The Evolution of Microsoft Certification Practice Exams

ideaabstract122988926We recently sat down with Transcender’s Microsoft product team consisting of Aima Rotella, Joshua Hester, and George Monsalvatge and discussed how their practice exams are developed and how they have evolved to keep up with changes coming from Microsoft. In the end, we learned that there are major challenges in writing practice exams that accurately reflect and teach students important exam concepts, Microsoft is moving towards more open standards, and customer feedback is crucial to developing and evolving Transcender practice exams.

Q:  Transcender has been designing Microsoft practice exams for over 13 years. How have their certification exams evolved over the years?

Josh: Many testing technologies have come and gone, but ultimately, our process has largely remained the same. Whether the item is a case study, performance-based, or traditional multiple choice, the goal of assessing whether a candidate is qualified or not has largely remained the same. Years ago, Microsoft exams were focused on configurations and proprietary tools. Now with the advent of open protocols such as HTML5, JavaScript, and REST, these exams have become less focused on how to use Microsoft products as much as how to get the end result, with or without Microsoft tools.

George: What changes a lot in certification is how tracks are organized. In that way, Microsoft has come full circle. Before there was the MCSD, MCSE, and MSCA, then came the individual TS/PRO exams with MCTS, MCITP, and MCPD. Now we‘re back to MCSD, MCSA, and MCSE again.

Q:  Does Transcender work closely with Microsoft and other technology vendors when developing their practice exams? What’s that process like?

Josh: We do to a certain extent. Microsoft is understandably protective of their content. Primarily, we focus on the test experience from the candidate’s point of view. We get ourselves certified, ideally grabbing a seat at the beta and then always ask ourselves questions like:

  • What would I need to know to answer this question correctly?
  • Which foundational knowledge or experience is required as background to even understand the overall gist?
  • How can we ensure that our customers can master a question when they see it?

We DO NOT copy or plagiarize questions from the live exam, so there’s a lot of creativity and instructional design that goes into our questions. Our questions need not only to help candidates pass exams, but also stand on their own and help customers through the learning process.

George: We sit for the beta exam. Get an idea of the different question types and concepts that are emphasized. We use the Microsoft Prep Guide to build the blueprint of the exam against what we saw on the exam (for example http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/exam.aspx?id=70-462#tab2), our blueprint allows us to try and weigh our Practice Test closely to the Prep Guide, and then we start writing. We pack a lot of learning into the explanations and provide as many “free” references as possible for additional support and learning.

Q:  What impact have the new Microsoft exams had on test-takers? What kind of stories are you hearing from students?

George: Customers tend to believe that tests are similar to what they have seen in the past. However, instead of getting multiple choice questions, they’re seeing a lot of build, list, and reorder, extended matching, and drag and drops. This is something that they have not prepped for. Even though the knowledge tested is the same, the item types throw people off. People are frustrated, but it’s mostly about nerves. If a candidate studies and has some hands-on experience, they can answer these questions in any format. We try to reassure customers that most of the recent changes in exams are only adding to the value of certification and are not there to trick anyone.

Josh: We have great testimonials from TechEd 2012. From my experience in the field as both a trainer and certification expert, I can tell you that certification is essential for getting into a competitive career and important in most promotions. Without Microsoft certification, who would believe you that you know how to use Microsoft products?

Q:  With Microsoft’s new certifications and increased emphasis on the cloud and hands-on training, how does Transcender’s current generation of practice exams reflect those changes?

Josh: We are trying to keep up with any new certifications and question types. Unlike in the past, there are a lot more new exams that are coming out, and we need to make sure we get it right.

George: In addition to our Practice Test product, we try to direct and educate our customers on all the resources available to study. Microsoft has labs, ebooks, etc., so while we work to write the best content, we also try to offer different types of resources for students.

Q:  Rumor has it that Microsoft will be updating their exams more frequently. How will Transcender adapt and evolve relative to those updates?

George: We have always updated our product based on customer feedback. The test pass guarantee may be a nice benefit for the customer, but it also lets the test developer know if a test needs to be updated even though Microsoft has not announced any changes.

Aima: We’re not always privy to exam updates before the general public, so our customers are our best source of information for unannounced revisions to exams. However, we also try to educate customers that Microsoft has made some very specific rules on re-certification, so it’s not a blanket policy for all certified individuals. Frequent updates again make the exam and the credentials current and valuable in the field, so we should welcome the changing content.

Q:  What best practices do you have for students as they prepare for the new Microsoft exams? How do they know when they’re “ready” to take the exams utilizing Transcender?

Josh: The best practice I always recommend is either install the product or get your hands on a virtual lab so that you can really play around with it. When you run into a question that doesn’t make sense, test it. Nothing is worse than planning for an experience-based exam with no experience and just trying to memorize concepts.

Q:  While certifications are pretty common for IT infrastructure professionals, what sort of benefits do developers obtain by getting their certifications?

Josh: Most developers hate certification. For some, it’s because they are often thrown into a development language or tool with little or no training and fear being tested on what they don’t know. This produces a horrible effect known as “swiss-cheese” knowledge, where key concepts are not learned and advanced concepts are barely understood. Instead of dreading certification, I think they should embrace it and use the process as an excuse to learn inside-and-out what these tools can do for them. For others, it’s pride. Many developers clawed their way to the top through long hours of trial and error and feel like a simple test will not prove anything. The fact is it does prove something. It proves that Microsoft agrees a developer is qualified enough to earn their respect.

Aima: Microsoft has made some great changes to the Developer exams that really address feedback they’ve gotten from this audience. By introducing new item types specific to the Developer tracks, it allows this group to really show off their skills and not just be tested on facts. I think this will help attract those IT Pros, like Josh mentioned, that have historically hated Developer certifications.

Q:  What do you see as the hot Microsoft certification today? And for next year?

George: We have had a lot requests for Server 2012 certification and SQL 2012 certifications, and there’s always interest in anything cloud related.

Josh: Windows 8 apps and more importantly HTML5 and JavaScript. Like certification paths, what is old is new again. The web is ready to take over all devices now and will soon be the de facto standard for desktop, mobile, and other embedded devices.

Q:  And what does Transcender see in their crystal ball for practice exams? What sort of features are you adding to make sure your customer’s are well-prepared moving forward?

George: SQL 2012 and cloud is clearly in the ball.

Josh: I think the continued blurring between web and developer applications will make single platform development closer to a reality.

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