How to Pass the PSM Exam
By Nader K. Rad
Let’s have a quick review first:
- Provider: scrum.org
- Number of questions: 80
- Duration: 1 hour
- Type of questions: multiple choice (with one or more correct answers) and true/false
- Passing Score: 85% (yes, it’s really high)
- Open book: yes
- Price: $150
- Prerequisite: none
- Needs renewal: no
Now let’s have a closer look…
Is the PSM I certification worth investing?
Yes, it’s highly valued by the community, and rather inexpensive to get. In my opinion, it’s the best certification for Scrum.
Pros of the PSM I exam
- Questions are really high quality, unlike some other exams where, for example, with questions that don’t make real sense, or don’t have any completely correct answer to choose from.
- It’s not as expensive as some other certifications: you don’t have to take accredited courses, and self-study is accepted. Overall, it can be one of the least expensive certifications you can aim for -if cost is an important factor for you.
- You learn something really valuable when you try to pass this exam, unlike some other certifications that only force you to memorize a large bunch of unrelated topics.
Cons of the PSM I exam
- It’s hard to pass; 85% passing score is really high.
- There’s no single resource that covers 100% of the things you need to know for the exam. So, you’ll have to study many books, and still, you won’t be sure if you know everything.
- There are not many eLearning courses dedicated to this exam.
How to prepare for and pass the PSM I exam
The best way to pass the PSM I exam, is to learn the Scrum framework very well and understand it deeply. Memorizing doesn’t help. Having a deep understanding helps you answer questions you’ve never seen before. So, if you see “xyz should be abc”, ask yourself why; ask what happens if it’s not that way; ask yourself how this rule is connected to all other rules, and how they create a concrete whole.
You don’t need to reach mastery before taking your exam. Study enough, get motivation by passing the exam and getting certified, and then continue learning. Consider the certification as a milestone that shows you’ve successfully passed 20% to 30% of the way.
This is what I suggest for learning and passing the exam:
- Overall understanding: if you’re not familiar enough with Scrum, start learning about it using simple material available on the net. Use YouTube, this free set of Scrum training videos, the Scrum and XP from the Trenches ebook (free), Scrum Awareness, One Step a Day email course (free), etc. Just remember that some of the things you learn like this might not be 100% compatible with the PSM I exam. Just use this step to gain an overall understanding.
- Refining the knowledge: now it’s time to refine what you’ve learned. I suggest this:
- Download the Scrum Guide (free) and read it very carefully. You should understand the reason behind every sentence; it’s not about memorizing. If you can’t understand something, check it in the Scrum.org Forums, and ask your question if you can’t find the answer in the existing topics. You can usually receive precise answers from the regulars there.
- Prepare a set of flashcards on Scrum responsibilities. It’s important to do it yourself, instead of downloading it from somewhere. Use the Scrum Guide, and the content in Scrum.org Forums for this. I usually suggest this step, because more than 60% of the exam questions relate to roles and responsibilities. Keep reviewing the cards on your mobile phone a few times a day, and keep adding new cards when you learn more. Try to rationalize for all answers instead of memorizing. My favorite software for managing flashcards is Anki, and there are versions for various operating systems including mobile phones.
- Check out the list of books recommended by Scrum.org for the PSM I exam. You don’t have to read all of them; just pick a few that seem more interesting to you and start learning from them.
- (optional) Use an eLearning course (e.g., the PSM I eLearning course from Management Plaza. Some people prefer to use eLearning courses; be careful to use one that is compatible with PSM I, if you’re planning to.
- Evaluate and fill in the gaps: don’t jump to this step before refining your knowledge. Take your time, and when you feel ready, start evaluating yourself by taking sample questions.
- Use the free Scrum Open assessment for the evaluation. Check your wrong answers with Scrum Guide and Scrum.org Forums and make sure you’ve “learned” from it, instead of memorizing. Repeat the assessment a few times until you’re familiar with all the existing questions (unfortunately, there are not many of them). Some of these questions show up in your actual exam.
- (optional) Use third-party sample exams. Be sure that the sample exam is designed for the PSM I exam; for example, The PSM Sample Exams.
Tips and tricks for passing the PSM I exam
- Be careful with the words: sometimes you don’t pay enough attention to some of the words, and answer the simplest of questions incorrectly. Always read the question carefully, word by word. Also make sure you’ve read all the answer before choosing the desired one. Let me give you some examples:
- Be careful with questions containing the word “NOT”: some questions ask, for example, “which of the following is NOT a characteristic of…”, and many people forget about the “NOT”, and pick the wrong answer. You won’t believe how common this is; so, be careful not to miss this keyword.
- Be careful with multiple answer questions: some questions ask you to choose multiple answers, and some people just don’t pay enough attention and pick one answer. All multiple answer questions use check-boxes instead of radio-buttons; get used to paying attention to this to double check. It’s a good idea to spend a few minutes at the end of the exam, going through all the questions and only checking to see if you’ve picked multiple answers where you needed to.
- Be careful with “should vs. could”: e.g., the sentence “Product Owner could attend the Daily Scrum” is true, while the sentence “Product Owner should attend the Daily Scrum” is false. It’s not complicated, and you surely understand it; just make sure you still pay attention to it under the exam pressure.
- Be careful with “attend vs. participate”: e.g., the sentence “Product Owner can attend the Daily Scrum” is true, while the sentence “Product Owner can participate in the Daily Scrum” is false.
- Forget your sinful past! If you have experience using Scrum, chances are high you’re not doing it perfectly. Scrum.org asks you many questions about the common wrong behaviors in Scrum projects, and that’s why you should use your knowledge instead of what you’ve seen in the projects. The following are some examples:
- There’s no Sprint zero; also no hardening Sprint, integration Sprint, release Sprint, planning Sprint, etc. All Sprints are the same.
- Only the developers participate in the Daily Scrums.
- There are no baselines in Scrum.
- There’s always only one Product Backlog and one Product Owner, no matter how many teams are working on the project.
- There are no roles other than those three standard ones, and none of them manage the rest.
- Be brave! Yes, you know that, for example, the team should be self-organized. But to what degree? For example, who should decide to exclude a developer from the team? The team itself, the Product Owner or Scrum Master, the hiring manager, another manager in the company? Trust what you’ve learned: the team should be self-organized, and this is only limited by the authorities given to the Product Owner and Scrum Master in the framework.
- Don’t use miscellaneous sample Scrum questions: many of those questions are designed for other exams such as PMI-ACP and CSM, and they are not necessarily compatible with PSM I. If you want to use sample questions, only use those specifically designed for supporting the PSM I exam.
- Be focused: being focused on the exam is probably as important as studying for it. How can you do this? It depends on you. If drinking coffee makes you nervous, don’t drink it; if you’re a coffee addict like me, drink it a lot; take the exam in your prime time (e.g., not in the morning when you’re not a morning person); take it in a quite place; eat appropriately before the exam; etc.
- Manage your time: many people find the 60 minute duration enough for the exam, while some candidates cannot spend enough time on all questions. Spend your time appropriately on questions; e.g., instead of stressing yourself and spending a lot of time on a few hard questions at the beginning of the exam, just mark them for the end and spend your energy and time on what you can do best.
- Answer all questions: there’s no penalty for wrong answers. Just answer everything.
- Use at least two rounds: it’s much better if you review your answers at least once. You need to manage your time accordingly.
- Don’t worry about changing your answers: many people keep saying you shouldn’t change your answers unless you’re really sure, and that your first answer is usually right. This is a myth, and proven wrong by scientific research. This “feeling” is caused by a cognitive bias, and you can safely change your answers as you like, based on your reasoning instead of your guts. Just remember to manage your time properly.
- Look it up when needed: the exam is open book, remember? Finding the right answer to some questions is really time consuming, while if there’s a question like “what’s the duration of Sprint Retrospective in a one-month Sprint?”, and for some reason, you’re not sure if you remember it correctly, just look it up!
- Don’t panic: the last thing you need is to panic. There’s a famous advice for musicians: practice as if you’re performing, and perform as if you’re practicing. Don’t think about the result in the middle of the exam, and don’t think about how many questions you’ve probably missed; just focus on one question at the time, and do your best. And by the way, if you are disconnected in the middle of the exam, you can just go to the exam page and continue. It has happened to me when I was taking my exam! I lost 15 minutes trying to solve my internet connection problem, but at least I could continue afterwards and pass the exam. Don’t worry about anything during the exam.
- CSM, far more expensive, much easier to pass
- ASF, covers more generic aspects of Agile besides Scrum, a little more expensive, easier to pass, covers practices and techniques
- PMI-ACP, covers more generic aspects of Agile besides Scrum, far more expensive
- AgilePM, focused on the DSDM methodology instead of Scrum, more expensive
- PRINCE2 Agile, covers more generic aspects of Agile besides Scrum, more expensive