Saturday, August 22, 2015

Oracle Certification Tests are Getting Harder (and this is a good thing)

The Oracle certification program and I go back a long way. I have been taking exams from Oracle fairly steadily since the program first started in 1998. In the past three years, I have noticed a marked increase in the difficulty level of their exams. Anyone who follows my exam reviews on GoCertify might have noticed this. One of the last exams I took before this trend started was the 11g upgrade: 1Z0-050. In my GoCertify review for that exam I stated:

"I have never found upgrade exams to be particularly difficult and 1Z0-050 was no exception."

The first exam that I noted being harder was 1Z0-117, where my exam review contained the statement:

"Despite what I thought was adequate preparation, the exam was a bear. I passed, but with a lower margin of error than I consider to be acceptable."

I then took and reviewed 1Z0-460:

"I passed, but it was not nearly the walk in the park that I was expecting."

The most telling wake-up call, however, was the 12c DBA upgrade: 1Z0-060. My review for that exam noted:

"This is easily the hardest of the exams I have taken to upgrade my Oracle DBA certification."


Based on my experiences, I can only believe that one of three things is occurring:

  1. The exams are getting harder
  2. I am getting dumber
  3. I am getting old enough to start imagining that everything was easier 'back in my day.'

Given options two and three, I really hope that the exams are getting harder. Luckily, my colleague John Watson has also made some comments about the increasing exam difficulty. One hopes that both of us are not becoming dumber and/or curmudgeonly.

For the sake of argument, I am going to take it as a given that the Oracle Certification Program has been consciously increasing the difficulty level of their certification exams. Why am I writing this article and why is that a good thing? The 'why' of the article is easy. I have seen a number of posts on various forums about how difficult Oracle certification exams are. Just recently there were two on the OraFAQ certification forum about the MySQL OCP exams: 1Z0-883 and 1Z0-882. These two articles and a couple of others I have seen previously seem to be geared around the idea that it is 'a bad thing' that the exams are hard to pass. I well understand just how irritating (and embarrassing) it is to fail an exam that you spent weeks or months preparing for. This has not happened often in my career, but I did fail 1Z0-060 on my first attempt. Unfortunately a large part of that can be attributed to my prior experience with Oracle upgrade tests causing me to underestimate the exam.

That said, if the tests are easy to pass, there is absolutely no point to taking them in the first place. I recall way back when I was in high school (maybe I am getting a bit old) there was a requirement that PhysEd give a written midterm and final exam. The coaches thought it was stupid, so they made 'matching' tests where the answers were labeled A-to-Z. When all of the questions were correct, the test spelled out something like 'VOLLEYBALLISFUN'. No one failed the tests. No one got less than 100% on them. As such, they were absolutely useless.

Certification exams need to be difficult in order for earning the related credential to have value in the marketplace.  Two statements from the linked MySQL posts make that point quite well:

"It's impossible to pass this exam for part time MySQL worker. You need to be really expert and know all the details."
"IMHO you can't pass this exam when you don't have minimum 6 months of full time real world (production) practice."

How can either one of those statements be considered bad for an exam that grants a professional-level credential? The single most common argument from people who do not like IT certifications is that they do not guarantee that the people who earned them are really knowledgeable. If you are an individual who is truly interested in adding to your skills and becoming a valuable (and well-paid -- never forget that) Oracle professional, then you must accept that harder tests are better tests. Easy is only good for the people who are interested in faking knowledge long enough to get hired.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

I knew all the answers, but I still failed my Oracle certification test!

Recently I received the following question from one of my readers about their results on an Oracle certification exam:

"There was not a single question on the exam that I did not know, but I still got only 54 percent. How did this happen?"

I spend a lot of time answering questions on various Oracle forums from certification candidates. One of my foremost personal rules is to avoid sounding like a jerk in my answer. However, another of my primary rules is to be honest.  Unfortunately, in this case honesty is likely to sound like I am being a jerk. All that I can say is that this is not my intent.

The person in question was referring to an exam that had been in production for over a year. If the exam had been in beta at the time he took it, conceivably there could have been several questions for which there was no correct answer. That said, even in a beta, there is no way that the exam team would have put something out where 46% of the questions had no correct answer. For an exam that far into production, it is simply inconceivable that the exam itself would have a statistically significant number of questions with no correct answer. Certification candidates would be failing the exam in huge numbers if this were the case. The problem therefore is not the test itself.

If the exam questions have valid answers, there are only four possible options for a multiple choice/multiple-answer test:
1. You know how to answer the question and select the correct choices.
2. You do not know how to answer the question, but guess and select the correct choices.
3. You know how to answer the question, but mistakenly select the wrong choices -- either through a mis-click or mis-reading the answer.
4. You do not know how to answer the question and select the wrong choices (or no choice).

The candidate in question indicated he 'knew' the answers to all of the test questions (and that is what this post is about), so the first two options can be dismissed. That leaves only two options -- either he knew the correct answer, but selected the wrong choice(s) by accident (e.g. a typo), or what he 'knew' to be the correct answer was in fact wrong.

It is difficult for me to imagine someone miskeying the answers to almost half of an exam. I will grant that it is just barely conceivable if they were in a great rush and not being careful.  However, I consider this to be a very unlikely scenario. By far the most plausible explanation for failing a test is that you do not have sufficient knowledge to pass it. The very reason that tests exist is to provide a means for measuring the knowledge of the people taking it.

Obviously the best-case scenario is to take an exam and pass it. However, second best is to take it and fail it, but in doing so to recognize where your knowledge deficiencies are. In that situation, you can hit the books again to rectify those problems so that you can retake the test and pass on your next attempt. The absolute worst possible outcome is to be in the position defined by the article title -- failing a test that you believe you knew all the answers to. If the test is not flawed, then the only reasonable explanation is that what you 'know' to be true, is not. This is a significant problem for a couple of reasons.  First, if you do not realize which portions of your knowledge are flawed, it is difficult to target your study efforts to fix them. Second, people who have an attitude that they know everything are much less willing to learn.

If you feel that the article title applies to your personal situation, the best advice I can offer you is to immediately dispense with the certainty that you know all the answers. Your certainty is misplaced and it will only get in the way of you passing the test on your next attempt. Make use of the feedback provided by the exam results page to study the areas where you missed one or more problems. Be extra vigilant when studying to look for differences in what the documentation or other study resources say when compared to what you believe to be true. This is the best way to find and fix the knowledge that caused you to fail the exam.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Free Oracle Practice Quizzes Available at GoCertify

I have provided quizzes to GoCertify for their Oracle Practice Quiz page that correspond to each of the six exams for which Oracle Certification Practice tests currently exist. At five questions apiece, they are certainly short... but again, free.  Free is always good.

The first of the six was made available yesterday for the 1Z0-047: Oracle Database SQL Expert exam. GoCertify will be releasing a new quiz each week for the remaining five exams (not necessarily in the below order):

  • 1Z0-051: Oracle Database 11g: SQL Fundamentals I
  • 1Z0-060: Upgrade to Oracle Database 12c
  • 1Z0-061: Oracle Database 12c: SQL Fundamentals
  • 1Z0-144: Oracle Database 11g: Program with PL/SQL
  • 1Z0-146: Oracle Database 11g: Advanced PL/SQL

As more Oracle Certification Prep practice tests are created, I plan to continue supplying GoCertify with the equivalent quiz for it. Each of the questions that I am providing had their origin in a question from the corresponding OCPrep practice test.  However, each has been modified to some degree. None of the quiz questions has the exact same questions and answers as what exists in the practice test. I did not want the quiz to have any impact on the experience of taking the full practice exam.

If you are interested in getting a feel for the types of questions that appear on the real exams, but have zero interest in spending any money, please check out the quizzes. If the one you need is not on the GoCertify page yet... check back in a week or two.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Three New Oracle Certification Prep Study Guides Available

Over the past year, I have been bouncing between numerous different projects: study guides, practice tests, articles, and maintaining oraclecertificationprep.com. Every time Oracle opens an interesting new beta test, I tend to spend at least some time mapping out a study guide for it so that I can determine how much of it can be completed based on prior research. Unfortunately, while I have been starting lots of study guides, I haven't completed any since early 2014. Going in to this past weekend, I had study guides for seven different certification exams at some stage of completion -- anywhere from 40% to 90%.

I dedicated this weekend to finishing two of the guides closet to completion: 1Z0-063 -- Oracle Database 12c: Advanced Administration and 1Z0-067 -- Upgrade Oracle9i/10g/11g OCA or OCP to Oracle Database 12c OCP. In addition, with 1Z0-063 done, I created an All-in-One study guide for the 12c OCP credential that combines my study guides for 1Z0-061, 1Z0-062 and 1Z0-063 into a single book. All three of the books have been published and are now available from Amazon:

Study Guide for 1Z0-063: Oracle Database 12c: Advanced Administration

Study Guide for 1Z0-067: Upgrade Oracle9i/10g/11g OCA to Oracle Database 12c OCP

All-In-One Study Guide for 12c OCA/OCP: Exams 1Z0-061 / 1Z0-062 / 1Z0-063

At $19.99, the study guide for 1Z0-067 is the most expensive single guide I have ever published. This is not the beginning of higher prices for my study guides. The page count on this guide is about 180% the average (450 pages vs 250). The cost of producing it means that the increased retail price is required to compensate.  The 1Z0-063 study guide has been released at the normal $14.99. The All-in-One guide is $34.99, which will allow candidates to obtain the contents of all three guides for about $10 less than what would be required to purchase them individually. In addition, it crosses Amazon's 'minimum purchase' level for free shipping.

Over the next couple of months, I plan to work on completing as many of the remaining work-in-process study guides as possible.  They are doing no one any good sitting on the hard drive of my laptop. Hopefully I will be making several more announcements like this one in the near future.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Feedback on Oracle Certification Prep Practice Tests

It has been almost four months since the initial release of the Oracle Certification Prep practice tests. I have been keeping a close eye on the results throughout this period. The test engine being used has some excellent analytical reporting that has been very helpful in locating questions that test takers consistently get wrong (or right). This capability has proved invaluable in helping to ensure that test questions are in the 'Goldilocks' zone by being neither too hard nor too easy.

In addition, I have been tweaking the overall difficulty of the tests with the intent of making them just slightly harder than the corresponding production Oracle exams. Feedback from a number of the people who took a practice test and then went on to take the real exam seems to indicate I am very close to my goal in that respect. Test takers are fairly consistently reporting a production exam score at or slightly above the one they received on the Oracle Certification Prep practice tests.

This afternoon as part of this feedback I received a request that deserved to be covered here:

"In my opinion your practice test was closer in difficulty and overall feel to the Oracle test than Kaplan's. One suggestion: The feature on the Kaplan test allowing you to review your results along with correct answers & explanations was really useful. I would love to know what I missed on yours and why."

I take feedback very seriously and am extremely interested in fulfilling requests where possible. The Oracle Certification Prep website was actually built in response to feedback on the earliest study guides I wrote. Someone indicated in an Amazon review that additional preparation materials were required beyond what was in the guide.  I agreed and created the website to meet that requirement. The Oracle Certification Prep practice tests were created largely because readers complained that the study guides contain no practice questions.

Unfortunately, in this particular case, the fact that the practice tests do not allow test takers to review their results was not an oversight but rather a design specification. There are several reasons why the feedback is given at a topic level rather than a question level. These include:

Gap Analysis -- In an earlier article on this blog: Using Gap Analysis when Preparing for Oracle Certification Exams, I discussed how practice tests fit into that activity.  The following is a quote from that article:

"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."

Currently there is only one version of each of the exams covered, although eventually there should be two or three versions of the more popular exams. If test takers are shown the answers to missed questions -- that test becomes effectively useless for gap analysis.  I have had a number of people take a test, fail it, then retake it several weeks later and pass. If the exams allowed test takers to view missed questions -- the retake score would potentially be very misleading. I do not want certification candidates to gain false confidence from my practice tests.


Tunnel Vision -- One of my problems with certification tests in general is that exam takers focus entirely too much on specific questions. The questions on a certification exam are intended to act as a measurement of your overall knowledge of a topic.  Knowing the answer to question 'X' does not mean a test taker understands the topic that question represents. Memorizing the answer to a specific question that was missed on a practice test can still leave the test taker open to other questions on the same subject. My professional opinion is that it is more valuable for a test taker to be told that they have a weakness in a general area. My hope is that they will perform a broad review of the information in that area to strengthen their skills rather than perform a laser-focus review of a single question.


Keep it Real -- More than anything else, the Oracle Certification Prep practice tests are intended to be as much like the real exams as possible. There is no question-level feedback on the real exam. The goal (obviously) is to pass the production exam on the first attempt. However, if that does not happen, test takers need to be able to use the feedback provided to determine what they need to review before rescheduling the exam. The fact that the practice tests provide feedback that is equivalent to the production exams is intended to be part of the training.


The upshot is that there is no plan to change the level of feedback provided by the exams. I understand that some people would prefer more information and I understand why. That said, my opinion is that not providing the answers is the better option from a learning standpoint.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is it 'Good Enough' to earn the Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Associate credential?

I was browsing the Oracle Certification group on LinkedIn this evening, and a post caught my eye.  The (slightly paraphrased) question was:

"Is it enough to earn the Associate-level PL/SQL certification or should you go on to earn the Professional-level certification. I have heard that the OCP credential is recommended for Database Administrators but that it is much less important for PL/SQL Developers."

After reading the question, I had a mental image of a manager trying to choose between three candidates for a PL/SQL development position. The first candidate holds no certification; the second holds the  Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Associate credential; and the third holds the Oracle Advanced PL/SQL Developer Certified Professional credential. The manager quickly decides that candidate two is the person to hire because the OCA is 'good enough'.

The above example is ridiculous on several levels. First of all, the situation is extremely contrived. However, more importantly, very few (I hope) hiring decisions are made in such a clueless fashion. There are many factors involved in the hiring decision that have nothing to do with certifications. For one thing, if the first candidate had prior job experience developing PL/SQL and the other two did not, he would likely be hired despite holding no certification. If the three candidates had equivalent experience and all other factors were effectively tied, then the position would probably go to the candidate with the OCP. Why would the manager not hire someone who had a more prestigious credential when all other factors were equal?

It is impossible to be certain what the poster means by 'enough'. However, it comes across as an attempt to determine the minimum level of effort they must invest in order to be hired. It is hard for me to imagine even my hypothetical hiring manager wanting a candidate with this mindset.

If you are starting out in an IT career, you had better plan to learn fast, and then learn some more.  Once you are done with that, you will need to do some more learning. It never ends. Technology changes. New coding challenges come up constantly. The 1Z0-144 exam covers the absolute basics of PL/SQL development. If you pass that exam and then decide you know enough, then your development career will be a very brief one.

Now... I should clarify one point. I am not arguing that everyone who earns the PL/SQL OCA should go on to earn the PL/SQL OCP. I am a huge proponent of certifications, but less because of the credentials themselves than because they are an excellent way to learn new skills. Essentially I am a huge proponent of learning as a way to advance your career. My problem with the question as posed is that it seems to imply that once someone has passed the 1Z0-144 exam, they can stop learning. That is most definitely not the case.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oracle Certification Practice Tests -- Repriced

It has been about six weeks since Oracle Certification Practice Tests were made available to the public. The initial response to the exams has been greater than I anticipated. That is gratifying for me, but it also good news to certification candidates who may have been considering taking one or more of the tests. The per-test costs that I pay to the site hosting the tests drop with increased volume. In addition, my pricing goal for the tests is not to charge 'all that the market will bear'. Instead my intent is to charge an amount that will allow me to recoup the man-hours I put into creating the tests. Because the sales volume is higher than anticipated, it has become possible to charge a lower price and still meet the target amount set to recoup my labor investment. The upshot of this is that I have dropped the price of taking an Oracle Certification Prep practice test from $19.50 to $14.50, effective immediately.

What may seem a bit counter intuitive is that this announcement is good news from my perspective as well. One of the reasons that I developed these practice tests was to make brain dumps a little less attractive to certification candidates. Brain dumps are a cancer on the Oracle Certification program and I have written numerous articles on why they should be avoided. That said, I believe that some people use them not so much because they want to cheat, but because they have limited resources to spend on study materials and brain dumps can often be obtained for free.

I created the Oracle Certification Prep study guides as a low-cost method for obtaining structured study materials to prepare for exams without resorting to brain dumps. The Oracle Certification Prep web site was developed to provide links to legitimate materials that exam takers could access for no cost to prepare for the exams. The practice tests are a  logical extension to the study guides and the website. They provide a low-cost and certification-safe method for people who want to get a feel for the type of questions that will be asked on the exam.

Some people will continue to use brain dumps no matter what type, quality, or cost of materials I make available. However, I can at least hope that I can steer some people away from 'The Dark Side' by making less expensive preparation materials available. In that respect, today's price drop makes the Oracle Certification practice tests a more compelling option to someone considering using a brain dump.

For the next three weeks (until March 28th), you can get an even better deal that that.  The following promotional code will allow you to take $4 off the price of an exam: OCP2_4CLAMS. With that code, you can take an exam for just over ten bucks.