Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | April 3, 2012

HR Concepts: Certification Study Techniques

HR Concepts: Certification Study Techniques
by Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

Certification as a PHR, SPHR, CA, and perhaps even GPHR is a “must do” in your personal career management plan. Successfully passing a certification exam demonstrates that you have mastered a combination of practical experience and academic or book knowledge in the field of Human Resources. It shows that you understand the language of HR and the values and principles necessary to practice as an HR professional. Maintaining your certification through a disciplined practice of continuing education shows that you are committed to staying current in your chosen field.

Passing a certification exam is not easy. It should not be. It requires a significant amount of preparation. It should.

One of the most common misconceptions about certification is that it is the place where you go to learn about Human Resources. Certification is not a starting point. It is not where you begin your HR education. It is a place where your experience and knowledge tell you that the more you know, the more you need to know. It is a point in your career when you decide you want to move from having a job to being a member of a profession. When you reach that point, you make a commitment to invest your time studying for the exam. Here are few things you can do to maximize your investment.

Exam Preparation Course
Several important things happen when you take a certification course. First, you walk into a room full of people who share your decision to become certified. You quickly learn that they also share your need to build your HR knowledge base. Second, you meet an instructor who understands the process, the SHRM Body of Knowledge that underlies the testing process, and is committed to helping you succeed. Third, you pick up a copy of the SHRM Learning System. It puts a mountain of valuable information in your hands. Fourth, you start to get in the habit of studying HR material by learning that you need to read and study in between classes. And fifth, you begin a collaborative process with everyone else in the class to understand the materials, find additional resources, and get used to the idea of answering test questions.

Study Group
A study group is a small group of you and your colleagues who share a common goal of achieving certification. Keep track of the people in your exam preparation course. They are potential members of your future study group.

A study group helps you get organized. It allows you to use the basic elements of adult learning (andragogy). It lets you see how you are doing in relationship to others who are working to understand the material. Importantly, a study group gives you insights into tips and techniques that others use to learn and comprehend the testing material concepts.

Some study groups assign each member to teach a section of the materials to the rest of the group. Preparing a presentation forces you to organize your knowledge about a particular topic. It increases your comfort level with a subject. It puts you in a position of answering questions from your colleagues. Each of those activities builds your comfort level with the study materials.

A study group does one other thing. It creates friendships. It establishes a network of knowledgeable HR professionals who will be available to you for years to come.

One of the most important learning tools in the exam preparation process is right in front of you. It is a footnote. The SHRM Learning System and other study materials summarize a wide variety of important theories and concepts. Those summaries come from more detailed sources. The footnotes tell you how to find in-depth explanations of test material concepts from HR practitioners, academic studies, and legal scholars. They sit there on the page and silently challenge you to take the time to read them and find the additional insights they offer. Those insights can make the difference between figuring out an answer and wildly guessing between the four options of a multiple choice question. You do not have to read every footnote. You do have to read the footnotes that provide insights into the topics that are difficult for you to understand or grasp.

Other Resources
It is easy to get quickly mired in the study materials. They are excellent, but they primarily provide a summary. Most people need a little more in depth information to supplement the summary. For the PHR and the SPHR, for example, it is a good idea to find a copy of an HR textbook such as Human Resources Management by Mathis and Jackson to dig a little deeper into specific topics. If you are studying for the CA exam, the California Chamber of Commerce Labor Law Digest can serve the same purpose. The SHRM website and HR California on the Cal Chamber website offer important resources as do state and federal agency websites. In addition to the SHRM Learning System, a variety of other vendors offer study materials.

HRCI and SHRM Websites
The Human Resources Certification Institute website offers a wealth of information. You should visit it often by yourself and with the help of a study group friend. Likewise the SHRM website includes section on certification preparation. You need to bookmark both the HRCI ( and SHRM Certification Preparation web page (

Practice Tests
The SHRM Learning System, the California Chamber of Commerce website, and other learning materials offer practice tests to help you measure your learning progress. A practice test helps get you used to reading a test question. It allows you to practice choosing between multiple choice answers. In short, it helps you get better at thinking the way you need to think to take and pass the actual certification test. It is important to remember that a practice test is just that – it is a practice test. It is not a set of actual test questions. Passing a practice test does not necessarily indicate that you are ready to take the certification exam. Never make the mistake of thinking that a good score on a practice test means you have mastered a test topic.

Getting certified is a challenge. It is a lot of work. It is also incredibly rewarding. It confirms that you have a grasp on an accepted body of professional knowledge. It demonstrates that you are committed to keeping yourself current in your chosen field. It is, in short, a challenge worth accepting.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, designs and presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for first-line supervisors and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at


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