Dealing with the subjective questions vs timer issue when taking CCNA exams

While you might remember some exam questions you think are subjective, and maybe a bit ambiguous, today I wanted to talk about the time pressure issue by drilling down on the most obvious bit of feedback you see when taking the exam: the question counter and the down-timer. While both numbers are completely objective, not all questions require the same amount of time – some typically taking 5 to 10 times longer than a straightforward multichoice question. So, today I’ll talk about some strategies, and we’ll introduce a little data behind my suggestion that getting to 90+ seconds on Wednesday’s example  question (http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/19364). I promise to make some broader suggestions, and drill down on strategies to improve your time on Wednesday’s sample question, next week.  

(By the way, the current survey results from Wednesday’s post, regarding the time to complete a particular question, shows about 30% of those who took the time to click the survey used more than 90 seconds to answer the question, and around 50% more than 60 seconds. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s good to keep in mind if you’re interested in the rest of this post.)

So, let’s take the ICND1 exam as an example. Cisco tells us you get 90 minutes, and that you get 55-65 “questions”. But not all questions are equal. In particular, testlets list one scenario with 4 or 5 multiguess questions associated with the scenario. Simlets also have several multiguess questions, but with a simulator, so to find the answers, you have to do some show commands. So, say you get 60 questions on your ICND1 exam, but that includes one testlet with 5 subquestions, and one simlet with 5 subquestions – each counts as “1” in that 60 question count.

Sim questions also take longer than the other types of questions. Cisco suggests taking no more than 10 minutes on a single sim question. (Also, be aware the grading does give partial credit on Sim questions – so do what you can, and don’t just give up if you know you’re missing something.)

So, one way to deal with the fact that your question count on the exam includes an unknown number of these longer questions, which each count as “1”, is to make some assumptions, and to normalize the math.

For example, say you take the exam, and in the first 10 of your 60 “questions”, you get a testlet with 5 subquestions, a simlet with 5 subquestions, and a sim. You’ve completed 10 of 60 questions, and you’ve spent 30 of your 90 minutes (gulp). To temper that a little, let’s predict what will happen on a typical exam, and then we can deal with it a little:

  • Predict that you will get 3 or at most 4 “longer” style questions (I’ll assume 4 here)
  • Treat Testlets and Simlets based on the number of subquestions
  • Treat Sims as being the same value as 7 multiguess questions (that’s my subjective guess)

So, let’s say you predict, just to be safe, that you’ll get 2 sims, one 5-question testlet, and one 5-question simlet, in your 60 questions. That’s probably the worst you’d ever get in terms of taking extra time. For those four questions, you’d consider them to count as 24 multichoice questions (5+5+7+7 in case it wasn’t obvious). So, instead of thinking of the test as having 60 questions, now think of it as having 80 questions. So, you’ve normalize the longer questions relative to the multichoice questions, at least in terms of estimated time consumed. So what’s that mean? You’d get 90/80th minutes per “question” (1:07). For 5-subquestion testlets and simlets, you get 5 times that (5:35), and for each sim you’d get an estimated 7 times that (about 8 minutes). You can certainly take more or less time, that’s just the way the math works out for the estimates.

That was worst case – more realistically, you’d maybe get 3 of the longer questions (say, 1 less Sim question that the last example). If you got 60 questions again, you’d consider it to have 74 questions (counting the 3 longer questions as 5, 5, and 7  questions), with 90/74th minutes per question (about 1:11 per question).

Now, back to Earth for a second. You can’t predict how many of these longer questions that you’ll get, and you won’t know how many you did get until you finish the exam. It’s just as bad to rush and finish 10 minutes early as it is to take too much time and not finish. So, a suggested exam-day strategy that can help:

  • The exam interface lists the number of questions you’ll get before the timer starts – write down that number.
  • Count on 1:10 per question
  • When you get a longer question (Testlet, Simlet, Sim), make a written note of the extra “value” of the question, ie note “+6” for a sim (counts as 7 instead of 1)
  • When you look at the question number versus time, to gauge your time consumption, add the “+x” notes you’ve made about the longer questions, to give some perspectives
  • With the 1:10/question estimate, each 6 “questions” should take 7 minutes, which makes the fractional minutes easier to deal with – but if you like, write down “12/14”, “24/28”, “36/42”, “48/56”, “60/70”, on your notes, which lists the number of questions (as adjusted/normalized above) versus minutes consumed.

OK, a lot of words, but in practice it takes a few seconds extra. For example, say your exam was listed as 60 questions. Then, like the earlier time-scary scenario, you got 2 Sims, one 5-question testlet, and one 5-question simlet within the first 10 questions. Once you answer question #12, you see the question counter at 13 (the counter shows the current question number), and the downward-counting timer at 60 minutes (30 minutes gone for an ICND1 exam.). At first glance, it’s 12 questions in 30 minutes, and you’re not gonna finish in time. You know you had some long questions, but you worry about how many more you’ll see. However, with this strategy, you’ll also see +4, +4, +6, and +6 over to the side of your note page, and then consider that with 32 questions in 30 minutes, you’re actually doing very well time-wise.  It’ll also remind you that you’ve already had 4 of the longer questions, so you’re probably done with those for the rest of the exam – which can really help reduce your blood pressure.

So, anyone have other suggestions with how you eal with the time pressure on exam day?  I’ll spend some space ruminating about it next week, and about how to deal with the time pressure on individual questions, like the one we were pondering in the last few blog entries this week. Have a good weekend!

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