Cisco Announces New Performance-Based Lab Questions
The most recent CCNA and CCNP exam release (February 2022) had a minor side effect that left many wondering: Was Cisco continuing to use the Sim and Simlet question types? A Cisco blog post in early July 2022 clarified that question, not with a backward look at Sim/Simlet, but with exciting news about a new question type that works like an upgraded Sim question type. You need to be ready for these new questions now, for both CCNA and CCNP! Read on to find more information.
A Quick Look Back: Sim and Simlet
First, historically, Cisco used two question types that made use of a simulator within the question. The simulator allowed you to interact with the CLI of various devices in a lab pod, so you had to know how to use the CLI, know commands, and use those commands to solve the question. Specifically:
Sim: The question consisted of a lab pod with multiple devices with access to configuration mode. The question gave requirements as to what the lab network should do. You answered by adding to or changing the configuration of the devices.
SimLet: The question consisted of a lab pod with multiple devices, but often without access to configuration mode. Instead, the question included 3-4 multiple-choice questions about the current state of the network. To answer, you had to remember and use verification commands to find the current status of the network and then answer the multiple-choice questions about the current state.
The Announcement of “Performance-Based Lab Exam Items”
In the past, Cisco provided information about various exam item types (a.k.a. question types) on their web pages, usually in a video demonstrating the user interface with each item type. Before the February 2020 exam release, that video showed information about Sim/Simlet questions, but after the February 2020 exam release, the video made no mention of either, leaving us to speculate as to whether those questions still existed in the exams.
In this July 7, 2022, blog post at cisco.com, Anna Rubin describes a new exam item type: The “Performance-Based Lab Exam Item.” If you care about CCNA or CCNP, you should take the time to read the whole post. (It’s not long.) You should also watch the updated video that shows the various question types, paying close attention beginning at the 1:20 mark for the demo of this new question type.
To hit some of the highlights:
- This new question type, which I’ll call “Lab Questions” from here on out in this post, requires the same actions of the test taker as the old Sim questions.
- Lab questions, behind the scenes, use a virtualized instance of the Cisco operating system, for example, IOS. So there is no simulator.
- For instance, the CLI interaction should be much better than the older Sim/Simlet questions. E.g., command help, tab, and the like should be much more realistic.
- The number of supported commands should be much better as well. (The old Sim/Simlet questions suffered a bit because the questions did not support all related command or command options.) The new lab questions use real IOS, so hopefully, all commands/options you think of will be available.
- Each lab question should take 5-7 minutes for a prepared candidate. (FYI, that’s about what I suggested to my book readers in the Sim question era.) So do not get nervous about it – just take the time and focus on the lab.
Interpretations and Opinions
Since Cisco announced this new lab question type, I’ve been watching some of the online chatter, clarifying what’s happened with some folks, and having some opinions. Here are a few of those thoughts.
Grades the function instead of the configuration. These questions require configuration to get the points, although, behind the scenes, the question is graded on whether the lab function works. Cisco did not provide a concrete example, but I think one might be useful – keep in mind it’s my extrapolation from the wording in the blog post. Imagine a case where the lab asks you to make all routers learn routes with OSPF. Router R1 could use command “network 10.0.0.0 0.255.255.255 area 0” or “network 10.1.0.0 0.0.255.255 area 0” and work in either case. I interpret the blog post to mean either command would result in the question being graded as correct. Grading looks at whether the function works instead of the specific config commands. From the blog post: “…they are often free to use their preferred configuration options, as long as they produce the expected outcome.”
Probably IOS-only today. At least here in July 2022, this question type only extends to IOS-based devices. I culled that opinion from QA and other posts at Cisco Learning Network, including this post about the lab question type appearing in the Service Provider track earlier this year. However, I expect the list of supported OS’s for lab questions to change over time.
CCNA and all CCNP, right away, officially. In reaction to clarifying questions, the answers from Cisco folks confirm that lab questions may be on any/all CCNA and CCNP exams starting on July 7, 2022. Be ready now!
A realistic expectation for lab questions on exam day. Just to add some perspective for exam day, imagine Alice and Bob take the CCNA exam on the same day and sit beside each other. Alice gets 100 multiple-choice questions and no lab questions. Bob sees two lab questions, which Cisco tells us they expect to take longer to answer – so Bob would be unlikely to see 98 multiple-choice questions. Of course, Alice and Bob should not check with each other during the exam! (Also, you won’t know if you have a lab question until you click next and one of them pops up.) The point is that Cisco considers the expected time for each question when choosing how many questions to place into any instance of an exam. Lab questions take far more time than multiple-choice questions, so the more lab questions, the fewer multiple-choice questions.
How to Prepare for the New Lab Questions
Practice, practice, practice. Honestly, before Cisco’s announcement and after, you should have practiced all the topics that use the “configure” and “verify” verbs. I get it, some people, thinking that the Sims and Simlets were gone, may have done less hands-on practice. So… practice on the CLI! You even have two series of blog posts for hands-on lab exercises: