We don't need no memorization: Should certification exams be open book?

Lady looking up info in book

There is a conflict growing between the next generation of IT professionals, and the vendors who offer IT industry certifications. This conflict is not new — but the key issue has historically been successfully rationalized away by the organizations that run certification programs, and candidates over the years have willingly (or grudgingly) accepted these rationalizations.


This acceptance is disappearing. (There are even academic arguments against it.) A greater number of today's IT candidates are not backing down from what they view as a major flaw in the current certification process used by big-time vendors like CompTIA, Microsoft and others.


This key issue is often expressed as follows:


"Why do I need to memorize information to pass a certification exam, when most of the information being asked for is available online?"


Put another way: If I can Google it, then why should I bother to memorize it? Until recent times, the response to this question was some variation of:


"You want this certification? Then, memorize the information."


This argument has lost clout with modern candidates, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the main concept around the value of information has changed. The importance of having information stored in your head has been replaced by the ability to look up that information quickly and efficiently when needed.


Many would agree that modern IT workers are not valued for what they have memorized about their chosen technology field. Instead, greater value is being placed on their ability to rapidly locate the relevant information, and work with this information in the context of a task or issue, in order to reach a desired outcome.


Again, this is not a new argument. The use of standardized testing methods on certification exams — questions that require rote memorization of terms, specifications, and user interface elements like menu items or command line syntax — has come under fire before.


What has changed is the technology around information storage and retrieval. IT workers are expected to know key concepts, as well as the industry methodologies used to achieve the required results. When it comes to data nuggets like technical specifications, however, or which icon you select to open a certain console ... well, 30 seconds on a smartphone can provide the answer to those questions.


The criticism being leveled at certification vendors is that many of their exams are essentially challenging trivia quizzes that don't reflect the way IT workers do their jobs in today's workplace.


Some certification vendors have addressed these criticisms by adding more scenario-based and simulation questions to their exams. These types of questions are better aligned with the goal of testing a candidate's knowledge processing skills, rather than their ability to mentally blurt esoteric factoids about an operating system.


Modern candidates, however, are looking for a more significant change to the certification exam process. There is a growing demand for certification exams to be made "open book," with candidates given access to the related courseware or administrative manuals during the exam.


Some people would take this a step further, and give candidates full access to the internet during the exam. The reasoning behind this argument is that since candidates will be able to leverage online information while they're in the workplace, the exam room should reflect this reality.


These arguments stem from the modern perception mentioned earlier: It's better to know how to find information, than it is to be able to memorize it. The optimal skill set for information wrangling has, for better or worse, been changed by today's connected world.


What do you think? Should certification exams go to an "open book" format? Or would this have a negative impact on IT certs? Let us know in the comments section below; you can log in using Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Disqus credentials. Start the conversation!


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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.