Prepare for your exam by learning from my advice to Hans

What would it take to pass the Project Management Concepts course and attain all the expected outcomes described on the certificate? My name is Tania Melnyczuk, and I’m the Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za. Here’s the advice which I gave to a participant who failed the exam twice. By reading this advice in advance, you can avoid some of the obstacles you are likely to encounter along the way. The moral of the story? Skipping steps in your studying can cause you to take longer to get your certificate.

Background

In November 2018, I wrote this letter to a participant in the Project Management Concepts course. The letter is quoted verbatim; I just changed the name to Hans for the sake of confidentiality.

With many stops and starts due to personal and work interruptions, Hans had been on the course on and off for over a year. He decided to make a push for it and wrap it up. Hans spent a few days revising his earlier work, and scheduled his Exam.

Hans failed his first attempt at the Exam, and asked me for advice.

I looked through his mistakes and noted a pattern: there were certain key weaknesses in his understanding of concepts related to Scope, Standards and Methodologies, Scheduling and Earned Value. I asked Hans to send me the latest version of his List of Terms, so that I could see where things had gone wrong in his studies. His List of Terms was very short, and the terms were not sorted alphabetically. Based on this, I gave him some feedback to help him prepare for another attempt.

When Hans failed this attempt too, I once again asked him for his latest List of Terms, and I told him to add specific terms which were missing from the last version. Based on his submission, I wrote him this letter.

By the way, Hans’ job includes working with caterers — hence my references to cake!

My letter to Hans

Dear Hans

 

Looking through your List of Terms (this time as well as last time), I’m pretty sure I know where your problems are coming from.

Some background first:

The success of Project Management Concepts relies on a number of things, including:

It is different from most courses, in that pre-exam cramming doesn’t work for this kind of learning.

One of the habits needed to make a success of the course is to write something every day. Your List of Terms is a key part of this. The rationale, along with tips for success, is provided in the pre-reading, and in the Foundation Tasks at the start of the course, and in many daily mails. We do not monitor and check your work here, because all the tools for self-assessment are available as part of the course.

When you submitted your List of Terms after first failing the exam, it contained very little. This indicated that maintaining it had never formed part of your study habit during the course. It also was not alphabetically sorted, which further indicated that you were probably not using it for study purposes. Alphabetical sorting would be needed to make it useful in a work setting too, in the manner that a termbase or glossary are typically used in industry. The latest version which you submitted still does not contain sample sentences which use the terms in context, which would indicate understanding of the key concepts. In short, it’s not something which you mastered. (Remember Salman Khan’s video on mastery during the Foundation period?)

I could continue to give you clues to pass the exam, but then we’d be back to the cramming model, and the internalised concepts and habits which are the intended outcomes of the course would not be attained. It would be like trying to bake a rich, heavy Christmas cake the day before Christmas. It doesn’t work like that. It needs time for the brandy to settle in.

I am going to recommend something which may feel unpleasant at first, so let me give it to you with an approach that may help you.

The recommendation:

Don’t rewrite this exam soon. Master your List of Terms first.

How to do achieve this:

Your current thinking may be, “Aw, drat, I just want to get this freaking course over with, I am so close!” No, you’re not close. You have taken the cake out of the oven, so it looks ready, but you haven’t started putting in the brandy yet. So, here are the recommended steps:

  1. Take a complete break from exam preparation. Devote several study sessions to re-reading all the posts about the List of Terms and those on habit. You will discover at least one post specifically devoted to writing sample sentences, and how to use them to make sure you’re understanding the concepts. Don’t think of this as exam preparation, because it’s not that. You’re creating a Christmas cake. In other words, you are working on something which takes time to reach its fullness.
  2. Submit your updated List of Terms to me weekly. I’ll check it and give you short bits of feedback, most likely sending you back to one of the articles in the list.
  3. If you want to set a target date for the exam, then (since I’ve been using Christmas metaphors) use the Orthodox Christmas, 7 January, rather than the South African Christmas of 25 December. That will give you more time to build the habit.

Remember, there are many long-term benefits to this approach. Besides building your ability to learn other subjects, you also become more habit-fit in general (read more here). This is an essential skill for any big personal life-changes, or changes you want to bring about in your team. (More about that here.) We use glossaries in our own work for corporate clients, and I will be starting an online glossary for my personal studies too. (I recently wrote about it on my personal blog.) This approach, although slow at first, really works to ensure that communication remains crisp and focused, and that we think clearly about what we are doing.

Let me know if you anticipate any obstacles – mental, logistic or otherwise.

Let’s go for mastery.

 

TANIA MELNYCZUK
Director: Programme Design

Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.

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