Cisco has recently announced the details of their CoLaboratory program for the CCNP certification. This program is focused on those out there certified as CCNPs with a couple of years of job experience that want to help shape the future of the CCNP certification. You get to spend eight weeks helping develop a subset of exam questions that may find their way into the question pool for the various CCNP or CCDx tests. And you’re rewarded for all your hard work with a one-year extension to your current CCNP/CCDx certification.
I got a chance to participate in the CCNA CoLab program a couple of years ago. I thought it would be pretty easy, right? I mean, I’ve taken the test. I know the content forwards and backwards. How hard could it be to write questions for the test? Really Hard. Turns out that there are a lot of things that go into writing a good test question. Things I never even thought of. Like ensuring that the candidate doesn’t have a good chance of guessing the answer. Or getting rid of “all of the above” as an answer choice. Turns out that most of the time “all of the above” is the choice, it’s the most often picked answer. Same for “none of the above”. I spent my eight weeks not only writing good, challenging questions for aspiring network rock stars, but I got a crash course in why the Cisco tests look and read the way they do. I found a new respect for those people that spend all their time trying to capture the essence of very dry reading material in just a few words and maybe a diagram.
I also found that I’ve become more critical of shoddy test writing. Not just all/none of the above type stuff either. How about questions that ask for 3 correct answers and there are only four choices? There’s a good chance I’ll get that one right even just guessing. Or one of my favorite questions to make fun of: “Each answer represents a part of the solution. Choose all correct steps that apply.” Those questions are not only easy to boil down to quick binary choices, but I hate that often there is one answer that sticks out so plainly that you know it must be the right answer. Then there’s the old multiple choice standby: when all else fails, pick the longest answer. I can’t tell you how much time I spent on my question submissions writing “good” bad answers. There’s a whole methodology that I never knew anything about. And making sure the longest answer isn’t the right one every time is a lot harder than you might think.
In the end, I loved my participation in the Cisco CoLaboratory program. It gave me a chance to see tests from the other side of the curtain and learn how to better word questions and answers to extract the maximum amount of knowledge from candidates. If you are at all interested in certifications, or if you’ve ever sat in a certification test and said to yourself, “This question is stupid! I could write a better question than this.”, you should head over to the Cisco CoLaboratory page and sign up to participate. That way you get to come up with good questions. And hopefully better answers.
Thanks for the great article, Tom. As a full-time test writer at CWNP, it’s always amazing to realize just how many hours/days go into each and every question. There’s the initial concept formulation, the question drafting/wordsmithing, creation of correct and incorrect answer options, fact-checking (including corner cases that make a “generally” incorrect answer a correct one), editing and rewriting, bias removal (and there are many types), and so much more. You nailed it. Thanks for the “outside” perspective of what happens behind the scenes.