Are Whizlabs practice tests any good? Well only as good as your strategy, as I’ll explain below.
Tldr; if you only use practice tests, all you get good at is learning those specific questions. I’ve also mentioned before that we need strong foundations in the form of spaced repetition and active recall. I’ll cover how to integrate the foundations and the practice tests in this tutorial.
I strongly maintain that any study plan needs real ‘match practice’. In other words, training in ‘like for like’ conditions. If we want to pass the exam, we have to get good at passing exams. I found using the Whizlabs practice tests for my AWS Developer Associate exam to be the difference between passing and failing. I’ll explain why in this tutorial.
Where we do use practice papers, they should be used to tighten gaps in our knowledge and to get exposure to a breadth of questions. They’re no substitute for understanding the concepts that underpin the answers.
Practice tests tighten gaps, they don’t build foundations
Whizlabs practice tests don’t differ from any of the other practice tests out there if you haven’t learned the core concepts. Without the strong foundation of a proper study plan, they’re essentially pub (exam) trivia. However with the foundations in place, they give a simulation of exam content and conditions.
I found them vital in this regard. I needed some exposure to the ‘real thing’, and you’ll definitely need practice tests from somewhere. Here’s a sample from one of the free Whizlabs practice tests so you can get a feel for the format. Other providers are available obviously – think of this section as a way to get a feel for a real test scenario.
But as useful as practice tests are, they need to be applied within the context of broader knowledge. I’ve organised my flashcard sets by broad principles, such as security.
The challenge here is to is to supplement a ‘strong core’ of concepts, with realistic exam questions. We need both if we’re going to succeed in the exam.
A gauge of where you are
The first thing I want to show you is my first attempt at the practice tests, back on 4th Jan 2020. As mentioned earlier, these are for the the AWS Developer Associate certification. Despite having a reasonably broad set of fundamentals in my existing flashcards, I was missing exam practice – as the results below show. Clearly we need both practice tests and strong foundations if we’re going to succeed.
By the time I came to do the practice tests again in Feb, I had reached the pass mark.
I repeated this process for the 5 practice tests that my purchase included.
So how can we make best use of our training materials? Onto that next.
A reminder of the exam format
|Development with AWS Services||30%|
|Monitoring and Troubleshooting||12%|
So we know the rough distribution of questions. But we don’t know our own weak spots yet. I’ve taken the following approach:
- Focus on learning fundamentals that cover these areas – each part of my study plan builds week by week.
- Learn the general points so variations on questions don’t trip you up.
- Get some real experience by using practice papers to simulate the exam.
- Learn how to ask yourself the right questions.
It’s the last 2 points that form the basis of this article. I’m going to cover how to extract the meaning out of practice questions, and then make effective training from that.
‘Search for meaning’ with your practice questions
To make best use of practice questions, we want to to think critically about them. By that, I mean getting smart at using fundamental knowledge you have to evaluate and filter out options.
Even though the answer to questions may seem obvious in same cases, it won’t hurt you to slow down a little. There is plenty of time in the exam if you have the right tools and techniques under your belt.
Thinking about when we troubleshoot in our day jobs, we know how dangerous assumptions can be. So we need to think about what the question is presenting us in the right way, and bring all the experience we have to it.
Won’t this slow me down?
Now this isn’t a painstaking process, just to be clear. I’m not talking about cross checking 30 documents to complete a multiple choice question. you’re able to do all of this in your head, and quickly.
What I’m doing in these example, is just breaking down the process so that it’s easy to understand. All I’m really getting it is taking your time to understand what the question is really asking. We’ll be using this technique use this both to eliminate questions during the practice test and to write better flashcard after the practice test.
So let’s see how our fundamental/core knowledge helps us to get the answers right first time.
Eliminating options by thinking critically
To make it easier, I’ll explain this process using some sample questions from the official AWS site. The answers are at the bottom of the same page, so this is a handy resource to explain my reasoning process. Let’s take a look at the first 3 questions:
1) A company is migrating a legacy application to Amazon EC2. The application uses a user name and password stored in the source code to connect to a MySQL database. The database will be migrated to an
Amazon RDS for MySQL DB instance. As part of the migration, the company wants to implement a secure way to store and automatically rotate the database credentials.
It should be quite obvious that the key thing is to be able to store and rotate credentials, so already Parameter Store and Secrets Manager should be the stand out options. A little googling (which we can’t do at test time!) would show that the rotation option is offered by Secrets Manager.
Now flipping this on its head what would ‘future me‘ what to know? Perhaps when do your actual exam, you get a slightly different question, one in which parameter store is the better option. So perhaps you want to test yourself with a question like:
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using parameter store over secrets manager?
Later on I’ll add this to my flashcard set. For now, let’s move onto the next question. This time it’s on something I’ve had no exposure to whatsoever.
2) A Developer is designing a web application that allows the users to post comments and receive near real-time feedback.
Which architectures meet these requirements? (Select TWO.)
So this is a good example of how we need a breadth of knowledge, but also how we need to use our underlying principles to make an educated guess. How would I break the question down based on the options I’m given?
- RDS might be out if real-time feedback is a thing, DB’s are transactional and whilst they might be powerful, will they outperform DynamoDB? So maybe I can eliminate C.
- Likewise E – I know Aurora is just a way of working with relational Databases, so if my logic is sound about C, then E should be out too.
- I think GraphQL is about large data sets and relationships, not speed. But it is part of an API gateway solution, and the web application needs to live somewhere) so I think I’ll include D if A isn’t a better option.
- Websockets – imply a lower level API – any lower level you’d think would add speed. So I’ll include B.
- No idea what AWS AppSync does, but it’s talking ‘schemas’ which at least to me implies data management over data storage and speed of retrieval.
- So my (educated guess) will be B and D.
And.. drumroll.. I got it wrong. I did keep agonising between A and D as the other option incidentally. But this is good, as it’s valuable feedback still. There was nothing wrong with my process, but I do need to add to my ‘knowledge set’.
Onto question 3:
3) A Developer is adding sign-up and sign-in functionality to an application. The application is required to make an API call to a custom analytics solution to log user sign-in events. Which combination of actions should the Developer take to satisfy these requirements? (Select TWO.)
So we need something that offers both sign in and a way of custom analytics. The choice of Cognito should be a no-brainer – sign up functionality is the raison d’être of Cognito.
Analytics was a bit trickier for me though in this case. A Post-Authentication event seems obvious (all things being equal we don’t want to delay the user login just so we can gather our stats). However I’m stuck on the second part of this question, wrt analytics? I can eliminate AWS Config because I know that’s not what it’s used for, but still I don’t know whether to use an API Gateway or a Lambda. I’m left guessing the answer.
We want our guesses to be minimised and how do we do that? Once again by building good questions. Like all good practice resources, this paper directs me quickly to the answer but that’s not enough I don’t think.
Why? Because ‘future me’ is going to need to know why that is the correct answer over the others. At the end of the day, the exam will test our evaluation of options.
Now I’ve shown how I’d think critically about exam questions, I’ll move onto how practice tests can be included into your learning.
Working through a Whizlabs practice test
I’m going to use the process I described from the AWS sample paper, this time with a Whizlabs practice test. I’ll be using the the practice test that I initially failed. Once I’ve got the report back, I’ll use that build out some better flashcards. I’ll go through a few questions just to reinforce the critical thinking but keep an eye on the timer – you’ll see that the critical thinking is still pretty quick.
I’m not going to use practice mode in this case, because I’m trying to simulate real exam conditions. It is a useful feature though, which I’ll write about another time.
So here’s my first 10 question, starting with one on IAM:
So my critical thinking took all of 30 seconds, but as I had knowledge of IAM and its “Deny Model” that was an immediate contender, and I knew that the ‘F’ in WAF was to do with firewalls (which immediately brings to mind blocking IP addresses).
I knew it couldn’t be KMS because the keys aren’t used to deny, but as a means to identify. And I’d never heard of Security Center in any of my IAM research.
Onto question 2, about ElastiCache:
I knew encrypting something wasn’t used as performance gain, so C was out. The question obviously implies scalability/elasticity with the ‘Friday afternoon’ part. I’m not sure compressing helps – you need to decompress it to do something with it, and the issue isn’t one of being ‘low on memory’. Storing something on an instance store didn’t seem right either – although it might have been an option. With what I knew back in January, ElastiCache just seemed a better fit as an answer.
A question on monitoring and metrics came next:
“App-specific event” just screams Cloudwatch to me. After that, it’s just a case of whether it’s a standard or high-resolution metric. I guessed this one. I’ll skip ahead to question 10 as you can see how I’m approaching this, building on fundamentals and existing AWS knowledge to eliminate options. I just want to show that this isn’t too laborious.
Note that by the time I’ve got to question 10 I’ve only used a couple of minutes out of my 2 hour allocation. Now I’m definitely not saying to rush, but I am illustrating that the critical thought process won’t cost you too much.
Review and build your flashcards
Ok so let’s review my questions.
Question 1 I got right. I like how these questions lay out why I got the answer right or wrong and link off to material.
Question 3 you may remember I said was a guess. I’ll be using the link provided at the bottom to tidy up my notes on Cloudwatch Monitoring.
Question 4, I got wrong. Luckily there is some helpful info pointing me in the right direction.
It’s the ones we guess or get wrong of course that give us the most valuable feedback. Let’s see how to write good quality flashcards next.
Using test results to enhance your flashcard suite
So the critical part comes here. How can I write my questions so that they push me to remember answers, but also train me on the right areas to build my AWS knowledge?
It comes down to ‘future’ me. What would be the leading questions that forces future me to recall the concepts?
Starting with question 3 on Cloudwatch, which I admitted to being a guess. The question in the practice test made a mention of a monitoring of every 10 seconds, and the answers gave a choice between standard and high resolution. The better way to phrase the question is in terms of their differences:
Also, did you notice that my answer makes no mention of the specific 10 seconds from the original practice test? Rather I’m pointing out the more general fact that high resolution can be done up to once a second.
Likewise take a look at some of the other questions in this set. I used the link provided by Whizlabs as a starting point.
Notice how the questions and answers aren’t things you would directly get in an exam. No exam question is going to ask me the definition of namespaces, alarms and metrics. But by having the understanding of these concepts, I can start to eliminate options in the practice tests, and over time reduce my guesses.
Let’s take another example, the one I got wrong about lambdas. Again there’s some helpful documentation provided at the bottom of the test but I really was clueless on this question (at least in January).
In the case of Lambdas, I ended up building a fairly extensive suite of flashcards as I knew those to be featuring extensively in the AWS exam. For the reasons why I knew that, you can check out my study plan article here.
Since I was so clueless about Lambda versions, and the link provided by Whizlabs was so extensive, I created a dedicated flashcard set. See here how my flashcards link back to the provided page for reference.
Again notice how my questions are around the general areas of Lambda versioning and aliases, to force me to really think about what’s involved:
I already had an extensive flashcard set from my own study plan but I worked through each question, and if I had any doubt whatsoever with understanding the general principles I made a flashcard.
If I had any doubt I’d be able to recall it without prompting, I made a flashcard.
I didn’t care that my flashcards contained general questions because I trusted in them to provide solid foundations for answering variations on questions in an exam.
By thinking critically about practice questions – we get a feel for the broader gaps in our knowledge. Trying to learn every piece of AWS info by rote isn’t going to help when a variation on that question comes up. By feeding test feedback into our flashcards with better questions, and using the questions to feed our research we create a kind of virtuous circle.
I hope this article was useful. As ever feel free to give feedback, likewise if you have any questions on how to setup your flashcard system, feel free to contact me. If you are thinking about buying these practice tests, consider using this link, as you’ll get a discount on the original price. I get a small bit of commission as disclaimer, but it doesn’t cost you any more and it helps me to keep the site running.