Is CompTIA's CertMaster the future of training?

Head for learning

CompTIA generated some waves in May 2014 when it announced the creation of its own proprietary online learning system, CertMaster. CertMaster was described as a new adaptive learning tool created using scientifically established principles of cognitive psychology, neurobiology and game studies.


The CertMaster announcement was intriguing for a number of reasons. Obviously, there was some industry buzz around what kind of user experience CertMaster would offer, based on the product claims of strong ties to brain science research. It was also notable that, by all accounts, CertMaster was created entirely in-house by CompTIA itself, a departure from its previous history of creating cobranded certification training products with outside vendors.


The release of CertMaster also meant that CompTIA was entering into direct competition with its own training and education partners, which probably caused some of these partners no small amount of consternation.


CertMaster is now in full worldwide release. Does it represent the future of certification training?


CertMaster Details


CertMaster is an online, subscription-based service purchased in the form of individual 12-month licenses. Each CertMaster license applies to a single CompTIA exam as selected by the customer, and cannot be transferred to a different exam once purchased. The cost of a CertMaster twelve-month individual license is $139.


Here are the CompTIA exams currently covered by the CertMaster system:


A+ (220-801)
A+ (220-802)
Network+ (N10-005)
Security+ (SY0-301, being retired 12/14; and SY0-401)
Strata IT Fundamentals+ (FC0-U41)


Additional exams are expected to be added to CertMaster in the near future.


A+ candidates should note that two CertMaster licenses are required to cover the A+ certification in its entirety. For Security+ candidates, the CertMaster license for the exam being retired at the end of this year (exam SY0-301) is available, but the license for the recently revised exam (SY0-401) is the better choice for those just starting out on their Security+ exam preparations.


CertMaster licenses come in three versions:


Individual License (good for 12 months)
Business Pack (multiple licenses, each good for 15 months)
Business Pack with Reporting (includes classroom setup and reporting functions)


CertMaster training is web-based and runs in a supported browser window on both PCs and Macs. In addition, there are free CertMaster apps available for both iOS and Android devices.


How CertMaster Works


The foundation of the CertMaster learning system is an adaptive multiple-choice question-and-answer engine which gives users the ability to indicate different confidence levels when responding to questions. The CertMaster system uses the user's response and their indicated confidence level to determine if and when to present future iterations of a question.


For example, when a user answers a given question twice correctly while indicating that their confidence level in their response is high, the question is considered to be "mastered" and is removed from future repetition.


While this sounds similar to other adaptive Q&A engines, CompTIA insists that there is more going on in the background. According to the CompTIA CertMaster white paper, the CertMaster system has been designed based on advanced learning concepts and cognitive science.


This research is supposed to influence many of CertMaster's behaviors, such as how many questions appear in each session, when high-level feedback is shown (immediately after answering a question), and how the session-ending detailed feedback and knowledge reinforcement is displayed.


Each CertMaster is structured around the relevant exam knowledge domains, exactly as they are listed in the appropriate CompTIA exam objectives document. Users can select any top-level knowledge domain, and the CertMaster system handles breaking the content into individual sessions.


CertMaster Pros and Cons


The key advantage CertMaster has over its competitors is its provenance: CompTIA owns the certification exams covered by the CertMaster system. There is no layer of separation between the producers of CertMaster and the exams it covers. Candidates should expect CertMaster content to optimally reflect what they will experience on the related exam.


It is less clear whether CertMaster is actually more sophisticated or effective than other adaptive learning systems. The overall experience is not radically dissimilar from that of other adaptive exam products.


Like many online services, CertMaster is easy and convenient to use. Users can log in from any PC or Mac, using most modern web browsers. The availability of free CertMaster apps for iOS and Android is a welcome bonus. The iOS app is only offered as an iPhone app, but it scales up to look acceptable on an iPad as well.


One deficiency of CertMaster is that it does not offer any "performance-based questions." These are scenario/simulation questions that appear in a number of CompTIA exams, including A+, Network+, and Security+.


This may have been an intentional omission by CompTIA, in order to reinforce the idea that candidates should have relevant real-life experience before taking one of these exams. In any case, candidates should know that they won't get simulation-based question experience from the CertMaster system.




CompTIA CertMaster offers users a convenient and well-organized learning experience. The online CertMaster service can be accessed from a variety of platforms and devices, including iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. While it may not be quite as ground-breaking as CompTIA believes it to be, CertMaster is a worthy training product for candidates preparing for related certification exams.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.