Joey on SQL Server

Microsoft Allowing Documentation During Certification Exams Is a Game-Changer

The new shift in exams will lead to more task-oriented questions, higher-quality credentials and a blow against the illicit market of exam brain dumps.

Throughout my career, I have taken many Microsoft certification exams. Between various Microsoft partner requirements and my edification, I have passed 31 exams. I've performed multiple aspects of the exam development process.

This week, when I found out Microsoft allowed access to documentation on during exams, I was pretty surprised. For all those exams I've taken, except for one (more on that later), I have had no access to any resources outside of the exam. However, this step is not entirely unprecedented -- the lab portion of the Microsoft Certified Master exam for SQL Server allowed offline documentation.

I mentioned the one exam I took where I had access to external documentation. This January, I took the "Microsoft Identity and Access Administrator (SC-300)" exam with a lab component. The lab was in the Azure portal, and I accidentally clicked one of the "Learn More" links, as shown in Figure 1.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1.

Surprisingly, the page loaded in my browser, and I could see content from Learn. I was largely successful in the lab portion of the exam (which I passed), and having access to documentation didn't give me the answers. Still, because I knew the subject area and the structure of docs, it helped me navigate the Azure portal more quickly.

This change will be beneficial to exam takers of all levels. While having access to documentation will make exams easier to pass in the short term, the exam questions will evolve to become more task-oriented and have less focus on memorization. I have mainly run into these questions on lower-level exams (specifically administrator ones). For example, questions about what privileges make up a specific role are more of a memorization test than understanding.

In education, a set of hierarchical models called "Bloom's Taxonomy" (credit here to my wife, Kelly, a former teacher) is used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. The lowest level of this taxonomy is knowledge, knowing specific terminology and facts, classifications and categories. An example of a knowledge question would be, "What T-SQL verb changes to the value of an existing record to a new value?" (It's UPDATE, dear reader.) This type of question is very much in line with Microsoft's Azure fundamentals exams. You should also note that fundamentals exams will continue not to have access to documentation. Fundamental exams have a place in the hierarchy, but those are not the types of questions that are befitting more advanced exams.

The highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy are synthesis and evaluation, where you make determinations based on your knowledge or try fixing an otherwise unworkable situation. In an ideal world, this is where the architect and expert-level exams would operate in total.  But currently, they can lean too much towards knowledge-based questions. Opening documentation allows Microsoft to ask more challenging scenario-based questions, increasing the level of those exams.

Making exams more scenario-based also helps the fraud problem with exam brain dumps. If you don't know, there is an illicit market around exam brain dumps, where students memorize the answers to questions and use that knowledge to pass the exam without understanding the material. Having exams based on labs and real-world challenges doesn't eliminate this market. However, it does mean that if a test taker learns from a brain dump of a lab challenge, they learned how to do an actual task as opposed to just knowing the answer to a question.

One of the more common questions I get from conference attendees is, "Are there career benefits to me passing a certification exam?" My answer is always balanced, but generally, you'll get more out of studying for and passing an exam than you will from the actual certification. Still, some firms (mainly consulting firms that are Microsoft partners) care about certifications. The good thing about studying is that you will learn about and use features and services you might otherwise not get during your regular job duties. As a hiring manager, they also show me that the candidate is ambitious and willing to learn independently.  

You may also ask if allowing exam takers to use documentation lowers the standard for passing exams. This change has already been live for a week, and this Reddit thread talks about the experience of taking an exam with the Learn content available. To summarize my experience and the posters, you need a basic understanding of the product or feature being tested to know where to look in the documentation to get the correct answer. Additionally, based on that thread, it seems like the Learn content is limited -- and you can't use the find function on a given page, and searching through documentation isn't as easy as navigating search engine results. There is a window where a qualified candidate can more easily pass exams slightly outside of their expertise. Still, those are the types of candidates who would have a good chance of passing exams with or without documentation.

With Microsoft allowing takers of "role-based" exams to use documentation, there may be an uptake in passing rate, and that's a good thing. I expect new exams and updated questions to become more challenging over time, with access to documentation in the minds of the builders. These changes allow the exams to reflect better the real-world challenges faced by developers, administrators and architects, allowing them to demonstrate their knowledge better and have a better credential to prove that. Finally, if you have limited cloud experience and want to improve your skills, there is no better way than to prepare for and take an exam on a cloud topic. Preparing for the exam is the win, but passing it gives you some credibility.

About the Author

Joseph D'Antoni is an Architect and SQL Server MVP with over a decade of experience working in both Fortune 500 and smaller firms. He is currently Principal Consultant for Denny Cherry and Associates Consulting. He holds a BS in Computer Information Systems from Louisiana Tech University and an MBA from North Carolina State University. Joey is the co-president of the Philadelphia SQL Server Users Group . He is a frequent speaker at PASS Summit, TechEd, Code Camps, and SQLSaturday events.


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe on YouTube