Building a Study Strategy For the Real World

Last month, we started our year-long quest to prepare for RESNA’s Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) exam by talking about the changes taking place in 2009 — namely the switch from two certifications to just one.
This issue, we discuss the exam itself and build a study strategy to follow through the year.


Is a Study Strategy Really Necessary?

My need to study for the ATP exam is obvious: I spend my days building paragraphs and headlines, not wheelchairs and seating systems.
But assuming that you are a seating & mobility specialist who does assess clients and recommend and/or build wheelchairs and seating systems for a living, do you really need to study for the ATP exam?

Yes, says Mark Schmeler, Ph.D., OTR/L, ATP (and one of our mentors this month).
“In your daily practice, you might not be covering all areas of material and content that’s on the test,” he explains. “You may be practicing within the fundamentals of assistive technology, but at this point, the material and content are kind of integrated into your daily practice routine. Studying for the test takes you outside the real-world practice and makes you take a look at and understand how you’re applying information, and then understanding that information from more of a textbook-type scenario.”

Ironically, your seating & mobility knowledge could actually work against you, if you underestimate the exam and expect your experience to easily and directly translate to test-taking success. Mark says, “The example I’ve used is that you test a police officer straight out of the academy who’s had by-the-book training because that’s the only way you can really measure an outcome. So a question on that test might be, ‘You notice a person jaywalking. Which of the following should you do? (a) Cite them for jaywalking, (b) Ignore it, (c) Move on to more important things.’ The right answer is (a), but you know that if you’re a police officer and you see someone jaywalking, you’re thinking, ‘Give me a break, I’ve got more important things to deal with.’”

And that disparity between the “academic” world and the “real” world can trip up seating & mobility providers who take the ATP exam without studying.
“That’s a reason you have to go back and relearn some of the fundamentals and theories behind what we do,” Mark says. “On an exam, it’ll say, ‘You have a patient with condition xyz, and they want to be able to do this, this and this. Which would be the first things to assess?’ Well, you’ve been practicing for 20 years, and in your mind, you’re saying, ‘That depends’ — because you know too much. So you have to go back and say, ‘What is a textbook answer to this question?’ And the only way to go back and know that stuff is by relearning the fundamentals.”


The Benefits of Starting with a Review Course

The good news: If you’re actively assessing clients, recommending seating & mobility equipment and/or actually building those systems — and assuming that you’ve been practicing in this field for awhile — what we’re largely talking about here is reviewing material, not learning it from scratch.

Mark and the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Rehabilitation Science & Technology offer an ATP exam review course to help candidates prepare for the big day. So do several other industry organizations — go to www.resna.org, and check the Resources page in the Certification section for more info.

Review courses can be terrific tools to help candidates prepare — if the courses are used properly and as part of a larger study strategy.
“I recommend to everybody — and I’m not trying to sell my prep course, there are other ones out there — before you even start to put a study plan together, you should take an exam review course,” Mark says. “It’s not designed to teach you the material. It’s designed to (1) let you know what’s going to be on the test, the major content areas; (2) it reviews the content areas; and (3), it lets you know how that content could be presented in the form of a multiple-choice question.

“So as we’re reviewing what’s on the test, people can say, ‘I feel pretty confident in that area, so therefore I’m only going to allocate x number of hours to studying that.’ Or when they get to another section, they might say, ‘I really need to study that more, so this is where I’m going to concentrate my time.’ In a review course, they’ll also tell you where to go for more study resources, what chapters in Cook & Hussey to read (see Investment sidebar), what other resources are out there. So going to an initial review course is probably the best way to get started.”

Mark recommends taking the review course six months before you plan to take the actual ATP exam. You can count the review course toward your continuing education unit (CEU) requirements, provided you complete the course and the CEU paperwork. And the review course can give you a good idea of what assistive technology topics you need to learn or brush up on, so you can focus your energy and time most efficiently.

RESNA also offers a 50-question, 60-minute practice exam (which is what I’ll be taking at the end of this column series). Mark adds, “I have told people, if they can afford it, to do the review course, take the practice exam and not care whether they pass it or not. They can use the practice exam just to give them a benchmark of where they are.” The practice exam can also be a valuable tool, Mark says, for candidates who haven’t recently taken a standardized, multiple-choice exam.


Creating a Study Plan You Can Live With

So how much do you need to study to give yourself a good chance to pass the ATP exam?
Obviously, that depends on each candidate’s experience and level of knowledge. But as a very general suggestion, Mark says, “If you’ve been practicing for a reasonable period of time, you’re comfortable with what you’re doing and you’ve got a good handle on things — give yourself at least a few hours a week over a six-month period…. I would say three to five hours a week.”

Just as important as the number of hours is the quality of those study hours. Some candidates discover they need to study in private, away from all distractions, while others may enjoy the camaraderie of joining their kids during homework time at the kitchen table after dinner. Employers who are requiring or encouraging their providers to become certified may allow candidates to study during the work day. Whatever your situation is, those “three to five hours a week for six months” will only work if you tenaciously carve out time to hit the books. Then you’ll need to follow through by studying those assistive technology areas you’ve identified as “weak spots” after completing your review course.


Letting Go of Your “Exam Rage”

Unlike many other professional fields — from education to law enforcement to occupational and physical therapy — ATP certification is earned “after the fact,” as Mark puts it.

“Normally, you take your board exam when you’re fresh out of school, so you’re already in that mindset,” he points out. “Now what we’re having to do is reverse 20 years and go back, restudy, and get the fundamentals down again” in order to pass the ATP exam.
This can give some candidates a sense of righteous indignation, particularly if they’ve been practicing seating & mobility professionals for years, but are now being made — by their employers or the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — to “prove” themselves via a 200-question, multiple-choice test.

Therefore, for any study program to succeed, Mark says, “You have to be dedicated to the test, that you’re doing this because you want to do it. A lot of people are thinking, ‘I have to take this stupid test because Medicare said so, and I really don’t believe in it, and I don’t have time to do it.’”

For the exam, candidates also need to “de-personalize” the situation — that is, try not to take the exam itself or its questions as a personal insult.
“(You need to think) ideally, more fundamentally, best-case scenario,” Mark advises. “Don’t bring in too much experience. Don’t read into the question. Read the words of the question. Don’t try to second-guess the person writing the question, which is what a lot of people do.

“Another common mistake people make is they look at the question and say, ‘What idiot wrote this question? It’s a stupid question, and I know the right answer is probably (a), because that’s what a bleeding-heart liberal would say, but I’m going to show them they’re wrong by answering the question wrong.’ And you know what? Who corrects the test? A computer. A computer doesn’t really care.”
So work on letting go of any “exam rage” you’re harboring, because it’ll only hurt you.
“I’m saying that kind of bluntly, but intuitively, subconsciously, that’s what some people are doing,” Mark says. “I know I’ve done the same thing when I’ve taken tests.”

My Financial Investment to Date: $346.56
This month’s purchases: Pitt’s review course and colored pencils for my Human Anatomy Coloring Book. Total includes shipping & sales tax.

University of Pittsburgh ATP Review Course (online): $149
Colored pencils: $9
Cook & Hussey’s Assistive Technology: Principles & Practice by Albert Cook & Janice Miller Polgar, $81.95
Human Anatomy Coloring Book by Margaret Matt, $3.95
Fundamentals in Assistive Technology edited by Michelle L. Lange, $80


ATP Exam at a Glance

To see if you qualify to start the certification process, visit www.resna.org, click on Certification, then Get Certified and Eligibility Requirements.

What It Looks Like: The ATP exam has 200 multiple-choice questions and a four-hour time limit.
How It’s Given: All exams are computer based starting this month. Before the exam, candidates can take a tutorial on how to use the computer testing system; time spent taking the tutorial is not part of the four-hour exam time.
Who Gives the Exam: Prometric Services, a computer-based-testing company, begins administering the exam in February.
Where the Exam is Given: Exams will take place at Prometric’s 700-plus testing centers throughout the United States & Canada.
When the Exam is Offered: Take the exam when you’re ready: After your exam application is approved, call the Prometric testing center of your choice to schedule a date and time.
Source: Anjali Weber, director of certification, RESNA

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Mobility Management.

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