Breaking down Microsoft exam changes and new question formats

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Microsoft exams and certifications are among the most common in the IT profession. I rarely see a resume without at least one of them, because they touch on systems and database administration, programming and development, security and communications, and even network services. This has put Microsoft in a unique position to set standards and influence what other exam providers offer.

How Microsoft handles testing impacts the general debate about the value of certifications and effectiveness of exam questions. If Microsoft makes its exams too easy or easy to cheat on, its certificates will be devalued, and this does not look good for IT certification in general. There is a delicate balance here, however, because if the exams are too hard, they may become less accurate representations of real-world needs and push people to seek out the wrong methods to help them pass.

Recently, Microsoft has made an effort to make its exams much harder. A few months ago, passed four of the new exams to earn my MCSE: Server Infrastructure, MCSA: Windows Server 2012 and MCSA: Private Cloud, so I want to share what I learned from my experience with you.

Exam difficulty

Microsoft's goal in making exam changes was to make them echo real-world scenarios. However, it may happen that some of the new questions focus on problems that are seldom encountered, which can be greatly discouraging to test takers.

Microsoft also claims that the new exam questions are relevant to the specific technology of the exams. I didn't feel that was really true in some of the MCITP: 2008 exams, as they used to drill on new features and enhancements that often aren't regularly used by admins in their daily jobs. To be more specific, I saw little benefit of learning Rights Management Services and Federation Services, which are part of Exam 70-640: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring. Those two services are very complicated to master, too much of a hassle to implement in real life, and are not a core skill of understanding and implementing Active Directory. Still, you'll encounter many questions about those services in your exam.

I feel Microsoft is marketing  its new features by forcing certified admins to learn about them in order to pass the exams. This is a good strategy, assuming that the features are production-ready, useful and easy to implement. However, when the exams make the new features seem hard to implement, or not that useful, admins will have a negative response to this and may avoid exploring these services in real life.

Do not be discouraged by this, though. The good news is that a passing score of 700 doesn't mean you have to answer 70 percent of the questions correctly, as Microsoft uses scaled scores. This means that the number of questions needed to pass the exam may range from 50-85 percent of the total number of questions. So, when taking an exam, you should do the best you can until the end and hope for a good surprise. During at least three exams, I was sure I would not pass, but in the end I did and with a nice margin above the 700 cut mark.

Second shot

Of course, you can't always be lucky, and I admit that I did not pass an exam once. On that occasion, I didn't really have anything to worry about because I already registered for a second chance and passed the exam a couple of weeks later without paying anything extra. A second shot is a great way to relieve pressure off of candidates by ensuring that they have another opportunity to perform better. A second shot makes it less likely for candidates to resort to alternative means to ensure passing. I encourage you to take advantage of this great offer and schedule all of your planned exams when a second shot is available.

Let's take a look at the new question types Microsoft has recently introduced, so you'll know how to prepare.

New question types

Multiple-Choice Questions

Multiple-choice questions are a good measure of candidate skills and knowledge but they are also “a little bit boring” according to Liberty Munson, Microsoft's lead psychometrician, the person who oversees the design and delivery of Microsoft certification exams. But being boring is not the only reason Microsoft is introducing new types of exam questions: Multiple-choice questions are  easier to memorize and may not be the best way to reflect real-life scenarios or experiences.

See a video from Microsoft with multiple choice questions here.

Simulations where candidates get specific tasks to perform can closely mimic a real-life task. I remember I used to get many of these when I did my MCSE 2003 exams, but I have not seen many simulations recently. Instead, Microsoft is adding more questions of new types.

Repeated Answer Choices

Repeated answer choices are like multiple choice questions, but with a much longer list of options from which test-takers must choose one or more correct answers. You will get a number of different questions but with the same set of answers. This makes it harder for cheaters to memorize the correct answer, as the correct answer is different even through the choices are the same and the question may be very similar.

See a video from Microsoft with repeated answer questions here.

Best Answer

Asking for the “Best Answer” that meets the requirements of the question is also another way to differentiate similar questions. What makes these types of questions more challenging is that more than one choice is correct, but the best answer depends on the specific requirements. For example, a least-administrative effort answer may not be the most-cost-effective solution, and if you were asked to meet both those requirements, you may have to choose a third answer.

See a video from Microsoft of best answer questions here.

Interactive Questions

There are a lot more interactive item types than there used to be. Those items require you to take some action. For example, you may be asked to order the steps needed to solve a problem (build list), or enter some code for developers.

See a video from Microsoft of build list questions here.

Drag and drop has also become more common.

See a video from Microsoft of drag and drop questions here .

Active screens give you the opportunity to configure a dialogue box to perform a task. It is similar to a simulation, but more specific to one dialogue box or a step in a wizard.

See a video from Microsoft of active screen questions here.

Microsoft also added some graphical multiple-choice questions called hot-answer, where you pick choices by clicking them on the graphic.

See a video from Microsoft of hot answer questions here.

With these changes to Microsoft exams and the introduction of new certificates at the end of 2012 and the start of 2013, Microsoft made its exams more relevant, more fun and much more interactive. It is great time to do some training, pass exams and be ready to deploy new technologies. My own personal advice is to take your time learning this stuff by watching TrainSignal courses or using your preferred training method, building your confidence of the subject by doing your own testing in your lab, and doing as many exams as you can, especially with the safety net of a second shot.

Want to learn more about how you can prepare for Microsoft certification exams? See our library of Microsoft training videos and sign up for a 3-day free trial to access TrainSignal's entire training library.

Ready to test your skills in Computer Networking or ASP.NET? See how they stack up with a test assessment from Smarterer.

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Ashraf Al-Dabbas

is vExpert, VCP, 3xMCSE, MCITP, CCNP, ITIL v3 Certified and an MBA holder. He has 10+ years of diverse experience working in a large organizations in systems infrastructure support, leading corporate wide IT initiatives, organizing and conduction projects and social activities.

For Ashraf, IT is a passion not a profession. He is self-motivated, persistent and full of positive attitude. Exploring new technologies, learning new knowledge, visiting new places and meeting new people are the things that drive him forward. He likes to write, share ideas and interact with different people. As part of his upbringing in the Jubilee School for gifted students (Amman, Jordan), Ashraf learned to understand, accept then debate all points of view objectively and respectfully.