studying for and taking an exam during a pandemic

In the past two weeks, I’ve taken two certification exams: The AWS Associate Architect and the Java 11 819 exam. Taking a certification exam during a pandemic was not a good idea for me. I didn’t realize that until a few days before the first of the two exams.

It’s easy to read about how people are using all they time they have during lockdown/pandemic to accomplish things. In May, I talked to someone who got two AWS certs and talked about wonderful it was to have so much extra time to study. By contrast, this is how I was doing in May.

I’m posting this about my experiences with the certs because it is ok to not be normal right now. Some people are going to be able to study in these times (if that’s you, buy my Java 11 certification book!) But if that’s not you, it is ok. You aren’t alone.

Why I took the two exams

Work set a goal for me to take the AWS Professional Architect exam. We then downgraded it to the AWS Associate Architect exam. (you need the knowledge of the associate architect on the professional).

For the Oracle Java 11, 1Z0-819, I wanted to make sure the existing book Scott and I wrote was appropriate to study for the restructured exam. (It is). Which meant taking it as close to when it came out as possible.

Timing and needing to pass

This was unfortunate timing. When I took the AWS Practitioner and AWS Associate Developer, I didn’t know if I would pass on the first shot. But I figured that i’d rather pay out of pocket for a second attempt (knowing what to study the second time) than overstudy the first time around. However, a re-take would have been after the Java exam. Which meant I had no hope of remembering the AWS stuff for a retake. So the “one and done” approach was far less than ideal. (My employer didn’t pressure me about passing during pandemic. But I didn’t want to go through all of that only to have to take it again)

I’m already Java 11 certified. So it didn’t matter what score I got. Still, it’d be embarrassing to fail an exam that I author a book about!

How studying went

As I wrote in my AWS blog post,

While things have been better since Memorial Day, I don’t know if I’d all them good. One of the problems I have with working from home full time during pandemic is remembering stuff. I remember things spatially. And apparently, I can only remember so much that happens in the same place in a day. So during the week, work “takes” all of that. So I’ve found it incredibly difficult to retain anything and had to learn the same things over and over and over…

This was a major impediment to studying for the AWS exam. It wasn’t for the Java exam, because I already know most of that material. (There are some things I have to “re-learn” for each attempt at an exam though because I don’t have them memorized.) Also, I didn’t fully study for the Java exam because of lack of time and because I’d rather do worse than go through that again.

Mock exams are an important part of studying for a certification exam. I wrote for the AWS exam

I also got frustrated during (practically) every mock exam when I couldn’t remember stuff I knew I “should” be able to. This gave my brain the opportunity to freak about about all the other stuff I’m worried about (going back to a coronavirus winter and the like)

I didn’t get frustrated for the Java ones because I knew what was going on. Also, while I was having trouble concentrating, I knew it didn’t matter. That said, I wasted a bunch of time trying. I just kept making the same mistakes over and over.

It’s funny because I always study with the mock tests at home. But I’m home far less overall. The concentration energy I have is going to other things (like my actual job). Whereas normally, I “get home” and am in a different mental space.

How taking the test went

While I was able to concentrate in the AWS testing center far better then at home, I still had a problem. I couldn’t recall stuff “I learned” at home. So I got frustrated because the problems from home felt like they were following me. This is something I’ll have to be careful with when we finally do go back to the office. I’m sure I’m accumulating all sorts of “mental debt” with things that I’m not learning as well as “normally.” But at least then it won’t be an open ended stretch of time ahead of me.

For the Java test, I was fine at the testing center. I was able to recall stuff far better than I did at home. Including stuff I didn’t study.

My score

On the AWS exam, I got a 760 (passing is 720). On the Java one, I got 72% (passing is 68%.) Both of these are lower than what I normally get on cert tests. But a pass, is a pass :).

(I found a couple of errors on the Java test. They might still be shaking it out.)

Why I think it was so difficult

First of all, I don’t do the lion share of studying for a certification exam from home under normal conditions. I study on the subway. I make “cheat sheets” of things I need to memorize and leave them in different spots (my desk at work, a paper to carry around the robotics lab, etc.) This allows me to “anchor” things I learn to specific spots.

Second, it’s been hard enough to do my job from home all the time. Learning/remembering more things from home on top of that is not helpful.

Third, I keep comparing how I’m doing to “normal.” I like to push myself as I can (at times). I like to feel productive by knowing I accomplished so much. Things aren’t normal. And I have trouble convincing myself that shouldn’t be the baseline. So when I did worse than normal, it was like a frequent reminder of this.

In Conclusion

I don’t want to take another certification exam until things are far closer to normal. In particular, I want my work stuff out of the middle of my apartment, not to be “using up” my finite ability to retain things from home on work and to have a commute again.

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