Understanding the PMP Question Writing Process

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When you hear the words “PMP Exam,” maybe you feel some apprehension and anxiety. This is normal, and an effective way to reduce this anxiety is through learning about the exam goals and approach. Information is power, and it never hurts to be more aware of the process before taking the exam.

The Credential vs. the Exam

Obtaining the PMP credential requires more than just passing an exam. It also involves an assessment of education, project management experience and validation of project management education/training.

Discussing the relative merit of the PMP or the application process is outside the scope of this article. Anyone interested in learning more about the credential in general, is advised to see the PMI website. Instead, we will focus on PMP exam questions for those interested in taking the exam.

We will investigate how PMP exam questions are created and referenced to existing resources. Understanding the process can help anyone studying for the exam learn smarter and reduce stress – which can be a performance inhibitor.

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Where do PMP Questions Come From?

The PMP exam tests the application of generally accepted project management knowledge and skills. So, to create valuable questions, PMI needs to understand the generally accepted knowledge and skills in use by project managers.  This is achieved by a Role Delineation Study (RDS), a survey of practicing project managers that asks them to list the tools, techniques, knowledge and skills needed to complete their jobs effectively. 

Based on the research and questionnaire findings of the Role Delineation Study, an Exam Content Outline (ECO) of approved topics is created. This filtering of possible exam topics is shown below.

RDS Process

Question writers (known as item writers) write questions based only on the topics in the Exam Content Outline. Additionally, each question has to be linked to two reference publications to help verify it is based on agreed practice rather than the interpretation of the item writer.

So, item writers use the Exam Content Outline as a list of topics and reference publications as the source of truth to create questions for the exam. It is worth noting that each reference publication typically contains coverage of topics outside of the exam content outline that will not be featured in the exam. Instead, only content related to the exam content outline can have questions based on it. This complete process is depicted below:

ECO Process
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Why This is Useful

Like when running a project, understanding what is in and out of scope is critical for success.  If a topic is not in the Exam Content Outline, you do not need to study it.  It might still be helpful and valuable to you as a project manager, but it will not be in the exam.

This whole selection process was last completed in 2020. Project management professionals were surveyed about the practices and skills they use. The latest PMP Exam Content Outline defines the exam scope from 2021 onwards.

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What PMP Questions Test (and What They Do Not)

The science of instructional design often references ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ as a framework to describe the levels of thinking and comprehension involved when learning new material. Like many established theories, some researchers criticized it as limited or outdated, but it is still widely used.

Bloom’s taxonomy describes a hierarchy that starts from a base of simple recall and progresses through layers of understanding and application until people can create new approaches based on the underlying ideas.

Blooms taxonomy 1

Everybody goes through these stages as part of learning and being able to use new skills. The stages can be divided into two main categories:

  • Recall
  • Application
Bloom levels

Effective exams have a combination of Recall and Application type questions, with a preference for the Application of knowledge. An example of a question that tests recall only would be:

A communications management plan is a document that includes descriptions of:

  1. Project-level performance reports
  2. Activity-level status reports
  3. Stakeholder interaction requirements
  4. Responsibility assignments

 

Correct answer: 3. Here, we just need to recall that a communications management plan contains information about stakeholder interaction requirements. However, the PMP exam uses predominantly application-type questions that first outline a scenario and then present a question. These elevate the question from Recall to Application. For example: 

Your team planned to complete six stories in the current iteration. But as you reach the end of the iteration, only four of them are done. What should you do?

  1. Return the remaining stories to the backlog for re-planning
  2. Ask the product owner to extend the iteration
  3. Work on the remaining stories when you can fit them in
  4. Schedule the remaining stories at the start of the next iteration

 

Correct answer: 1. In this example, we have to first interpret the scenario by analyzing the situation and then evaluate the best response. It tests for more than just recall of facts or concepts; instead, it requires us to apply an understanding of timeboxes and backlog prioritization.

The goal of question writing is to test candidates’ application of knowledge, not just recall. For this reason, most questions in the PMP exam are situational. This means they present a scenario and question and then ask for the best response for that situation. These questions test a candidate at the ‘Apply’ and ‘Analyze’ levels of Bloom’s taxonomy by requiring them to use their knowledge in the scenario setting and make connections between topics.

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It's Not So Bad, You've Got This

Exams can be stressful, so it is natural to avoid thinking about them too much. However, understanding some of the design principles behind the exam can help to calm our nerves.

The exam topics come from Role Delineation Studies of real practitioners, not sadistic academics. The whole scope is defined in the Exam Content Outline and does not encompass every project management technique available. Questions are based on scenarios to make sure we understand and can apply the concepts, not to confuse us with long-winded stories.

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Like switching the light on to illuminate the source of a scary noise at night, more information usually reveals less for us to fear rather than the monster we had been dreading. Learning about the PMP exam structure explains the question format and sources, giving us one less thing to worry about.

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