How to prepare for a test depends on the quality of the test, whether it is well made or not. We will refer to well-made tests as "good tests" and poorly made tests as "bad tests."
First, let's identify what makes a test good or bad.
There will be a published book list, from which all questions will be drawn, which may include other references as well, such as standard operating procedures (SOPs). These will be current, available books and other written references, published in plenty of time to prepare for the test, usually 60 to 90 days ahead.
There will also be published a list of other factors which will influence the outcome of the test, such as points for time in grade, minority status, supervisor's input and previous evaluations. There will be both opportunity and procedure given for how to "squawk" at any of the preceding.
Questions will be well constructed. If multiple choice, there will be one correct answer and three incorrect ones. There will NOT be instructions to pick "the best answer" or "the most correct" answer. Questions will not be ambiguous. You may not know the answer but you will know with certainty what is being asked.
Questions and answers will be drawn from the listed references, whether textbook, local plans, departmental SOPS, etc. There will NOT be any arbitrary questions — "What is the best hose lay?" — or matters of opinion which are not clearly found in the references.
Questions will be clear and understandable. You will either know the answer immediately or realize immediately that you don't know the answer. You should never encounter a question where you simply can't understand what is being asked.
There should be a clearly explained squawk procedure available as you take the test. You should squawk at a question if:
- There is no correct answer.
- There is more than one correct answer.
- The question didn't come from the reading list.
- The question was too hard to understand.
There should be no cheating allowed during the test. Although it goes against peer pressure, cheating should be stopped or reported. Challenges leading to lawsuits can arise from cheating. All candidates taking the same test should take it at the same time.
Grading should be prompt and done in public view, such as by an instructor, alone, in a room with glass in the doors. Squawks should be dealt with BEFORE the test results are known. A question found to be bad should be removed from the test, not just credit given to those who missed it.
A good test has most or all of the above characteristics.
A test has to be missing only a few of the above points, in some cases only one, to be a bad test. Here are the characteristics of a bad test:
- No book list.
- No time to prepare.
- No listing of all the factors which will affect grade.
- Questions poorly constructed.
- Undocumented/not provable.
- Bad administration practices.
- Cheating allowed.
- Same test, different days.
- Same test used over and over.
- Doubtful grading practices.
Preparing For A Good Test
Having described both good and bad tests, now we will look at how to prepare for each kind of test.
Obtain the books and other references on the reading list as soon as possible, and begin study. The only sure way to do well on a good test is to know the material. Read all you can, and learn all you can on your own. Then, if something doesn't make sense, ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS. Most people will venture some answer whether they know or not, because everyone feels foolish saying, "I don't know."
It is pure foolishness to realize you don't know something that will be on a test and then not take steps to have it explained to you, even though it may be a little embarrassing to have to admit to someone else that you don't get something.
Have a friend ask you questions from the books and other resources. Take any practice tests found at the ends of chapters, or elsewhere. Beware of "parking lot study guides" for two reasons. One is that, on a good test, the questions will be rotated from one testing cycle to the next, so the guide may be no good. Two, often those guides are illegal and certainly border on cheating, if not cheating outright. Also, in the case of commercially bought tests, having one of those in your possession can violate copyright and intellectual property laws and can subject you, the test-taker, to fines of up to $10,000 per question. Bad news.
As you read, pause every now and then and make sure what you are reading agrees with what you already think you know. Anytime a conflict arises, then what you are reading or else what you already thought you knew is wrong. One or the other. Don't let it pass. Find out which it was and get it right.
The keys to retaining what you read are to make it useful. Make it real. Take it out of the realm of "something you read" and make it "something you know." If a chapter goes on and on about a certain hose load, go out and pack one. See it. Do it. Make it real. Talk about it. Meet with other candidates or friends, and discuss these things.
Be cautious about taking notes. Once we write something down, we have "disposed" of it. We no longer feel the need to remember it. It is in "hard memory." Trouble is, unless you can consult your notes during the test, it is not in a form of memory that will be available to you. If you don't know it standing naked in the shower, then you don't know it.
The night before the test, get a good night's sleep. That day is a good day to do a hard physical workout.
Unless you are going to have an hour or more before the test, don't bother taking any books for a last-minute cram. Plan to be where you want to be with the material about three days before the test. The second to last day and the day before the test, you should not be seeing anything you don't already know as you leaf through the books and other references.
Plan on scoring 100 percent on the test. You can on a good test, and it is a feeling like no other to walk out of there knowing you did. As long as you have to go through all this and take this test, you may as well come out a star.
Preparing For A Bad Test
Preparing for a bad test is completely different than preparing for a good test. Just knowing the material may not be enough to pass. You may also have to interpret questions which are ambiguous, choose from among four answers, three of which are arguably correct, select a correct answer from four which are all wrong in some way, etc.
A good test writer is transparent to the test. That is, you don't get any whiff of the writer, only the test itself, the information, the facts. A bad test writer is not transparent to the test. That person's stamp will be all over the test. It will reflect that person's opinions, language expressions, interpretations of things, and ideas he or she may have held, correctly or incorrectly, for years.
Where the key to preparing for a good test is to learn the material, the key to preparing for a bad test is to learn the test writer. Learn that person's idiosyncrasies, how he or she feels about things — incident command, fog nozzles, whatever — because that is likely what you'll see on that test. If possible, take a class from that person.
A bad test is, by definition, unfair. It is poor testing, and probably inaccurate, very likely biased and likely challengeable. Because it is unfair, many ask if the rules of decency should still be followed. People ask if "parking lot study guides" might be fair game, since there is no other way to guarantee a good grade, and a bad test likely does use the same tests over and over. Without passing judgment on the practice, it is likely that those guides would be more helpful on bad tests than on good tests.
Finally, because the essence of bad testing is that it is not objective, try to ask those who were in on the test's creation for any guidance or help. They may share hints with you, perhaps more than they should, perhaps only what is decent and fair. But the name of the game is that the process is not objective, so the information lies in whoever is making the judgments or, in this case, making the tests.
Part 2 of this article will teach you how to take a fire service test.
Henry Morse, M.A., is the president of Fire Service Testing Co. Inc. in Wilmington, NC, a company that provides commercial personnel testing for jurisdictions and state certification agencies. He writes and speaks around the country on the topics of prudent design and construction of testing in the fire and EMS services.