Microsoft’s Exams Are Now Open-Book. Is It as Good as It Sounds?

In a recent announcement, Microsoft revealed that their learning platform, Microsoft Learn, will now be integrated into their certification exams. As of August 22, 2023, anyone sitting for a certification exam (except for fundamentals), will have access to all of Microsoft’s documentation, including its learning paths. 

The decision to make Microsoft certifications essentially “open book” is certainly interesting.

“This is a massive change,” says Guy Hummel, Microsoft Domain Lead at Cloud Academy “I never thought I’d see the day when you could refer to the documentation while taking a cloud certification exam.”

Overall, there are things we love about this announcement, specifically a positive shift for people sitting for their speciality and advanced level certificates. But it’s not the silver bullet to passing the exams – especially fundamentals, which will not have access to the documentation in the same way. There are other things to be mindful of as well, such as the exam times not changing and the need for foundational knowledge in order to successfully pass.  

Opening up learning paths and documentation brings both opportunities and challenges for certification seekers and companies looking to hire certified professionals. But with less pressure to focus on memorizing the intricate details to avoid getting “tricked” by a question, examinees can spend more time where it counts: on practical, real-world skills. 

What we love:

The reality of “looking it up”: “I have always thought that certification exams are a somewhat unrealistic test of a person’s knowledge,” says Guy. “In the real world, people almost always refer to the documentation while they’re implementing cloud systems, so it’s a bit unfair to expect them to have all of the details memorized when they’re taking an exam.”

Microsoft’s even stated in their announcement that they acknowledge everyone, at one point or another, has thought, “I’ll just look it up!” when they aren’t sure of an exact answer. Even the smartest folks at your company will double-check their work if they’re uncertain. Now, instead of relying solely on memorization, candidates can now access a vast array of technical information during the exam, reflecting the actual problem-solving scenarios professionals face on the job. 

Equity in tech certification: Making documentation available during exams promotes tech education equity by leveling the playing field for all candidates, especially neurodiverse learners. It ensures that everyone has equal access to knowledge, and does not require everyone to rely solely on memorization. Guy happens to agree, saying, “ Giving people access to the documentation when answering questions makes perfect sense. I applaud Microsoft for being a leader with this enlightened approach.”

Encourages continuous learning: Candidates can now engage with Microsoft Learn to search for information, fostering a learning process even during the exam. This aligns with the tech industry’s continued emphasis on skills growth and need for adaptability.

No major changes to exam questions: Does this mean Microsoft will make their questions more challenging or comprehensive? According to Microsoft, there are no changes coming to the way questions are written, and “they will continue to focus on problems or scenarios that require real world experience to solve.” Keeping questions grounded in scenarios, and not written theory, is the right call that we are happy to see.

What we’re mindful of:

Time constraint: While the integration of Microsoft Learn is aimed at assisting with specific questions, the exam timer will continue to run while the examinee reviews documentation. Guy sees this as one reason having access to documentation won’t make a huge difference for most people.

“Typical Microsoft exams ask you 50 questions in 2 hours,” he says, “so you only have about two minutes per question. Since the questions can be quite complex, it often takes 2 minutes simply to read the question and consider the answers carefully.”

It will be crucial for anyone sitting for an exam to strike a balance between researching and answering questions efficiently within the allotted time.

Over-reliance on Microsoft resources: There’s a potential downside to over-relying on the Microsoft Learn resources in general. Microsoft Learn is a good supplemental resource to use when preparing for an exam, it’s generally not a good idea to use it as your only preparation for an exam. For example, hands-on experience in lab environments is generally better for skill retention than simply reading text-based documentation. 

Examinees who are under-prepared might be tempted to look up answers for every question, which could lead to a superficial understanding of the material. “If you have to look something up in the documentation more than a few times during the exam,” says Guy, “you’re probably going to run out of time. That’s why it will still be critical to thoroughly prepare before taking an exam. You can’t rely on the documentation to save you.” 

Fundamentals exclusion: Access to Microsoft Learn is not available for fundamental exams, which makes the equity point above feel contradictory.  While this move encourages a deeper understanding of role-based skills, one could argue that fundamental learners deserve the same level of exam support in real time than someone with more knowledge or experience. “I’m assuming they did this because it would be too easy to look up the answers to questions on fundamentals exams,” says Guy. It will be interesting to see if this decision changes over time based on learner feedback.

The integration of Microsoft Learn into Microsoft certification exams will help learners quickly reference answers they aren’t 100% sure of, but they must approach their use of documentation during exams judiciously. It’s never a good idea to rely solely on text-based documentation to prepare for an exam, and anyone registering for a fundamentals-level certification should know that they will not enjoy the same level of resources as other, more advanced certs. 

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