 3: What and Why on the Cisco CLI

Getting Started, Part 4: Simulators vs Real Gear for CLI Skills

Getting Started, Part 5: Your Third Option for CLI: Dynamips

What to Consider After PAssing CCNA

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