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Improve certification results with intelligent guessing

January 10, 2023
Get better certification exam results with intelligent guessing and time management.

For almost three decades I have taught IT and cybersecurity classes at the college and university levels. Many of these courses have been aligned with industry recognized certifications from certification providers like Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA, and (ISC)².

When I work with adult career changer students, many of them have not taken an exam for a very long time. The idea of going to at testing center and taking a certification exam causes feeling of apprehension and potential failure.

An obvious preparation path for these students is taking practice exams that have been created with content directed towards the exam objectives created by the certification provider. Quality practice exam products are purposely designed to present questions in a format that mimics how questions are presented in the actual certification exam.

From a practical standpoint, for the overwhelming bulk of my students, their certification exam experience started with the CompTIA A+ certification exams. When I teach this course, I've specifically included teaching content that I've characterized as "intelligent guessing" and "time management".

Intelligent Guessing

Prior to August of 2012, CompTIA certification exams contained only standard multiple-choice style exam questions. The typical structure, as shown below is a question with a single correct answer:

The color of the sky is [Fill in the blank].
a) Green
b) Orange
c) Purple
d) Blue

In the latter part of 2012, CompTIA added what are characterized as performance-based questions (PBQs).[1] To facilitate efforts to improve student exam scores, I’ve been teaching students for decades how to guess in an intelligent fashion when dealing with the standard multiple-choice questions. Resources utilized for this effort include the following:

Rules for Intelligent Guessing
Quiz A
Quiz A Answer Sheet
Quiz B
Quiz B Answer Sheet

As noted below, I created and posted on YouTube, a short video where I explain how to utilize these resources to help students analyze these questions where they have no idea what the correct answer is. Based upon my experience this could be the difference between failing and passing the exam.

Time Management

Get better certification exam results with intelligent guessing and time management.

For CompTIA certification exams, prior to their containing PBQs, the general rule was exams typically contained 90 questions, and the time limit for completing the exam was 90 minutes. Recognizing the fact that unanswered questions provide a wrong answer result, an obvious rule is you should answer all questions before you run out of time.

To facilitate this fact, I use a process I call "Mark and Move-On." That process, with the inclusion of PBQs, results in four (4) passes through the questions based on the process identified below:

First Pass

As a rule, you spend no more than thirty (30) seconds on a question. CompTIA structures their exams with the first few questions structured as PBQs. Skip these by clicking "next." Continue that until you reach the first standard multiple-choice question.

Once there, if you can't read the question in 30 seconds, skip it. If you can read it and answer it in 30 seconds, do so. Next decide whether you are confident the answer you've selected is correct. If you are, do not mark the question. If you are not confident it is correct, mark the question.

Then move on immediately to the next question. When you reach and complete the last question, a review page will appear. Move on to the Second Pass.

Second Pass

While on the review page, identify how many unanswered questions there are, and how much remaining time you have left. For example, if you have twenty (20) unanswered questions and 40 minutes left, then make a mental note to not spend more than 2 minutes on each question.

One of the links on the review page allows you to go through the unanswered questions. After clicking on the link you will return to the first PBQ. As you did in the First Pass, skip the PBQs. Handle the unanswered standard multiple-choice questions within your "per question" time limit, resorting to "Intelligent Guessing" if necessary.

Be sure to answer every unanswered question. If you are not confident of your answer, mark the question. Once you've answered all the questions, move on to the Third Pass.

Third Pass

Here we focus exclusively on the PBQs. By now, you likely know how many there are. The likely range is somewhere between 3 and 5. Using your math skills, divide the time remaining by the number of PBQs. There will be the average maximum time you can spend on a PBQ.

A first step for Question 1 is estimating if you can complete it in the calculated time. If you don't think you can, then move on to Question 2, and if possible answer it in that average maximum time. Once you've answered all the PBQs satisfactorily, proceed to the Fourth Pass.

Fourth Pass

Get better certification exam results with intelligent guessing and time management.

This is likely the least important step. At this point you have little time left and are likely not in top test taking form. For me, I generally skip this step and push "Done." The focus is on questions that you've marked. The best advice for these questions is don't change your answer unless you are sure the selected answer is wrong, and you are sure another choice is the correct answer.

Additional Video Resources

To help in efforts to implement both of these strategies, I have created two videos. The first one was recorded prior to CompTIA's insertion of PBQs in their exam. The second one covers their exams containing PBQs.[2]

Video Presentation on Intelligent Guessing and Time Management

Video Presentation on Performance Based Questions



[2] The resources discussed are available at my blog. is owned by TestOut® and CompTIA®
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