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Evolution of the CCNA Exam

For anyone teaching Cisco Systems® official courses, it's been obvious since CCNA's inception that the exam covered a lot of the same topics as the five-day ICND introductory course. The same holds true today, except now Cisco has two introductory courses—INTRO and ICND—for a total of nine days of class time. The CCNA exam has added more breadth while getting deeper on some topics such as Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), OSPF, NAT, and LAN trunking. As a result, the exam can cover not only many more topics possible but also and many more topics with greater coverage.

The original CCNA exam typically included questions that could be answered as long as you remembered all the facts about one particular topic. Today, the CCNA exam requires candidates to apply their knowledge of many areas to a unique scenario when answering a test question. For example, earlier exams might have asked a simple question about STP such as, "Which of the following are valid reasons a switch port would be in an STP forwarding state?" The answers might include definitions about how STP works, such as

  1. It is a port on the root switch
  2. It is a non-root switch's root port

Today's test might ask about STP and other topics via a scenario. For example, the question might show a sample network diagram of a set of interconnected switches, and a scenario such as, "Assume that switch 1's priority is 4387, and that switch 4's fa0/3 interface settles into a blocking state," ending with the question: Which of the following are true of this network? The answer options would include

  1. Switch 3 interface fa0/2 will block
  2. Switch 1 will become root
  3. The cable between switches 1 and 2 must be a straight-through cable

Both questions require knowledge of how STP picks the root, and how each switch picks its root port, but the second style requires mastery of STP, as well as other topics, to answer correctly.

Several years ago, I seldom heard comments about people running out of time on the exam, with the one exception being when the candidate could not do subnetting quickly and confidently. Speed is now an issue for more CCNA candidates, for many reasons. The exams now have questions that require hands-on skills, with questions using a router/switch simulator. The simulator questions tend to intimidate candidates who've not had a chance to practice hands-on skills; these questions also require more application of knowledge and simply more time to work through.

Also, many people have heard comments from current CCNAs that they just memorized lists and facts from a book, took some practice tests, and passed. While that style of preparation may have worked in years past, today's scenario-style questions require more thorough understanding and review, with more time to answer those questions for some test takers. For example, a friend of mine who's in IT, but just getting into networking, recently took the CCNA exam, and from his scores, guessed that he missed 1 or 2 out of the 35 questions answered. But he ran out of time, not answering all the questions, and did not have a mathematical chance of passing the test. Simply put, the exam takes more time today, giving the better-prepared candidate an advantage.

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