Earlier this month, I blogged about leveraging your IT community resources with user groups. In the Ottawa area, we created the Ottawa Windows Server User Group. In this group, meetings are held monthly to discuss topics of common interest as selected by the members or through member feedback. Guest presenters consist of members themselves, corporate sponsors, Microsoft IT Pro members, and external speakers.

From that initiative, the study group was born. The study group has the purpose of leveraging a group effort to achieve certification in a particular area. Groups that have been successfully held by the OWSUG covered the MCSE 2003 core server exam areas as well as the MCITP Enterprise Support Technician track for Windows Vista.

The study group meetings take place in a location to accommodate members. In our case, we were fortunate to have a Professional Training Center sponsor us and allow us the use of their classroom facilities in the evenings. Our sponsor is CTE Solutions. I will speak about our model in its current state to help guide you in creating a study group of your own in your local area. We have had much success with more than 65% of our study group attendees not only writing the certification exam but passing it and achieving certification.

The first thing I want to make clear is that study groups are an alternate form of the “self-study” methodology. They do not replace courses. In fact, courses reinforce what is learned at the study groups or vice-versa.

Once a topic is selected and the location is chosen, the topic materials are needed. This is usually where the study group members must kick in a fee. The fee covers the study group materials at a minimum. If the location is provided at a cost, this can be split among the members as part of the fee. (You may want to investigate free meeting spaces, such as those provided by a local public library.) The OWSUG has furthered the structure by requiring members to also front the cost of an exam voucher to actually attempt the certification exam. We also include a nominal $50 to cover an end-of-session celebratory party with excess going to the OWSUG user group to cover overhead. The user group functions on a volunteer basis with minimal corporate funding from sponsorships, if available.

The topic material has typically been an “exam focused” book available from Amazon, Chapters, or any outlet. Corporate sponsors occasionally supply these to the group as well. Alternative materials can be used such as E-Learning, member-compiled materials, presentations, user group forums like TechRepublic, MyITForum, etc.

Once all this has been worked out, take the topic material and break it down into sessions. We have found that a time period of 10-15 weeks per certification study group is generally acceptable by all members. Break the members into teams of no fewer than four. In each team, assign a leader and alternate who are responsible to keep the team informed of status and schedule.

Each week, one team presents their assigned modules as per the schedule. This has MANY benefits. Some of which include public speaking, presentation skills, and, of course, learning the topics themselves!

The study group should typically have at least one mentor. The mentor can be someone who is senior and already has job knowledge of the subject matter or someone who is certified. In our case, CTE Solutions has occasionally had a Microsoft Certified Trainer from their staff attend some groups and offer perspective and further insights to the material.

Members are encouraged while they study to post questions and thoughts to forums like the ones we host on OWSUG, TechRepublic, or other newsgroups. Outside content, which can be helpful from these sources, is often pulled in to enhance the process.

Included in the schedule, try to target a time frame for members to actually book the certification exam. This group push really helps!

At the end of it all, host a scheduled party and tear loose!

How do you prepare for certification exams? What do you think of this suggestion? Share your thoughts.