We mix things up a bit as I chat with Thomas Frank from collegeinfogeek.com about test anxiety and test preparation. Taking a test can be a big deal and it is always interesting to get other options on preparation. As data professionals, of course we want a way to be able to advance our careers and a certification can play a role in that, but we might have a bit of anxiety around it. The biggest take away for me from this session was Thomas’s tool recommendation and how he was able to start better habits. I took his advice and have seen some results I may share in a latter episode. Have fun on the SQL trail compañeros!
Transcription: Test Anxiety and Preparation
Carlos L Chacon: Welcome to The SQL Data Partners podcast. My name is Carlos L Chacon, your host, and this is episode 10. Super excited that you joined in today, we’re glad to have you.
Today we’re going to change things up a little bit, and talk about Test Anxiety when it comes to Certification Testing. We’re also going to discuss some preparation techniques that we can use as well. Before we get into the guest for today’s show, we do have a few changes coming, and that is, I have a new microphone.
I know that some of you have been struggling with the volume on the podcast. Hopefully we have a resolution there and so the next couple of weeks, we’ll start hearing episodes that will be recorded with new mic and that will get better.
Today, my guest is Thomas Frank. He is the founder of collegeinfogeek.com, and he’s a 2013 graduate of Iowa State University. We are super excited to have Thomas on the show.
He provides a slightly different way to approach some of these things and I’d like you to listen into the end. He’s favorite tool today is actually something very different. It’s not a SQL Server tool.
It’s something that I’ve started using and has actually been able to help me to increase the things that I wanted to do or I should say, “It has helped me to begin develop better habits.” I hope you all check that out and listen. Of course we’ll have the link in the show notes at sqldatapartners.com/podcast.
Again this is episode 10 and Compañeros, welcome to the show.
Children: SQL Data Partners.[music]
Carlos: Before we get into the meat of the show, give us a little insight on to what you are doing there at College Info Geek and maybe how that’s changed a little now that you’ve graduated?
Thomas Frank: Sure thing. I guess to start this website began as an expression of a failure I had. I applied to work for a different site.I had written them this article and they rejected me, short story. I put up my own site because wanted to not have this article go to waste.
Throughout college I was just writing about the things that I was doing to be a better student. I focused a lot on career stuff, and money stuff and not a whole lot on the actual academics. I was one of those students who was more interested in finding internships and getting outside of the class experience than getting amazing grades.
Interestingly enough and I was actually very scared that when I would graduate I will become this old fogey who would not be relevant to students anymore. The complete opposite has happened actually.
I decided to focus on academic content for the most part in the past year. Alongside that, I also started focusing on making videos instead of articles. Right now, I typically do a podcast every week, and then a video every week.
I don’t write a whole ton anymore. I want to get back in writing a little bit, but mainly video and audio. In addition, I also do the “Listen Money Matters” podcast.
I’ve branched out a little bit from my own stuff. It’s a lot of fun. I wrote a book that came out in the beginning of this year about earning better grades and made it free.
That made the site just take off, for whatever reason. I guess the next project will be to start a second book.
Carlos: Wow, very nice. One of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show today was a post you have on your site that starts with “Death is coming, death is here. Death is outside, there is no escape.”
Thomas: Who will be next. [laughs]
Carlos: “Who’s that knocking at the door? Yes, it’s death.” [laughs] You take that, you’re like, “OK.” If you exchange that for finals, or in this case, testing, paints a pretty good picture about how we may feel about testing.[crosstalk]
Thomas: Finals are coming for you.
Carlos: That’s right. Particularly for those folks who have already graduated college and now have to go back and take certification tests.
Thomas: I have heard that some of those certification tests will make college tests look pretty easy by comparison.
Carlos: A lot of them can be very, very specific and a little bit nuanced. Just like with your chem finals, it can be a little bit challenging to know, one, what to study, then two, just getting through.
Thomas: Yeah, for sure. I’ll tell you a secret. I actually never took any chemistry.I feel bad about it.[crosstalk]
Carlos: Lucky you.
Thomas: In high school, I think we’re required to take two out of the three — bio, physics and chem. I took physics after bio, instead of the typical path chemistry first because I thought physics would include hitting things and… [laughs] …moving cars, and stuff, which didn’t.
Carlos: You mean you didn’t get to drop the egg from the stadium? The top of football stadium?
Thomas: We did that with physics class. That was great. I’ve put my egg in the center of a giant box and it had rubber bands coming from all directions.It worked pretty well. Then senior year came around and I literally could not take chem because the only time period open was this early morning, before school even started slot that they were going to offer. I think I was the only one who signed up for it because canceled it.
It’s just like, “Well, I’m not going to know anything about the elements or H2O, hydrocarbons, whatever. I’ll just read books about that later on.”[laughter]
Carlos: There we go. Let’s go back to the Greeks, right? You’ve got earth, wind, and fire.
Thomas: Yup. The last “Airbender.”[laughter]
Carlos: I wanted to talk a little bit about maybe some of the reasons why we have an anxiety about testing, in general. A big one, obviously, is a fear of failure.You’ve get through college, you’re a professional now, and to go back and to think, “Oh gosh, I don’t know this material,” or, “I’ve spend this amount of time trying to prepare for something, and now I’ve failed.”
Thomas: Exactly. For me, I break test anxiety down to several different factors, but definitely fear of failure is one of them. I consider that the fear of inadequacy, that you personally are unprepared to meet the challenge of the material.It is also the fear of the unknown. Anything that’s unknown is going to be scary to us. Tests by definition are full of specific questions that we don’t know.
We know that the material that will be on the test is some subset of what’s been presented in class or in our learning materials, but you don’t know what’s exactly going to be there. I think, also, especially with the certification tests where it’s your career on the line, and you’ve pointed up a pretty big chunk of money to take them, for most of them.
It’s the fear of mistakes. You got a lot running along the line for this, so there’s a lot of anxiety that comes through from that.
Carlos: Particularly, if you’re in a company who’s agreed to reimburse you for that testing.
Thomas: Yes, definitely.
Carlos: You’ve already let them know that you’re going to take the test, then you have to come back and say, “Well, I didn’t pass.” [laughs] You may be the only one of your co-workers who are taking that exam, who are willing to do that, but again, there’s kind of that, “Oh, we didn’t pass the test.”
Thomas: You want to look like you’re competent. That you are able to take on the challenges you accept.
Carlos: From a preparation perspective, what are some of the tools that we might have available to help us to deal with that anxiety, or take a little of bit of that anxiety out of it?
Thomas: There are actually a lot of ways to cut down on test anxiety. The biggest ones are preparation. I think anybody listening to this is going to be very familiar with the fact that you need to prepare for these tests.My only experience with certifications is I studied for the A+ at one point, which is probably the easiest of all tech certifications. That very bare bones entry level one. There’s a lot of very specific material and you need to know it.
Upgrading your study methods and studying in the most efficient way possible, but also just putting in time and making sure you’re not cramming up close to that test date is going to cut a lot of anxiety. Thing about test anxiety is it not only heightens your nervousness and your fear, but it also prevents the brain from making connections that otherwise would have been able to make.
When you’re in a nerve-racking situation, biologically, you are not able to make those connections and recall as much information because the stress keeps you from doing it. By over preparing, you’re forging more connections.
I guess to make it very simple and probably very dumb-down and not accurate, it’s almost like there are more paths to get to that information. If stress is cutting off a few of them, you got more that you can go around that stress. For sure, prepare.
Another cool thing, I’ve read about study done by University of Chicago couple of years ago, where they had students do an experiment. All they did was pull a piece of scratch paper before test. In 10 minutes, they would just spend writing all of their fears.
Demonstratively, they got better grades. Just the simple act of pouring out your anxieties and placing them in some solid piece of paper, getting them out of your head, it allows your brain to not dwell on so much. You’ve taken care of it before you actually go on to the test.
Carlos: Kind of acknowledging them to say, “Yes, I recognize I have these fears, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I’m going to plow ahead.”
Thomas: The first step to recovery is acknowledging you have a problem. In terms of test, I think most of us have that same problem, so it’s a good thing to do.
Carlos: I think from that preparation perspective, in our college days, in theory we were in class. That was our preparation. If we did no other studying, we were at least there to absorb some of that.As professionals, we need to make a commitment to do a little bit of studying each day. One of the advantages that we have as professionals, hopefully, if we have a career in that same vein is that we should be trying to apply the things that we’re learning in our job. That will help reinforce what it is that we’re trying to learn.
Thomas: Exactly. Learning is context-based. It’s analogy-based.It’s learned better through practice, than through just routine memorization, especially with professional types of tests. Like, the SQL examination, or any sort of tech examination. It’s less fact-based.
There are definitely a lot of facts to it. You have to learn the libraries of commands and everything. It’s also, you’re forging those neural pathways simply by using those commands in a context, where you’re doing something useful.
You create some useful, final product. You can remember what it is you did with those certain commands.
Carlos: If you can try to solve a problem, that helps increase the learning, because you have completed something. Now you know the steps, in order to complete it.
Thomas: As a good example, I never took the Cisco…what is it? The CCNA exam. I definitely poured throughout forums. I was a tech support guy.My first year college, my first job was to pick up the phones, and tell people how to [laughs] connect their Internet backup and everything. I always grant aspirations of learning everything there is to know about technology at the time. I was like, “I’m going to take all examinations. A+, Network+, CCNA, MSDNAA, all that stuff.”
Time and time again, the people that had the CCNA would say, “Go out and buy yourself old Cisco matter equipment. Set up a network in your home that somewhat resembles a corporate network.” We’re not talking about your like little Walmart linksys router with a very simple firmware.
Set up something that you’re going to have to configure things on, and then play, because doing that is going to massively help you understand how they work, as supposed to just sitting in reading the CCNA study book and trying to memorize all the terms.
I’m like the furthest away from an ESCO expert. I know how to do a join, and that’s about it.[laughter]
Thomas: I would have imagined that you can set up any sort of SQL, MySQL, or oracle-type database on your own computer, and start trying to build something out of it.
Carlos: One of the dings that technology certifications will get is that, there’s a lot of brain dump information out there. There’s kind of a debate, if you will, as to how valuable those certifications really are, from a technology perspective.Ultimately, if you are willing to take the time to take the certification, it will only help you in your career, if you’re willing to take that time to learn the information. Brain dumping it, you might have that certification. From an advancement perspective, not a lot of opportunities [inaudible 13:52] .[crosstalk]
Thomas: Exactly. A tech certification is valuable in the same way that a college degree is valuable. It’s got signaling value.The signaling model of education says that you are more valuable as an employer or a potential employee candidate, if you have something like this, because it signals that you are a kind of person that’s able to put in the work you have determination to learn a certain body material.
It doesn’t guarantee that you know everything there, but it signals that you probably do. It signals that you have the tenacity to learn. You probably will be able to learn further material that’s going to help the company.
Even if that certificate’s not going to necessarily make you a better SQL programmer, maybe actually building something and your free time would make you better in a strict sense that certification is going to signal to the person who wants to hire you or promote you that you got the jobs.
Carlos: Anyone who wants to stay in technology for any length of time is going to have to make a dedication to learn. You will quickly fall behind, if you’re not willing to learn new things and strategies and technologies.
Thomas: That’s something that I think about a lot, because a lot of people, they get out of college, or they get their initial certification or initial job. Then, they do that job.
Carlos: They’ve arrived. [laughs]
Thomas: They get good at that job. The people, like their immediate circle of peers and maybe superiors, knows how good they are at that one thing. That’s a very deep level of concentration.I’m all about being a T-shaped person. I want to have few levels of deep specialization that I’m very, very good at. I also want to be competent in multiple different levels.
I want to stay abreast of all the things that are happening in my industry. Because if whatever reason I find myself out of my current job, that inner circle of peers who knows how good I am at that one thing, might not help me, because that one thing might not be relevant anymore, or maybe nobody’s looking for it or I just can’t find it. I need to go to something else.
Carlos: That’s a great point. Even to extend on that is by being comfortable in different technologies or areas is it gives you the ability to network with different folks in those different areas. As you mentioned is that, down the line they might say, “Hey, we remember Thomas. He helped us in this specific thing, which may have been your forte, but let’s talk to him and see if he can help us again.”
Thomas: There’s massive value of just being able to talk to people, even if it’s at a shallow level about something that they’re interested in. Like completely away from technology, but I recently got into cars. [laughs]I immediately noticed that a lot of guys like cars. Previously, I didn’t have a whole lot of interests that were relevant to most normal guys, because I play video games and read very weird books. [laughs]
When I meet a person on the street or at a conference, it be kind of like a small talk, and that’s it. I don’t have football now, but at least I have cars. A lot of guys are into that.
There’s a conversation topic. It’s the same with being familiar with different kinds of technology. You can talk shop with people who aren’t in your own area of specialization.
Carlos: Another idea on the preparation front, and it’s actually a suggestion you make on your blog for graduates. An idea that you have on your site for graduates is to start a personal blog. I think this idea could apply to test preparation, although may not be the easiest route.This is definitely an A game type approach. As an example, Colleen Morrow over at colleenmorrow.com, published a series of articles about the Microsoft 70-462 exam, which that exam is kind of a doozy.
From a preparation perspective, she just put those out and said, “This is what I’m learning, and I hope it helps you. But I really hope it helps me to pass the exam.” [laughs]
That was an interesting idea.
Thomas: Super cool. That’s analogous to one of the people, who’s been the biggest and one of the biggest inspirations for my professional career. There’s a guy named Pat Flynn.I’m not sure if you’ve heard of him. He is the person who got me in the podcasting. He has got a site called Smart Passive Income.
He got his start, by basically starting a blog, where he posts his notes for the lead architectural exam. It’s examination for green practices in architecture. It was pretty new.
He wanted to take this test to get ahead in his firm, so he can skip a lot of the years of slogging that most architects have to do, to become senior architects. He just put all his notes out there, barely even formatted them. They noticed a couple of years later that thousands of people were looking at them a day.
There’s definitely the potential that building a blog about whatever you’re trying to specialize in will turn you into a thought leader. Also just the act of publishing something and maybe even making just a token effort to format the content in such a way that you can teach somebody else, will solidify in your mind that much better because you have to think about it from the opposite side.
I’m no longer learning it. I’m now teaching it to somebody who doesn’t know anything.
Carlos: Exactly, and trying to express what it is that you’ve learned will help you understand that further. I don’t know what Colleen’s situation is, but I would think again, from that fear of of failure, you could at least go back and say, “There’s a plethora of work here that I’ve put into that. No one can charge me of not putting an effort in that route.”
Thomas: It also makes you a better writer.
Carlos: That’s right.
Thomas: I see a lot of benefits to it. The drawback is that it does take more time. There’s extra aspects of having a website that do take up time you could be using to study in other ways, so it’s all just whatever works best for you I think.
Carlos: The other component, one of the suggestions you make, is again, just to know the sakes of the exam. Ultimately, we’re talking about 150 bucks and a few hours at the testing center depending on the exam. If you go in and it just doesn’t go your way that day, they’re not going to throw tomatoes at you. [laughs]
Thomas: It’s a speeding ticket, and there’s no bad mark on your driving record. Maybe you got to wait two weeks before you can take it again. I’m not sure what the restrictions are for the test that your audience is taking.
Carlos: I think there’s different requirements for each one.
Thomas: That’s a good thing to think about. The test doesn’t define you as a person. I read a book as a kid.It was called “The City of Ember.” When every kid in this weird underground city became 13 years old, they would pick a job out of hat, and that was their job for the rest of their lives. That is a test that defines you.
Carlos: No question.
Thomas: This isn’t that. This is I want professional certification that’s going to help me down a certain specific path, but if I fail it, I can try again or I can pivot.Don’t let the pressure get onto you so much that it’s crushing you, but at [inaudible 21:40] token, I think you should feed off the pressure. Let it hone your senses and focus your mind because pressure is the antithesis of apathy. If you’re feeling a little bit of anxiety, it’s probably a good thing.
It means you care about what you’re doing.
Carlos: That’s an interesting point. Another idea there is that many of the exams will offer, irregularly, but they’ll offer what they call a second shot or an opportunity to take it again for free should you not pass it the first time. If you can arrange your testing around one of those offers.I’ve used that I know in the past, and that’s what helped alleviate a little bit of that stress as well because at least I know I can take it again.
Thomas: As somebody who has never actually taken one of these exams, do you get your results back in the form of the actual questions that you got right and wrong, or is it just the number?
Carlos: No, unfortunately it’s just the number. Almost like the scantron exams in college, you take it in, you submit it there, and, in a moment, they tell you whether you passed or failed.
Thomas: That decides my next tip here then. Since you can’t see the questions that you got wrong individually, what I would do is, if you go into the test and you don’t feel like you knocked it out of the park, the moment you get outside the testing center, pull out your laptop and just brain dump all of the questions you weren’t sure on, that you were having a lot of trouble with.Then, if you have practice tests or old test material that you’ve been studying from, see if you can find similar questions and focus on those, because you already did well on the ones you did well on. If you can focus on those ones you weren’t sure on, then the next time you go in, maybe if you could even do that little freebie retry, then you’re going to have a much easier time.
Carlos: That’s an excellent idea. I would add just a little bit onto that is that normally they give you a scratch of paper or actually a white erase type board. Start there writing those things down if you have enough time while you’re in the test.You can’t take it out with you, but at least you started writing it down, here’s X topic that I’m pretty sure I didn’t get this one right because I totally guessed. Then you can do the brain dump again so at least you have a little bit more of that information there with you.
Thomas: Since you can’t take it out with you, maybe, at the end, you could write a little summary box where it’s just like the bullet list of the topics that I really wasn’t sure on. Then you can go Google around and find them later.
Carlos: Ultimately with these exams, if you fail an exam, you’re not alone. Lots of folks have bombed the test. I actually wanted to tell a little story here.From the certification perspective, the Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012. I have been a DBA for 10 years, and I looked at the name of that exam, and I saw Querying Microsoft SQL Sever 2012. I’ve been doing that for 10 years, so I said, “Let me just take a look, look at some of the topics.”
There were some new material which I covered. I went in, did not pass that exam. You’re not alone there.
Everyone’s done that. By taking advantage of some of the things that we’ve talked about from a preparation perspective I think can hopefully help you achieve the result that you’re looking for.
Thomas: For sure. You heard it from Carlos. Even the 10 year DBA could fail an exam because there’s a lot of new material and there’s things you don’t expect.It happens.
Carlos: Thanks for the discussion, Thomas. I think it’s been great.Before we get into some of the other questions, here’s another way for some of my compañeros to learn and take advantage of a unique opportunity.[background music]
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Carlos: To kind of wrap up, one of the things I like to do here in our podcast is try to provide some value to our listeners. One of the ways that I try to do that is to look at some different tools or some different things that our listeners may not be using at the moment.My question for you is what’s your favorite tool? It could be a paid tool or a free tool, but why do you use it and why do you like it?
Thomas: The one thing that I want to suggest to your listeners is an app called HabitRPG. This is basically a habit tracker that utilizes video game elements to help you build habits more successfully.If you’ve ever played any kind of RPGs, like Final Fantasy or Pokemon as a kid, I know I did, they were amazing at getting you hooked and building habits of playing the game because you had all sorts of progress indicators and all sorts of small rewards. HabitRPG does the exact same thing.
You can basically create a list of daily habits you have to do every day. When you check them off, you get experience, you get gold, you can buy gear, all that good stuff.
The cool thing though is you can get in a party with people, and if you don’t do your habits, then they will get hurt as well as you.
Thomas: It’s sort of like putting social pressure to it. It’s super geeky, but I love it because it helped me build ridiculous habits that I had never been able to do before, helped me start waking up at 6:00 AM, working out everyday, meditation.It’s very closely correlated with my business basically taking off last year. I was very stagnant for about two years and then, in the last eight or nine months, it’s like a hockey stick.
I used it to write my book as well. I put just a simple “I must write 500 words a day” habit on there, and I found myself at 11:50 PM some nights writing 500 words, just dumping them out, getting them done because I had to do it. I got a book out.
If you have trouble motivating yourself to study on a consistent basis, it’s definitely something to look into.
Carlos: Very cool. I’ve not used it. Is it a paid tool or a free tool?
Thomas: It’s free. I subscribed for $5 a month mainly to support the developers, but it’s actually open source.
Carlos: I’ll have to check that one out.I was hoping you’d share with us a story from your experience with the College Info Geek, maybe something that would help illustrate why you continue to enjoy doing what you do and putting out all that material.
Thomas: Good question. I think the most recent kind of adventure I’ve embarked on was building the YouTube channel, which is interesting. I guess I can tell you the story of how I almost set my room on fire. [laughs]The thing with video is, I’ve been blogging since 2010 and looking up to mentors in that space since 2010. I would see these people who are awesome bloggers start to make the occasional video, like the Fizzle guys are a good example, Steve and Pat Flynn. The thing about those guys is they make a lot of money, so they’re able to buy $3,500 Canon Mark III 5D cameras.
Carlos: High end stuff.
Thomas: Super amazing quality gear. I watch these videos and I’m like, “Well, I can’t do that because I can’t afford that, so there’s no reason to do videos.”September last year I think it was, I started just watching YouTube way more than I was reading blogs for whatever reason, and I found one particular guy who just kind of stood in front of a cheap camera and talked, but he had a million subscribers, and his videos were super engaging. I realized that as long as my content is engaging and I put some creativity into it, I can do it on a budget.
I put my own little camera up on a stand. My camera’s not terrible. It just isn’t the $3,500 camera.
I was lighting myself with reading lamps, and it was just terrible. I’m like, “I got to build myself a proper film light.” I go out to Target and I buy this hamper cardboard.
Then I sawed a hole in the bottom of it and installed one of those work site flood lamps you get at the hardware store and then covered the inside with tin foil and then covered the top with a curtain. I’m like, “Cool, film light, built it.”
Then I smelled smoke. I realized these work site lamps, they’re high watt…
Carlos: Yes, very intensive.
Thomas: …lamps and there’s heat visors on them, so putting a cardboard and tin foil, I basically built an oven. That was a learning experience.
Carlos: You wanted to get that Easy Bake Oven you never had as a kid.
Thomas: Yes. I think the oven a little safer. I was like, “Hey, I’m going to do maybe one a month to just, sort of, mix in with the blog posts and podcasts.”People really liked them. The first few, I wanted to integrate my love of video games. I would try to be like, “Here’s the top five note-taking tips and each one is going to be representative of a Street Fighter character.”
I unwittingly attracted this video game playing audience who, I should have known this before…
Thomas: …they’re are all in school.
Carlos: There you go.
Thomas: So it’s perfectly matched, and the channel’s just exploded. I’m having fun making videos every week. It’s great, like we said earlier, when we talked about the actual deliberate practice, getting better at something.Making a video every week gives me the opportunity to improve, in some way, every single time. Every week’s just like, “Oh! I can’t believe I was able to make that. I was never able to make that before.”
Then the feedback on it is really cool, too. Whenever I get an email from somebody who said, “Hey, my grades are better this semester, thank you.” That’s amazing to hear.
It’s ridiculously inspiring.
Carlos: Very nice. Well good. Thomas, thanks again for being on the podcast.We appreciate it. I think you’ve shared some great information.
Thomas: Yeah, for sure, thanks, Carlos.
Carlos: We do have one last question for you. That is, if you could have one superhero power, what would it be and why would you want it?
Thomas: The ability to change my molecular density.
Carlos: [laughs] OK.
Thomas: Because then I would be able to make myself really light and fly, or make myself really heavy and crash through walls.I found this out…my brother and I had lots of superhero cards growing up. We had all the X-Men cards. There was one guy and I think he was the brother of some really powerful mutant.
Thomas: His only power was changing his molecular density. I’m like, “That’s a cool power! It’s not super crazy, over the top, but if I want to, I can walk through a wall.”
Carlos: There you go. [laughs]
Thomas: Or fly.
Carlos: [laughs] Very cool.
Thomas: Either that or I always wanted to be able to touch books and know their contents, but I think that’s kind of cheating at life.
Carlos: There you go.[laughter]
Carlos: Have the power of osmosis.
Thomas: Learn by osmosis. I think I would get bored, though, after I went through my university library. Just running my finger down the shelves. [laughs]I’m going to go with molecular density.
Carlos: You’d make an amazing tutor, I guess.[laughter]
Carlos: Very good. Thanks again. We do appreciate it. Compañeros, thanks for tuning in.We’ll see you on the SQL trail.[music]