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How to Study for the Written Exam

This is a lost skill – how to study for a written test.  Yet it’s a useful skill.  So let’s re-find it.

Whether for Entry, Promotion, or Certification, written testing is a fairly common occurrence in Police, Fire, and EMS careers.  There is trend now, both in schools and the emergency services, to try to prepare for the test itself, rather than learn the knowledge that will be tested.  Those are two different things.  Preparing for the test only – well - prepares you for the test only.  It can be a tremendous effort, useful for two hours, then of no use to you again.  You take nothing away permanently.

Consider instead taking ownership, actually acquiring, the material.  Not only do you then do well on the test, but you actually have this knowledge in your personal inventory and can use it in life – and on the job.

Most written tests come from a specific reading list, perhaps one or two textbooks and some SOPs.  A lot of the textbooks nowadays can be an inch thick and you pick one up and despair at the idea of memorizing everything in it.  Right.  It seems infinite.

But it’s not infinite.  There is some finite number of points contained inside.  Usually one or two points to a paragraph.  Books vary too – some are dense with facts, while others include more discussion and even opinion and commentary.

Oddly enough, the key to studying for a test is to make up a test.  You first set up a time schedule and plan when this is going to happen.  You have to budget your time.  It can’t happen while you are doing something else.  Plan on perhaps two hours a night, either three nights a week or more, depending on how much time you have and how much you can stand.  Plan on perhaps an hour for each ten points in the book.

Then start.  With Chapter 1, start reading, and extract any testable points you see in each paragraph.  You might highlight them, and number them.  It will turn out, usually, that you have five or eight points on each page.  Now imagine writing a test question on each of those points.  That is what the guy is doing who is writing your test, so you do it too.  Write them.

Say a paragraph says, “The bowline knot is notable as a loop that does not tighten under load”.  Ok, that is a point, a good point, and a testable point.  So write the test question.

  1. What is one notable feature of a bowline knot?
  1. It can be used to join two ropes of unequal diameter
  2. It creates a loop that does not tighten under load
  3. It can only be tied in synthetic rope
  4. It comes undone by itself when the load is removed

Actually writing the test question forces you to do two things:

  1. Think about what a bowline knot is
  2. Think about what a bowline knot isn’t.

Both mental processes are necessary. You see people miss-communicating all the time in this way: What is a schooner? Oh it’s a sailboat. Okay. Now the other person knows a schooner is a sailboat, but they may or may not realize that not every sailboat is a schooner. They have a vague sense of knowing, but they’ll be caught flat on a test question about it. That is the vague zone most people live in and then get cut to pieces on a written test because of it. But I knew that. No, you didn’t.

So by writing both the correct answer, and the three incorrect ones, it forces you to consider what a thing really is – and what it is not. That firmly implants the concept into your memory, and as a bonus, implants it accurately.

One point down. More to go. Now read on to the next testable point. Maybe it is that petroleum products are harmful to rope. Ok.

What is one substance that is harmful to rope? Wait – can we say “one substance”? Or does “petroleum products” mean we have to say something else, like, what family of substances. What class of substance? Is there some word that means all petroleum products? This can seem like an annoying, nuisance trip-up, but in fact it is exactly what we want. It forces us to realize that once again we have a vague, fuzzy understanding, and it requires us to clear it up. What is a petroleum product? Do all petroleum products damage rope? So perhaps we arrive at this:

  1. Rope can be damaged by coming into contact with certain substances.  What is one example of such substances?
  1. Petroleum products
  2. Salt
  3. Uh – hmmm – Sand?
  4. Ash

But – what about sand and ash? Sand seems like it might be abrasive to rope. And ash – doesn’t that contain petroleum products? Or does it? So now we have to read the paragraph again, and the next one, to see what the book says about it. If the book is silent on those two things, then we can use them. But still – makes you wonder. Oh well. But now we do know for sure that petroleum products cause damage. And that might well be asked. So on to the next point.

At the end of each question-writing session, close the book, and do something else entirely. Clear your mind. Go out. Watch TV. Something. You can do this at work too, if the shift is quiet enough. When you finish Chapter 1, you may find you have anywhere from 15 to 100 testable points and test questions. At this point, give the list to someone else, a friend, spouse, anyone – and have them ask you the questions. You may be surprised indeed to find that you know every single one. Probably you will miss a few, and have the other person circle those. Repeat this from time to time up until the day before the test.

This is a lot of work. Clearly. But it works. And in the end, not only will you do well on the test, but you will have actually taken this knowledge on board and have it available for your use one day on a roof or in a street.  Win, win. And don’t forget: This is exactly what your test-writer is doing. You might as well be looking over his shoulder as he writes your test.  Can’t beat that.

One final point, and it’s not trivial. This process will likely make you mad. Angry. This type of analytical thinking is a psychological irritant. It is the same reason that most people hate math. There’s no way to avoid that, so just manage it like anything else. Stop once in a while, vent to someone, whatever. But do expect it.

Doing this is a bit like karate. You’ll work hard, but you’ll come away with something amazing and powerful – that you will always have with you. These techniques work just as well in high school too, and college. So you can share them with your kids, teach them this discipline, if you like. There’s no reason you or anyone can’t get 100% on any written test – if the test is well written and if you are well enough prepared.

HENRY MORSE, BA, MA, BA, NFPA Instructor Level IV, is the president of Fire Service Testing Company, Inc., which tests emergency services jurisdictions across North America for entry and promotion of personnel. Author of a number of books, including Emergency Services Personnel Testing Practices (2013), Preparing for Emergency Services Testing (2005), and others, he is a member of the NFPA 1001 Technical Committee and speaks on these topics and others related to testing and communication.