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Taking Advantage of Study Groups When Prepping for IT Certifications

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

When chasing down IT certifications, especially those with demanding technical content, joining a study group of your peers can give your efforts a terrific boost. Some cert sponsors make it really easy to get into such groups -- most notably, Cisco and Microsoft -- but with a little elbow grease and some online and in-person networking, you can usually find a cadre to join to help prepare yourself for the exams involved.

In poring over my usual online certification sources this morning, I came across a 5-part series from Danny Tomic over on the Cisco Learning Network that reminded me about the value and potential importance of finding, joining, and participating in a study group en route to certification. This particular post is entitled Five Challenges For Enriching Your Certification Journey, Part 4: Study with Others! is not only worth reading, but also worth heeding when it comes to getting -- and doing -- certification preparation the right way. As for myself, I've written repeatedly about joining a study group as a helpful cert prep strategy many times [ read Seek Out IT Groups and Associations, Establishing a Certification Support System, part of my free online e-book IT Certification Success, and Cisco Does Study Groups Right ]. Why then, do I revisit this subject here?

The answer to this entirely rhetorical question revolves around the value propositions for study groups that Tomic explores in part in the blog. Here are some of advantages that study groups bring to the table as Tomic points out, as well as a few observations of my own.

1. Study Groups Keep You Focused and Challenged

Tomic makes the point that working with a group schedule forces individual participants (this means YOU) to get things done to meet an external timeline. A set schedule also helps to move forward with the required exam topics, tools, and technologies, in effect forcing progress to occur when individuals might sometimes be inclined to let things slide or go off course. Having participated in a few study groups myself (thanks to Herb Martin, MCT extraordinaire who ran some great ones for the CTLA, or Central Texas LAN Association, back in the mid-1990s) I can strongly recommend the benefits of a sizable and active user group when it comes to bringing interested and like-minded IT professionals together. Talking things over, working through labs and exercises, and resolving disagreements also helps sharpen understanding and make sure that what you need to know makes sense (and corresponds to what the exam covers, and what makes sense on the job).

2. Validate Your Knowledge by Sharing It

The old saying goes that the best way to learn a topic is to teach it to somebody else. Because study groups often require group members to take the lead in researching and presenting on exam topics to the rest of the group, those who participate will have plenty of opportunities to check the veracity of the old saw in (frequent) practice.

3. Expose Yourself to New Ways of Thinking

Working with others inevitably means encountering different takes on subjects covered, and working through various different ideas, approaches, and points of view. Learning to see a subject from multiple angles can require extra effort, but also usually results in improved understanding, experience, and abilities.

4. Have Fun!

Tomic observes that working in a group can be more engaging and enjoyable than laboring quietly in solitary splendor. I've made some lifelong friends in the study groups I've joined, and I suspect that experience is not unique. It's also often more interesting to work with a group of peers and colleagues, too, especially when the interactions are positive and supportive, as well as educational and challenging (in the sense of the first bullet in this list).

5. Get Reliable, Trustworthy Resource Recommendations

Ongoing study groups, especially those that keep running over time or that are part of professional associations or user groups, can become treasure troves of good information. Participants often maintain lists of "good prep and study stuff" -- such as books, articles, Websites, practice tests, flash cards, and lots more -- that ongoing generations of test-takers update and maintain over time. These kinds of recommendations are pure gold and can help you avoid wasting time and money on less-than-stellar materials en route to earning your target credentials. Check out: 13 Best IT Training & Certification Resources

6. Learn from the Collective Experience of the Group

Exam objectives almost always cover more territory than what actually shows up on the exam. Input from study group members who've attempted or passed the exam can help you to focus your efforts on topics, tools, and technologies that are most likely to help you earn the passing score you want. I don't say this as a tacit or implicit endorsement of "brain dumps" (verbatim or near-verbatim recitations of exam content, forbidden by exam sponsors, and likely to cost users their exams and credentials if they get caught using them); rather, I say this as a way of benefiting from the collective experience and wisdom of those who are prepping with you now, and who have prepped before you recently enough to have already taken the same (or similar) exam in your immediate future.

7. Get Useful Study Aids, Mnemonics, Tools, Tips and Labs

Part of the "good stuff" mentioned in the recommendations item above, these focused materials are designed to help you get past certain tasks (like IPv4 subnetting), master specific knowledge (such as the seven layers of the OSI model), or whatever you might be trying to memorize for your exam. Knowing what to study is good, knowing how to study is better, but access to sharply focused materials, tools or exercises that have worked for others to get them over various technical "humps" is quite likely also to help you do the same. Grab and use such materials with gusto as opportunities present.

Where to Find IT Study Groups?

Where and how can you find IT study groups? The paths to such groups are many, and all are worth investigating. Sometimes, exam sponsors either create or track such groups (as is the case for Cisco and Microsoft). Online user forums that cover specific certs are also pretty common, and easy to find using Google or your favorite search engine.

Joining a professional group or association may also lead you to a great source of study groups, too. Be sure to ask your colleagues, co-workers, schoolmates, friends and family, too. Any or all of these components of your social networks can often point you to study groups they know about and you don't, so make sure to ask!

Don't hoard this information as you gather it, either. Be sure to pass it on into your networks, and pay it forward so that others who follow in your footsteps can benefit from the collective wisdom, too.

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