Every day hundreds of people come to HamStudy.org and take practice tests. Others go to other websites and take practice tests. There are differences in the user experience between those two groups of people, but they both have one thing in common — they aren’t actually studying for their exam.
I’m going to repeat that. Taking a practice exam is not studying for an exam.
I’ll pause here while you think of ways to flame me on the comments section and I decide if I should turn it off or not.
tl;dr: For those too lazy to read the article, the conclusions are simple: Practice Exams are fabulous for benchmarking yourself to see how close you are, but when used to study result in a lot of wasted time and/or questions on your exam which you have never seen before. Reading through the questions and intelligent directed flash cards are by far the most effective study methods we have found. Whether you use our tools or not (and did you know HamStudy.org works in mobile Chrome and Safari?) make sure you are using something more than just practice exams for studying.
Read on for charts, justifications, pretense at math, and how we arrived at these conclusions.
Seriously, though, I realize that it is actually possible to get your license just by taking practice exams over and over again. In fact, given the number of people who tell me they got their license “only because of your website”, and the number of practice exams vs flashcards that are taken on HamStudy.org, I have to conclude that a large number of people do actually manage that.
(as a side note, this claim is ridiculous; I appreciate the thought, and I’m glad our efforts are useful, but you would have gotten your license another way if we hadn’t been here; I’d like to think we made it easier, however).
Before you heat up the proverbial oil, let me explain what I mean. The current Technician exam has 426 questions in it. It has 10 subelements, and 35 sections. The typical way that questions are selected for an exam is to choose one at random from each of those 35 sections. Let’s look at the question distribution in that pool:
That’s not the most exciting graph in the world, but as you see there out of the 35 subelements, all have at least 11 questions and none have more than 14 questions; therefor the probability of any question being chosen for your exam (assuming it is randomly generated) is at least 1 chance in 14 but never more than 1 chance in 11 (roughly between a 7.14% chance and a 9% chance). So, we have a list of 426 questions, all of which are within 2% of having the same probability of appearing on the exam, and you need to make sure you pass that exam.
So, naturally, you do what any normal thinking person would do, right? You split up the questions with each section in its own box. You pick one question from each of the 35 boxes and have a friend quiz you to see if you got it right or not. If you miss it, he tells you what the correct answer was! Then, after doing one question from each box, you put them all back into the box, shake it up, and start over again as though you’d never done the first round. Makes perfect sense, right?
Yes, this is exactly what practice exams are. They are random selections of questions from a question pool which you need to learn. How many practice exams do you need to take before you see each question, do you suppose? Let’s do a bit more math.
First, there are 14 questions in three of the sections (T1A, T1C, and T9A). That means that if you want to be sure you have seen all the questions, you’ll need a *minimum* of 14 practice exams. No problem, right? But wait!
Each practice exam actually chooses all the questions at random, so if you took 14 exams, then each time you had a 7.14% chance of getting any given question. The probability that you have seen each of the 14 questions is easy to calculate; the probability of the first one being new is easy: 1/1. The probability of the second giving you a unique question is 1-(13/14). Following this through, we get a 0.000027% chance of that occurring. That’s just in one section!
The solution – actually study
One of our biggest secrets to success here at HamStudy.org (I’ll tell you, but don’t go posting it online or anything, k?) is that we have our own rotating focus group that we use to see how our software is doing for people. 9 months out of the year there is a one-day Technician class held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, which is attended by 30-50 students each time. After the “cram” portion of the class all of those applicants sit down and study for their exam using — yep — HamStudy.org. You might even say that the website was created to help these people — you’d be at least half right.
Here are the methods we have tried over the years and the results:
1. Practice Exams
Taking practice exams has been considered by most hams to be studying for so long that it is naturally how we started. The result? The #1 complaint I heard from applicants who didn’t pass: “I don’t get it! I’ve been taking practice exams all day, and these questions never showed up on those tests!”
Practice Exams aren’t studying! They aren’t specific enough, and they aren’t directed!
We did find, though, that practice exams are the best way to get a feel for how close you are — if you have been studying already.
2. Smart Practice Exams
The astute reader will have already hit on the same solution I first did — if practice exams not showing all the questions are the problem, then make the practice exams intelligent so they pick different questions each time!
This is actually a pretty good method, but there are a few problems with it. The first is that while it’s very effective, the simplest implementation is *incredibly* frustrating. I had a lady come up to me and say “I have just taking 10 practice exams in a row, and I am not getting any better. I think I’m just going to give up and maybe come back next month”.
Anyone spot the problem? Yep, those 10 practice exams contained different questions each time. Of *course* she didn’t improve any! She hadn’t gotten through the whole pool yet, so each time it was all new!
The biggest problem with smart practice exams is that the exam is too long to effectively repeat things across exams. You can do it, but by the time you’ve done that, doesn’t it make a lot more sense just to use flashcards?
This is really the place where HamStudy.org currently shines; our flashcards are phenomenal. I say that with full (-ly absent) humility and knowing how much time we’ve spent on them. Where people before complained that the smart exams were exhausting and draining, many tell me that the flashcards are addictive. Here are some of the plusses to flashcards if done correctly:
- Flashcards are fast – they can easily adjust on the fly.
- Flashcards are targeted – they know what you’ve done in the past, so they can choose well for future cards
- Flashcards are hard but not too hard – when the questions are all hard, it can throw in easier ones. When it’s getting boring, it can give you harder ones.
- Flashcards repeat quickly as needed – you don’t depend on luck to review a question that you didn’t know well
- Flashcards can be specific – You can target them to a specific group of questions. We are working on improving how we do this.
We have found that if you want to learn the question pool, the flashcards are the most effective way to do it. Most of these things could be applied to smart practice exams as well, but that doesn’t really buy you anything.
4. Reading the questions
This is easily the most often overlooked study method, and yet it’s one of the most effective. Just reading through the question will get you familiar with them faster than any other method. We’re working on finding ways to better tie our read section into the other study tools, but don’t underestimate the power of reading questions.
Don’t get me wrong here; Practice Exams are invaluable. How else will you know how likely you are to pass, or how effective your studies are? If you want to actually study, though, use a tool that gives you something targeted — even if it’s just a printout.
For those interested, here are some of the features we’re focussing on right now. This is a project we do in our “free time”, and we all have families and children (I have four) so we don’t have fixed timelines for when these will be done:
- Mobile app – Android and iOS to start with, it will probably cost $3.99 but will allow full offline use. Don’t worry, the website will have all the same features and will remain free for use on mobile devices for those who don’t want to pay for offline access.
- Improved flashcards – the Aptitude thing? We have a far better plan. We’ll also give you more information about how you’re doing on the question, and we’ll let you choose which questions to study with much more control.
- Integrated “read questions” area – we’ll tie it in with the stats and hopefully make it possible to build a card deck while reading questions which you can later use with studying flashcards.
- Simplified user accounts – the one we have seems to annoy people, so we’re going to try to improve that. We’ll make it possible to convert a guest account to a full account and possible to create an account without an email address.
What other things would you like to see us work on?
By alden anderson December 7, 2015 - 07:16
I have a suggestion for prospective test takers. I flunked out of the same very good college 3 times before graduating from the same school. This was back in the ’60’s before anyone knew what a learning disability was. It was just a terrible no fun experience! I got help and found out I go ear to brain, NOT eye to brain like most people.
So, as far as your flash cards go, if I read the question OUTLOUD, then my brain store the information just like most people who have to only read it. If my lips move(something discouraged when learning to read as a yute, then I RETAIN the information. There are many people out there like me! So if you’re having trouble……try it! you might like it!
By joseph December 9, 2015 - 15:11
I’ve taken 5 study tests today… missing around 4-5 on each do you think I’m ready for the ticket test?
By kd7bbc January 14, 2016 - 10:00
That’s impossible to say for sure just based on the data you have provided, but on Tech and General you can miss 9 questions and still pass, so it’s probably at least even chances that you’d pass.
By HT McIntyre December 21, 2015 - 09:20
This sound’s really hard for a pour student like me
By kd7bbc January 14, 2016 - 09:59
What part sounds hard? I’m not sure I understand.
By Russell Lawrence, PhD December 24, 2016 - 11:40
It is not hard,,, anyway shape or form… When I was a kid,,, I got involved with amateur radio but the license lapsed while in Nam and other interests took over… Now I am 76 and going to take my Tech test early next month,,, then on to the General…
I like the Flash cards and I have spent a lot of time on them… I like the pull down corner as you can start off getting the theory with each question… Works for this old man…
By KB2IXS December 30, 2015 - 03:53
After about 17 years of inactivity, I just received my General Class ticket relying heavily on hamstudy.org to continually test myself. The flash cards are awesome with the randomized answer order, as well as being able to click for more information on the solution. Once I studied enough I moved onto the practice tests and found them to be excellent at preparing me for the actual exam. Now I am prepping for my Extra class.
Thanks and 73s, KB2IXS
By Darren Johnson December 30, 2015 - 19:04
Thank you for the work you do with this site. I used it exclusive to get my Tech license, and now I’m using it for studying for my general. Thanks again for your efforts helping hams get their tickets.
By Jim Rice January 7, 2016 - 19:12
i’d gladly pay $3.99 for the app. I really want to upgrade to general!
By himiguel January 7, 2016 - 20:54
Hi I took my teck. test tonight. I got a 100, using your flash cards to study . They helped me a lot !!!!!!!!!!!!
By Jack Kinney January 8, 2016 - 12:53
I used HamStudy.org exclusively to study for my technician exam. I read through all the questions, worked through the flash cards and used the practice test multiple times. Passed without a problem. I am going to do the same for the General. Thank you very much. It’s a great resource!
By Jan Nichols KE∅FEQ February 2, 2016 - 17:12
Perfect way to study!
By Edward Barrett January 8, 2016 - 17:00
I am excited to learn a new skill that may be helpful to myself and the community in times of an emergency.
By John January 25, 2016 - 00:57
Hi I am studying for my extra class and want to know why who ever is doing the questions has decided to increase the amount of questions in the pool, I think there is already to many questions as it is, why make it harder? I dont believe one can know everything about ham radio from tube radios to all the new stuff out there,
and just asking is there a way to reset the ham study so that I go at it as though I am doing it for the time, I have gone thru it once already but I desire to re-due it again from the beginning
thankyou for your time and this program
By kd7bbc February 6, 2016 - 18:52
If you keep going through the flashcards it will take you through everything; I don’t have a way to reset stats yet, but it will come in a future version. In the mean time you can create a second account if it really bothers you :-/
As to why changes are made to the exams, that’s something you can debate with others online or ask the question pool committee as you see fit; it’s not something we control =]
By Jan Nichols KE∅FEQ February 2, 2016 - 17:11
I’m aiming for my extra now. Used your study guide for teck & general as well. My advice is read questions, starting with the first element. Then use the flash cards to find & increase aptitude. After you do well in each element, take first test as general point of reference. Use flash cards & they will help you remember what you read & test scores will also increase.
By Randall Glass February 5, 2016 - 10:07
What about using ham prep software, that drills you on missed questions.
By using that software, you would be getting more value for your time.
By kd7bbc February 6, 2016 - 18:47
Any software which assists you and provides directed study is an excellent resource; I’m not familiar with that one, but if it drills you on missed questions it’s probably a useful system! HamStudy.org also has those features, of course, and there are many more. The point is just to find something that is more than just practice exams!
By Bob February 20, 2016 - 12:00
I studied intensely for both the Technician and General tests for 6 Days using suggestions 3 & 4 above (“Read the Questions” and Flashcards). Today I passed both tests!! I’d also gotten through a first pass on about 40% of the Amateur Extra questions in around 4 hours, but that was a “bridge too far” and I just missed passing the Amateur Extra. Thanks for the tools to accomplish what I had set out to do (to pass Technician and have a reasonable chance at General in a one week timeframe). Now I am intrigued as to how long it might take for me to pass the final test!
By Katie H February 21, 2016 - 09:54
Just wanted to add my vote for being able to reset my stats on the flash cards. I got derailed (family death) in my studying 1week before my test and now, 6 mo later, am restarting. I am nowhere near as good at the info as I had been and it would be easier to “start over” than teach the software to get back thru all the cards again. Thanks!
By kd7bbc February 23, 2016 - 10:55
Huh; that’s probably the first use case I’ve been told that I actually agree with 😉 We definitely do plan this feature, but it’s probably a ways away; we are in the middle of a major update which is taking a long time. As my family grows, time to spend working on HamStudy shrinks :-/
By Katie O. February 24, 2016 - 16:17
I’m looking for a starting point to study for someone who is totally new to ham radio. Are there writeups online that would be good introductions which don’t require the purchase of books? Flash cards and practice tests are great, but not if you’re coming in with zero prior knowledge of ham radio. Any sites or links would be greatly appreciated. Thanks so much for this resource!
By kd7bbc February 24, 2016 - 16:19
Check out our Links page!
By H-Man May 4, 2016 - 14:15
I would love a way to reset the cards as well, but it is simple to make a new account which I think I might do.
+1 for reset!
By VAUGHAN THOMPSON May 7, 2016 - 17:58
About 2 years ago, when I was preparing for the extra exam, I provided solutions for the math questions. (Note: I hold a BA in mathematics from SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY.) Now when I am attempting to show those solutions to a friend of mine who is studying for the extra exam, the solutions that I put in seem to have disappeared from the flash cards. How did this happen? These solutions were the most direct and from a technical writing point of view (which I have instructed) were easier to understand than the replacement solutions.
By kd7bbc May 7, 2016 - 18:10
A few possibilities come to mind, but the most likely is that for some reason someone removed them and I wasn’t paying close enough attention to notice :-/ I’m very sorry if that’s the case. I’m working on putting better tools in place for us to monitor and moderate changes to the explanations.
The good news, though, is that it saves a full history, so if you can email firstname.lastname@example.org with which questions they would have been on I would be happy to look into it for you.
By Victor nichols June 5, 2016 - 15:06
I have been using your web site now for about two weeks.
Have spent many hours on flash cards and YES they are addictive.
I have passed over 15 tests in a row and I think this site is great.
By sumofann June 27, 2016 - 05:40
Thank you for the practice tests and question reviews. Not only do they give me a feel for the exam, but, they give me a feel for the material. When I am studying/reviewing a subject, I feel like I am ‘familiar’ with the information already so it is not overwhelming, (because I had reviewed the question reviews and practice tests). Hope this makes sense. Thank you.
By Don Rawlinson WA7VNQ August 4, 2016 - 12:14
First, congrats to all who have taken the practice exams and have been able to get their tickets. Great way to prepare (cram) for the final.
Only one concern I have, and I guess this is for Richard to respond to. How important is it that the student come to understand the theory behind the answer? Some of it can come from reading the question but not all. I think test question answers should be an indicator that the student actually understands the background, whether it be radio theory, rules and regulations, or operating procedures. I see in some new hams that they so often do not understand some of this before going on the air. Maybe a more emphasis in our classes on this aspect of “studying” for the exam. In summary, all you need to know is the answer to the question to pass, but knowledge of the background will make anyone a much better operator. Off my soapbox now. Thanks.
By kd7bbc August 4, 2016 - 12:27
You raise some very good points, and ones that I don’t feel are easy to answer. The easy answer, of course, would be to suggest that if you think the current questions don’t do a good enough job of ensuring that applicants “know their stuff” after taking an exam then you should probably take that up with the Question Pool Committee who maintain the pools. You can do that here: http://www.ncvec.org/page.php?id=333
What it really sounds like you’re asking, though, is more a philosophical question, and as you’re asking my opinion I’ll answer as best I can =] Honestly, I’m a bit torn. I have seen two extremes: I have seen people who are very technically oriented who want to understand things and get burned out by trying to understand everything and never even take the exam, and I’ve seen people who studied for (literally) 45 minutes and passed their tech and then *never used it*.
Personally, I had probably a middle-range understanding when I passed my exam, but I feel I learned far more far quickly when I was actually using the radio and learning from other hams then I ever did while studying; thus I think there is a lot of value to the idea that you should just get your license and then “learn by doing”. On the other hand, if you just get your license and then never learn then that’s obviously not particularly helpful to anyone and in some (rare in my area fortunately) cases leads to people misusing the hobby and operating illegally.
When it comes down to it, though, the official position of HamStudy.org is that this is a decision that all hams (and potential hams) should make for themselves. Regardless of how you choose to study, hamstudy.org aims to help you with preparing for the actual exam. HamStudy.org does not attempt to be a “teaching” website, it is instead a “exam preparation” website. There are multiple reasons for this, but the biggest one is simply that I’m a far better software engineer than I am a teacher of amateur radio fundamentals, and particularly when I started there was a significant lack of actual study tools available. After a lot of years being a VE and watching people fail the exams because they’d “never seen half the questions on that exam” I decided to try to do something about it and I created tools that are geared towards actual studying, not just taking practice exams.
That said, I highly recommend that all applicants pair their use of HamStudy.org with another study resource — be that a book, youtube videos, an elmer, a local (or online) ham radio club, or whatever else works for you. However you do it, we’ll be here doing what we can to help people actually study for the exam portion. I’d love to add more “learning oriented” tools as well, but so far I’m playing to my strengths and sticking with software =] If you or someone else wants to tackle the problem of better training that would be awesome, but it’s just more than I can do so I’m solving the problems I can first =]
Hope that answers your question and 73,
By Don Rawlinson August 4, 2016 - 14:16
Thanks for your response, Richard. In reality I guess no matter what we do there always has been and always will be “good” and “not so good” operators. I am happy after all is considered with the growth in our area, especially among the youth. Brings and interesting variety to our hobby. Thanks again.
By Johnny Mac April 14, 2017 - 10:11
I know this has thread has been dormant for a while but wanted to pass on my experience. I did exactly what the article said not to do. Although I went through the entire pool once, I took many, many practice tests as a primer to my real test. I was passing the practice tests in the mid 90’s and although I did pass both element 1 & 3, there were a few questions that I don’t recall ever seeing and I didn’t ace the test by any means. That being said, I appreciate the time and effort put into this site and recommend it to anyone looking for a study guide.
By kd7bbc April 14, 2017 - 15:37
Please note that I’m not saying that just taking practice tests over and over won’t eventually work, just that it’s an incredibly inefficient use of time compared to a targeted study method =]
The important thing is that you passed your test, got your license, and are now enjoying the hobby =] Well done!
By Robert Gabriel May 1, 2017 - 22:23
I just passed my general and felt very proud in doing so. The hamstudy.org site helped me out tremendously. I’m looking forward to the extra class ticket. Thank you very much……
By Chris Shoff September 3, 2017 - 00:03
My younger (by 2 1/2 years) brother has had his license since the early ’90’s. I finally made the decision to get mine. I searched, “How to get an amateur radio license” and hamstudy.org was one of the results. I looked at several other options, but decided to try this one. Man, am I ever glad I did, too!
I studied the Technician material, primarily flash cards, for one to two hours per day for about eight days. I studied the General material for maybe three days. I aced the Technician exam and, even though I had only covered about 40% of the General material, I had the luck of the draw on the exam… and passed with 80%. I got lucky that that specific test version had enough material that I recognized, and enough more to which I could make educated/semi-educated guesses, that I was able to pass it. However, if it hadn’t been for your site, I wouldn’t have been able to do so well.
I love your flash card format. If I got the answer wrong, I could immediately click on the info icon to get at least a basic explanation of the correct answer. Even if I didn’t understand it, it gave me enough info to do a search and try to find more info on the subject. So, not only did your study guides allow me to pass the test, I also learned quite a bit in the process. Since starting this journey, I haven’t yet seen anything that compares to what you have offered to the world here… and for FREE.
Please keep up the excellent work. You (collectively) were a godsend for my exam prep. I would, and will, recommend you to anyone who asks. And maybe even some that don’t (haha). I will soon be donating to support this wonderful gift to the world of amateur radio. I don’t want to see this site go away.
May you always be well.
By kd7bbc September 6, 2017 - 12:36
Thanks for the note, Chris! We’re glad we could help!
By Chris Shoff September 14, 2017 - 10:41
UPDATE: on 11 SEP 2017, I received my call sign – KM6MPV. Thank you, again, for all help this site gave me in making this happen.
By chet June 1, 2021 - 15:02
I purchased a study guide to help me with the technician license. I just hope now, after reading this that I have made the right call. I think practice exams are a good tool to see how much you have learned. Using them for simple memorization would not do a person much good where the rubber meets the road.
By kd7bbc June 2, 2021 - 13:39
Everyone learns a bit differently; I know people who have literally memorized every question in order to pass and gone on to become valued members of the community — learning by doing and with the help of others around them, using what they memorized to know enough basics to go back and look it up. I also know people who slaved and studied for months to learn all the theory, then passed the exam, and then never really did anything with it. I know others who were in between as well, of course =]
My philosophy at HamStudy is that I don’t care how you decide to study, but I do recommend whatever you do — do it smart. The point of the post was not that practice exams aren’t useful (they are!) but rather that no matter how you study, practice exams are far more effective as a benchmark than as a study tool.
If you study with a guide then great! Take the exam and use it to see what areas you need to study more, then go back and study from your book. With our study mode similarly. Personally I recommend a combination — study from your guide, then use our study mode on the sections that you just read up on, then move on and repeat. When you feel like you’re getting closer take practice exams to see how close you are.
The point is just to use the right tool for the job, and practice exams are a benchmark not a study tool =]