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The following article is a bit of an advice column written to myself; however, I think it will be helpful to others as well in the learning technology space.

Dear Ab—I mean, Managing eLearning,

For most of my career I’ve been constructing eLearning experiences that provide professionals with meaningful continuing education credits (that don’t make them want to rip their hair out). However, recently I’ve been asked to help create test prep courses to get users ready for a standardized certification exam. I’m a little nervous because I want to help users pass an exam that will determine if they can continue practicing or receive a certain pay grade. What should I do to help my users out?


Stressed in Seattle

Dear Stressed,

You’ve got this. As you might guess, with test-prep programs all the major eLearning best practices should be followed. For example, if content needs to be taught or refreshed, then it should be presented using the computer’s multimedia capabilities to bring ideas to life through a compelling combination of image, video, sound, and text. On the other hand, test preparation for professional certification is a unique form of eLearning with its own set of requirements. One major requirement centers around the test preparation context for the eLearning and another around the professional status of the test takers.

Teach to the Test

Since the objective of this type of eLearning is to equip learners with all the knowledge and skills they need to pass a professional certification exam, the eLearning must literally “teach to the test.” This phrase has developed a bad reputation (and probably rightly so) in the context of K-12 achievement testing in the US. However, well-designed professional certification exams challenge test takers to demonstrate their readiness to perform important professional tasks and make potentially life-saving decisions. If this is what we’re teaching to, sign me up!

  1. Focus on content that will be on the test. Make sure, then, to teach only the content that test takers will encounter on the exam. If you need to zoom out a little to help your learners understand the context of a problem, fine – these exams are often about higher-level thinking skills like analysis and decision making, so context may be necessary. Just remember to stick to the topic areas published by the test writers.
  1. Practice questions should mimic the test format. When providing practice questions, no need to get creative. Approximate the test-taking situation as closely as you can. Use content from the exam publisher and retired test questions to simulate the current experience. Use the same question types: if the test exclusively uses single-answer multiple-choice questions, you should, too. If it uses Cloze-style fill-in-the-blank paragraphs, then you need to do the same.

Respect Your Learners’ Time

Professionals with full-time careers are different from full-time students in one key way: they don’t have many hours-long parts of their day to dedicate to study. They have to fit studying in around their jobs and family lives.

  1. Use microlearning. On the one hand, the more time learners spend studying, the better they are likely to do on the exam. On the other hand, your learners don’t have long spans of open time. Microlearning is ideal for this situation. Use an LMS, CMS, app, or other platform to host short learning experiences that your users can access any time, such as on the bus or at an airport. See our recent blog post on microlearning to learn more.
  2. Guide learners to ways to brush up further. Link these short learning experiences to recommended reading or longer learning experiences that explain the content more fully. Hosting learning materials in this way also opens the door to intentional “spaced learning” – more on that in one bullet point.
  1. Encourage spaced learning. We have probably all had the experience of cramming for a test and immediately forgetting everything the minute we submit our exam. Spaced learning – study spaced out over days, weeks, and months rather than hours – helps to improve long-term retention of knowledge, which is especially important for professionals who will (hopefully) apply this knowledge during their average work day. To space out studying, your LMS or CMS can be set to send out emails with problems or content reminders to your users on a regular basis. Automating these challenges to study can help busy people maintain connection to the material.


To give you some inspiration, here are some examples for test prep for professionals.   


In addition to offering ACT and MCAT preparation, AdaptPrep offers a platform for professionals seeking to become Chartered Financial Analysts and Actuaries. This tool fulfills both requirements listed above for professional exam test prep. First, practice questions are on relevant exam topics and the form of these questions closely mirror those on the exam. Second, in order to fit with users’ schedules, the tool provides feedback on topics that users need the most practice with, so they can focus their study time on certain areas of the exam, and the tool allows users to take short quizzes or full-length exams, depending on time constraints. As a value-added feature, AdaptPrep also presents users with questions at their current skill level for each topic as determined by their previous scores. In this way the practice is adapted to where the learner is.

NEJM Knowledge+

NEJM Knowledge+, a collaborative project of the New England Journal of Medicine and Area9 Learning, is a preparation tool for physicians seeking to become board-certified or maintain their certification. Knowledge+, like AdaptPrep, provides exam-style questions and helpful status updates to keep users aware of their strengths and weaknesses for a test. Similarly, the NEJM product provides the users with level-appropriate questions based on previous scores and user-supplied confidence ratings for their answers. The questions and case studies are also tailored for micro-learning sessions, with plenty of NEJM material provided for more in-depth macro-learning review.

To return to your general questions, Stressed in Seattle, keep doing what you do for good eLearning and then adapt your exercises for a testing context and a micro-learning approach.

Sincerely yours,

Managing eLearning 

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