Understanding Beats Memorization
Rita Mulcahy's Original Exam Prep ™

Certification Exam Preparation: Understanding Beats Memorization

Understanding vs. Memorization
Why does RMC focus on understanding rather than memorization?  As RMC’s project management practice leader I’m often asked: “why can’t I just memorize the process names, inputs, tools, techniques, and outputs (ITTOs) and pass the exam?” The answer to this question is quite simple.  Understanding works, memorization does not, especially in the context of the PMP® exam. Let’s discuss understanding vs. memorization. Studies have shown that the best way to prepare for a multiple choice, situational exam is through understanding. Most people can’t just memorize the terms and pass the exam because they need to be able to analyze what is presented and then select the best answer from the choices provided.

Research as far back as 1940’s by psychologist Abraham Maslow has shown that the best way to develop skills necessary to complete a task without thinking about how to do it is by being unconsciously competent.  To do this one must work through the 4 Stages of Competency: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally, an unconscious competence. You are unconsciously incompetent when you don’t know what you don’t know. A sort of ignorant bliss. You become consciously incompetent when you are aware of the things you do not know. This is a key component of learning and developing new skills because there is a need or desire to change that state. Consciously competent is when you develop a skill, but you need to think about how to execute the skill. For example, remember when you were learning how to drive? You had to think about each step before you could even leave the garage. Now, chances are good you are an unconsciously competent driver. You can execute the skill, without even thinking about it.

So how does all of this related to project management and preparation for the exam? Let’s focus on conscious incompetence. Conscious incompetence is achieved when a person knows they do not have the knowledge but are willing to work towards increasing that knowledge. To be truly competent, a person must develop their skills and increase their knowledge.  Memorizing does not help develop skill — it only impacts knowledge. What is the difference?

I can read a book on how to fly an airplane. I can study and learn all about airplanes but no one is going to let me fly a plane solely based on my knowledge of airplanes. I need to practice, learn how to use the proper tools, spend time in a simulator, watch an instructor, have them walk me through taking off, landing, among a host of other skills that I would need to learn.   Indeed, to be a skilled pilot I would have to master these skills so that I can apply them automatically without thinking.  In short,  I need to recognize my incompetence and work to increase not only my knowledge, but my skill.

Obviously, applying project management skills to the exam is not the same as flying a plane, but the learning process is similar. Rita Mulcahy, the founder of RMC, conducted extensive research on how best to prepare students to take the PMP® exam.  Through that research she learned that the students that performed best on the exam were those that knew and understood the project management processes, tools and techniques and could apply them to the situational questions used in the PMP exam.  The PMP® exam focuses on situational questions and sophisticated knowledge-based questions that require a student to evaluate, analyze and apply their knowledge. This means that the majority of those sitting for the exam are not going to be able to just memorize their way into being ready. They need the context and an understanding of the processes and ITTOs to discern what would be the best answer out of the multiple choices provided.  Does a student need to know terms?  Sure, but when they understand the concepts behind those terms along with a process, tool or technique, input or output, it is much easier to logically recall the terms and identify the ITTOs needed.  This is true especially where a student has trouble remembering through rote memorization.

Rita also found that, as an added benefit, many of these newly minted PMP’s went back to their jobs and were better project managers.  She saw that understanding was essential for learning and application. That became the basis of RMC’s approach to project management learning and exam prep. That focus continues today and is supported by continuous research and updating of our techniques and materials and is applied to all of the disciplines that we teach, including Business Analysis and Agile.

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