Sunday, May 5, 2013

Using Gap Analysis when Preparing for Oracle Certification Exams

Gap analysis is a technique that can make your study time more efficient and can significantly increase your chances of passing an exam. However, many (possibly most) candidates do not specifically include this step in their study process. In a nutshell, gap analysis is the process of going through each of the test objectives and determining which of them you do not know, or do not know very well. Joel Goodman, a senior trainer with Oracle University, gave a free webinar recently: 'Top 5 Preparation Tips for your Database Certification Exam'. He talked a bit about how the exams are created, discussed the kinds of questions seen on the various exam types, and gave some insight into how the beta process worked. For me, one of the most interesting portions of his discussion was when he talked about identifying knowledge gaps when preparing for an exam. I might note that all of this was in addition to the five tips. The tips themselves were not actually the highlight of the session for me, but it was definitely worth attending. Oracle University is making Joel's presentation available again on May 16th and you can register for it free of charge here: Top 5 Preparation Tips Registration.

Performing Gap Analysis
The very first step everyone should perform when preparing for an Oracle certification exam is to visit the topics page for it on the Oracle Education website. This is an ideal time to make an initial gap analysis. As you are reading through each of the topics, make an assessment regarding your knowledge of it. For people new to Oracle or to the specific genre of the exam, most or all of the topics will be ones where you have a significant gap. However, if you are experienced with Oracle and the subject of that exam, then you should only have gaps on a subset of the topics. When studying for the exam, you should make an extra effort on the topics where you have significant gaps. Ignoring the topics where you feel there are no gaps is not advisable, but certainly you should budget a smaller amount of your study time for them.

Later in the process when you think that you might be ready to schedule the exam, you should go back through the topic list again and perform another gap analysis. On this second assessment, you must really work at honestly gauging what you know about it. It can be tempting to write off a topic because you find it boring rather than because you really understand it. You should recognize exactly what each topics refers to and be able to recall a significant amount of the information about it. If you cannot do this, then you probably still have a gap that should be addressed.

Difficulties in Performing Gap Analysis
While performing the initial gap analysis is fairly straightforward, the same cannot be said of the second one. On the first analysis, it is relatively easy to decide that you do not know enough about a given topic for the exam. On the second analysis, you will have studied the subject and know something about it.  The question on the second assessment is not whether you know something about the topic but whether you know enough. This is the nail-biting concern that everyone (including me) has in the final stages of exam preparation.  Have I prepared well enough for this exam? Breaking the question down to the individual topics rather than the entire exam can make the question a bit easier to answer.  Stepping through them can help you to locate areas of weakness.  Some exam preparation materials can also assist in identifying gaps.

  • Practice tests are designed almost entirely to perform gap analysis. Many have a 'study mode' where the answers to questions and a brief explanation are shown.  However, once you use the study mode, the test becomes less useful for identifying gaps. You will have learned to answer that specific question, but not necessarily another on the same topic. Retaking the test will make it seem as if the gap has been closed, however.
  • The Oracle Certification Prep study guide series that I write is largely targeted at helping to identify gaps. They also contain information that can assist in preparing for the exams, but should be supplemented with more comprehensive materials such as the Oracle documentation.
  • The Oracle Press series is an excellent resource for closing knowledge gaps. The information contained in these books is at a level of granularity equal to or exceeding that of the Oracle documentation. I have found that the self tests at the end of the chapters, however, are geared more towards ensuring reading comprehension (i.e. did you read the chapter) than to reproducing the types of questions you will see on the actual exam.

When I first started taking IT certification exams, I used practice tests regularly for gap analysis. In recent years, they are no longer part of my process because I am better at assessing my knowledge gaps. It is impossible to know the specific questions that will be asked on any given exam.  However, with enough experience, it is possible to guess with reasonable accuracy the likely subjects, types of questions, and the level of detail that may be required. After you have taken a few Oracle certification exams, you should also be able to make use of past testing experience to assist your study process. Until you have that experience, you may want to make use of a self-test near the end of the study process to assess your gaps.

When choosing a provider, you should be aware that the vast majority of 'self tests' that you might locate on Google are not legitimate study materials but rather are brain dumps that can endanger your certification status. Listing all of the names is not possible because they change all the time, but if a test provider indicates it contains 'Actual Test Questions', then it is a brain dump and should be avoided. The two best options are Transcender and SelfTestSoftware. Both of these are recommended by Oracle and make a quality product. You can also use to check if a given company is considered to be a brain dump provider.

Whether or not you use practice tests, or perform a manual assessment of your knowledge, adding gap analysis to your exam preparation schedule can help to increase your chances of success.

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