What are PBQs (Performance Based Questions)?
In a typical exam, questions may include multiple-choice, drag-and-drop, fill-in-the-blank, and other similar formats. This is a time-tested way of verifying the knowledge level of an examinee, and it usually works quite well for most subjects.
However, in the case of cybersecurity certification exams, examinees aren’t simply doing it for a grade. Employers want to know that people who hold a certification are not only knowledgeable in that area but proficient enough to immediately step into a job where they have to apply that knowledge on the fly to a varied set of potential problems. They want to know certification holders can’t just cram the night before the exam, get a passing score, and
Various certifying bodies have come up with their own approach to ensuring that certification holders are ready to work. The CISSP certification, for example, includes a stipulation that examinees must already have 5+ years of experience prior to certification.
Meanwhile, CompTIA has what they call performance-based questions, or PBQs. Unlike multiple-choice questions, these exercises take you off the page and into a simulation of a real working environment. They’re designed to test your reactions to problems you would encounter in a professional situation, ensuring that your thought processes are sound enough for you to start working in a real job.
Ideally, this benefits both you and your potential employer. In studying for the test, you get to practice skills that you’ll be able to apply later in your working life–meaning you’ll be better prepared for, not to mention less stressed out by, the problems you’ll encounter. Meanwhile, your employer gets reassurance that certified hirees will be prepared to do their work without getting lost or causing a fuss.
There are two types of PBQs in CompTIA’s tests. By far the more common one is the simulation PBQ, which puts examinees in a scaled-down simulation of a scenario. Many of the moving parts of a real network system are eliminated for conceptual simplicity, but the relevant components, such as terminals, operating systems, firewalls, etc., may be fully interactive, and allow for multiple paths to finding a solution.
The virtual PBQ, on the other hand, is only found in one of CompTIA’s tests (CASP+). A virtual PBQ puts users in a virtual operating system running certain software in a production environment. While a simulation PBQ only allows a finite number of paths, a virtual PBQ allows users to pursue any action they choose.
At this point, most of CompTIA’s certification tests include at least one PBQ. Below, we have listed some of the tests that include PBQs, as well as an example of what a PBQ might look like on each test.
What do PBQs look like?
Because PBQs are structured around solving a task in a real-world environment, they will look fairly different from one another depending on the skill being tested.
The following CompTIA exams include simulation PBQs:
In some questions, you’ll be tested on procedural matters. For example, the A+ test will test you on basic IT matters; it may ask you to set up a router with its own SSID and password, troubleshoot IP issues by running flush DNS commands, or build a PC with provided specifications.
The Security+ test, meanwhile, might ask you to identify and decipher scripted line code, or configure a wireless access point.
Not all PBQs necessarily look like full simulations of work environments. Most of the tests, for example, include a number of drag-and-drop questions, which are also classified as PBQs.
Cybrary provides practice tests for all the above listed certification exams. If you want to get a better feel for what the PBQs look like, we recommend creating an account and diving in by searching for practice tests for your exam of choice.
How should you approach PBQs?
PBQs are inherently somewhat more difficult to study for than traditional multiple-choice questions. While multiple-choice questions simply require you to regurgitate memorized information, PBQs require a more in-depth knowledge of the subject that allows you to formulate a plan of action–that’s the whole point!
That’s both a problem for you as an exam-taker, and an integral part of the certification overall: doing a job is never easy, and so an exam that proves one’s ability to do the job shouldn’t be easy either.
While it helps to ease into the exam format by studying practice PBQs, there’s no guarantee that the PBQs that turn up on the test will be the same as, or even similar to, the questions you studied. Therefore, it’s best to study for the PBQs by making sure you know the systems and concepts you’ll be tested on inside and out. You can even try to practice the concepts within the tests wherever you can.
As for how PBQs are scored, it depends, as usual, on the exam, and on the contents of the specific question. Some PBQs give you multiple paths to producing the correct solution; in these cases, you’re scored based on the result you get. Some PBQs offer partial credit, while others do not.
While you’re taking the test, it’s generally best to be wise with your time, so if you’re having trouble on a PBQ, you should skip it and come back. However, with virtual PBQs, you don’t have that option; you have to finish it as soon as it comes up, so plan accordingly if you’re taking the CASP+ exam.
For first-time exam takers, PBQs may seem like a daunting prospect, especially because they have a tendency to be unpredictable.
Luckily, Cybrary has got your back. Check out our free CompTIA certification courses, which will include training that will help you solve your PBQs and get your certifications. Or, with a subscription, you can access our practice tests and hands-on practice labs, which will give you a chance to get experience dealing with PBQs first-hand.