It no longer surprises me when a water or wastewater treatment operator asks during a training class, "Why don't you just tell us what is on the certification exam?" In their thinking, it's as if the required training for their certification is merely a costly, multi-hour, long-winded production to waste their time and money. This questioning doesn't happen in every training class, but it does come up.
I've also received related inquiries from supervisors who have sent their employee for training. The supervisor was concerned that we did not prepare their employee for the exact certification exam questions that they were going to see. In response to this, a coworker of mine once quipped, "It's almost like some people think that we should put in a drive-thru window, take their money and hand them a copy of the certification exam to go home and memorize." So, why do people tend to clamor for questions before the exam?
One reason is that in other industries this type of exam preparation is allowed and even encouraged. Students spend a couple of days or a weekend reviewing the exact questions that they will see on a final exam and then must parrot the answers to obtain their 'certification.' However, that is not the type of training that occurs in the water and wastewater treatment industry.
Another obvious answer is that this type of preparation is easy and quick. It reduces the burden of preparation and the stress of wondering how well their exam performance will be.
A third reason is that it may be what people have become accustomed to when studying for a test. Many educational experts suggest that this type of exam preparation may be the norm in education today. These critics point out that many teachers in 1st through 12th grades and beyond regularly hold study classes or 'what's going to be on the exam' lectures, hand out study guides to memorize or have 'open-book' exams.
The experts disagree on why these practices are so widespread. Some point out that it started in the early 1900s under the assumption that rote memorization exercised the brain, while other experts blame the demand for math and science education during the space race. Still, other experts blame the No Child Left Behind Act.
Why can't we just teach to the test?
The practice of teaching the answers to specific test questions is often referred to as 'teaching to the test.' If you do an internet search on this method, you will find many articles that argue for both its beneficial use and its undesirable results. So, why doesn't our industry do it? Here are three reasons for avoiding this type of preparation.
1. It's Unethical
In a study conducted in 1989, experts looked at several common methods for exam preparation. From these methods, a spectrum was developed that listed the methods from most ethical to least ethical. Teaching to the exact exam was the top least ethical method.
To be clear, the required certification exams for both drinking water and wastewater treatment operators are designed to protect the public health and the environment. Would you prefer to drink water that was produced by someone who understands how drinking water is treated or provided by someone that memorized the answers to a hundred questions over a couple of days? Someone that passes a basic level of certification demonstrates that they have at least a basic level of knowledge to perform a specific job. It does not necessarily mean that they are an expert; only that they have demonstrated a basic level of understanding.
Think of the certification process as a gate. Not everyone can pass through this gate. Only those that have demonstrated themselves worthy are allowed to pass. If someone has just memorized the answers to a certification exam, they have effectively bypassed this gate. The exam has become invalid and does not serve its intended purpose.
Again, the purpose of this gate is to protect the public and the environment. As such, the organizations and agencies that are in charge of certification exams do not make the questions known - not even to water and wastewater treatment instructors in most states. Besides, most exams typically require the examinee to agree not to transfer test questions from the exam to any other person. This includes through memorization.
2. It's Not How Your Job Works
Imagine that every evening, before you leave work, you are handed a document. On this document, you have every challenge that you will face on the following day; every question that you will be asked, every mechanical breakdown that will occur, every situation that you will have to handle, and every problem that you will have to solve. All you have to do is take the document home, memorize it and the resolutions to every challenge for tomorrow. Makes your job easy, doesn't it? Admittedly, I would love to have a job like that. However, it doesn't exist. So, why should we expect our certification exams to work that way?
Successfully handling our jobs takes time and much effort to learn how to do. Preparing for the certification exam is just one part of this learning process.
3. It Hurts Our Preparation For Future Exams
Not all states have sequential exams, but many do. Some states require that these exams be taken in order; from lowest to highest.
While the basic, entry-level exams for certifications tend to focus on the knowledge and comprehension of treatment concepts, many higher-level exams will require more critical thinking and problem-solving skills. These types of questions cannot be solved merely by rote memorization. In fact, I have had many conversations with operators who have realized that the basic exam was "easy," but when they attempted a higher classification of certification exam it was more challenging or as they sometimes describe it " it was impossible." Critical thinking must be developed and practiced, even at the basic levels.
As we describe in our classes, a treatment operator must wear many hats. They are required to be part engineer, part chemist, part biologist, part security guard, part mechanic and at times part groundskeeper and construction worker. To help the operator become a world-class operator, the training must accommodate all of this. A training course and follow-up study must have time for real understanding to develop. If the focus is only on the exam, there is no time for the richness and the depth of the material that will help the operator succeed.
Essentially, the operator candidate should take the high road when preparing for the certification exam. We realize that for some, this is a huge investment of time and effort. At Ennoble Training Solutions, we focus on the complete, well-rounded operator. Yes, we provide the required classroom training. However, in addition, we also create a more personalized follow-up training experience for each student. Using technology such as online training, online practice exams, video conferencing, one-on-one communication or additional classroom time, it is our goal to get the operator on track to become a well-rounded, world-class operator.
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John Cooper has been training water & wastewater operators and laboratory analysts for over 17 years in Georgia and Alabama.