CXO

MCTs: Avoid these pitfalls when teaching certification classes

If you're a Microsoft trainer, here are five bad habits you'll want to avoid. Step into one of these traps, and you're likely to drive your students into another provider's class.


Are you driving students away from your Microsoft courses? Before you answer, “Of course not,” consider whether you’ve ever taken a coffee break while students were completing a lab. If you have, you may have already pushed students into a bookstore or a competitor’s classroom.

Learn from the mistakes of others
Having sat through hundreds of hours of IT-specific instruction over the years, I’ve had ample opportunity to collect a few recommendations for trainers. While I have been fortunate to receive instruction mostly from sharp and talented IT professionals, there’ve been a few turkeys, too. You can learn from their errors.

There are at least five common mistakes MCTs make. Fortunately, they’re easy to avoid. Before you brush them off as no-brainers, keep the following in mind. Some of the five lessons have come from my own observations, while others are from students who have shared their horror stories.

Don’t become fodder for bitter student conversation (because they share their stories, believe you me). Make sure you avoid these pitfalls:
  1. Taking a break during labs.
  2. Reading straight from the book.
  3. Keeping your real-world experiences to yourself.
  4. Faking it when you don’t know the answer.
  5. Ignoring the latest news about certification programs.

The break that broke the camel’s back
How many times have you skipped out of class to grab a smoke or cup of joe while students were completing lab work or other practice exercises? Bad move.

While official Microsoft courseware does a decent job of explaining practice labs, such exercises raise more questions for students than any other component of a class. At least that’s true in my experience.

Students will have questions about why a specific step is being performed, why they can’t ping the server, how they should structure a query, and a variety of other questions related to the exercise. Make sure you’re there to answer those inquiries.

Skip out of class for a break, and your students will quickly become frustrated when they have to spend eight minutes of a 10- or 15-minute session unsuccessfully trying to access a network or shared folder. The next time they need training, they’re likely to remember the experience and just grab a self-paced training text.

I know one MCT who, as a student in another class, just slipped out with the courseware binder and didn’t return. Why shouldn’t he? He wasn’t receiving any “value add” by attending the class. This was especially true in that case, as the trainer also made the following mistake:

Never, ever, ever read directly from the courseware text
There’s no easier way to drive a student to self-paced training materials, Web-based instruction, or another training provider than to teach directly from the course text. Never, ever stand at the podium in front of educated IT professionals and begin reading a lesson verbatim from the courseware text.

First, your students see it as a waste of their time. They can read the book themselves, in the comfort of their own home or office, at a time that’s much more convenient for them. Second, it implies (whether you like it or not) that you don’t have practical experience with the technology and aren’t prepared to discuss it in your own words.

There are other reasons to avoid reading from Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC). It’s boring. It’s time consuming. It’s unimaginative and uncreative.

One of the greatest battles you fight as an MCT is maintaining the attention of your students. Don’t lull them to sleep with a predictable monologue.

Ask questions, inquire as to whether students have had problems or experiences similar to those described in the courseware text. Learn whether any students have had to troubleshoot the topic being studied. Take time to explore the solutions they attempted.

Next, don’t forget to discuss your own real-world experiences.

Your real-life experiences can add a lot to the class
As long as you keep your tales short and to the point, students can learn much from your on-the-job experience. The trick is knowing where to insert them in class.

Most certification classes are taught with fairly plausible examples of server naming conventions, domain and site designs, and WAN architectures. Still, students can benefit greatly when you begin using personal examples that clarify the material. These experiences can help them better understand the practical applications of the technology that they’re studying.

For example, if the subject is best practices for reducing authentication traffic over a slow WAN link using Windows 2000 Server, discuss personal tips you’ve found effective in your own network. However, be sure your methods agree with Microsoft’s.

Students have plenty of information to remember when pursuing Microsoft certification. While it’s great that they understand they can use the extreme high and low IP addresses (000/111) when subnetting (as you may have found in your personal experiences), if they try to do so on the NT 4.0 TCP/IP exam, they’ll fail. It’s for this reason that MCSEs memorize Microsoft’s subnetting formula (2^r-2, with the –2 representing the removal of the 000/111 addresses from use).

Thus, one of your challenges is to balance the Microsoft answer vs. the real-world answer. The key is to do so without confusing your students.

No one said IT certification training would be easy. You can help yourself do a good job by watching out for the next trap.

“Fake it until you make it” doesn’t work in IT training
As an IT trainer, you don’t possess the luxury of taking your best guess when answering students’ questions. Students will take the information you provide, for which they paid good money, and use it in an attempt to earn industry accreditation.

You’ll be asked everything from the speed of a data packet to the proper configuration of an Exchange replication connector to how to best troubleshoot dual-booting machines.

If you know the answer, great. Let it fly. If you don’t, resist the desire to appear authoritative by stating what you believe to be the case. Tell the class you’re not sure, tell them what would make sense, then follow up by explaining if the proposed answer was indeed correct.

Students hate learning on an exam that what you thought was true isn’t. Prevent such occurrences by ensuring you review tricky questions, no matter how peripheral they may seem.

Don’t write checks your students can’t cash
In addition to fielding questions about Win2K server configurations, SQL databases, subnetting, Active Directory replication, and scores of other technical questions, I guarantee you’ll be bombarded by questions about changes and updates to Microsoft’s certification program and its exams. You have two options.

First, you can encourage students to contact Microsoft or visit its Web site and keep to the subject matter at hand. However, you won’t be very popular.

Second, you can keep up with certification track changes, read the e-mails Microsoft sends you, and read the stack of certification magazines piled up somewhere in your office. News is often posted to Microsoft’s Web site, which you can find here. You could even take the time to occasionally fire a call off to a Microsoft representative and ask them what’s up. It couldn’t hurt.

There’s one thing you don’t want to do. Avoid answering student questions about changes to exam formats, certification track changes, or other program updates without knowing the score. And, be sure you know the score definitively.

I’ve seen curious exchanges when students find questions on an exam covering a subject the trainer had said wouldn’t be included on the test. Imagine the incredulous student, too, who received an adaptive test after being told by the trainer that the exam would be in a standard, traditional format.

While trainers have no obligations to discuss exam mechanics, these are important questions to students. Be honest with them. Tell them your experiences, while being sure not to violate the terms of your own nondisclosure agreement. And, if you don’t know, tell a student so.

You can always promise to check into a concern and get back to them with an answer. They’ll have much more respect for you, and be much more likely to return for additional training, if you earn their confidence.
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