At my last check, the pass rates for the HRCI exams were somewhere around 50%, meaning that half of the people that show up to take the test fail the exam. I’ve been working with people preparing for their PHR and SPHR exams for nearly eight years, and I’ve been giving similar advice to SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP preppers in the last 12-18 months. For what it’s worth, I have both SPHR and SHRM-SCP credentials. In that time I’ve come to realize that there is one clear reason why people fail the exams, and I’ve seen it proven over and over again. But first, let me use a learning model to help show you where the breakdown is. Below you’ll see Bloom’s Taxonomy, a model that explains the successive levels of learning as someone progresses from “newbie” to expert.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Knowledge

blooms taxonomy learning

This explains the biggest challenge that most of the test prep tools in the marketplace have (even my friends at HRCP). Most of them are designed to move someone up the scale, but the farthest they get is knowledge or even comprehension. In some cases, that may be enough to help someone complete the PHR exam, because it’s heavily based on recall and summarizing existing information.

However, it’s not going to get someone through the SHRM exams or the SPHR, either. In order to be successful there, learners have to move up the ladder toward synthesis of knowledge. At that level, learners must be able to:

  • infer ideas from information
  • imagine outcomes
  • predict decisions and best practices
  • combine separate ideas to create new strategies

If it seems like a lot, it is. And the truth is, that doesn’t happen by reading a book. Theory is great, and understanding the theory and history behind HR is a good thing. However, decisions at work are not based on just on theory–they require more.

And while people are upset when they don’t pass the exam, often claiming “the questions were nothing like what I studied,” the truth is that is probably a good thing for businesses needing HR support that can think for itself, not just recite study preparation materials. On the other hand, I get it–you want to prepare for the exam and not feel like you’re rolling the dice when you sit down in the testing center. So I’m going to teach you the principle that I’ve used to create the PHR/SPHR audio course, the PHR study course, and the SPHR study course, helping hundreds of testers to prepare for their certification exams over the years.

Getting from Theory to Application

When I taught a live study course a few years back, one of the things that I did every night, without fail, was to mention some recent piece of news or information that tied in with course materials. Studying about ethics? Let’s talk about Enron and its ethical failures. Discussing executive compensation? Let’s look at the new Supreme Court Justice nominee’s beliefs on compensation limits for executive leadership. In each opportunity, I would find relevant information to help take the theories and ideas from the materials and make them real for my students.

This is why I have created tools like the audio course, the prep courses, etc. I want to give practical information and stories so people can “get it,” versus just memorizing more text. I learned this the hard way when I got out into the “real world” of HR from college, and that translates here as well. After four years of studying and learning all of these basic principles, I had to go out into the real world and apply them.

I quickly realized that upon leaving college, I was about 10% prepared for what I needed to be successful. The rest would come from hands-on experience and practice, despite spending money, time, and effort on a degree specialized to human resources.

The lesson for you, if you’re preparing for an exam of any kind, is to look for ways to tie the learning back to your real world experience. Or to current news stories. Or to anything that is practical. You need that mental anchor not only to remember the ideas and concepts, but to understand how they are applied. When people ask me about my study resources, that’s the primary thing I explain as a difference between anything else on the market. Every week I talk about real experiences, real stories, and how to apply the concepts in real life. And my students are more successful than the average test taker, so there’s that.

What are your thoughts? Have you taken an exam and failed–what do you think of this advice? For those of you that have passed, what’s your take?

Update 3/1/17: the presale is over, but the course is now available for the public here. The bundle with the SPHR course is here. Audio continues to be added to the course to flesh it out and increase the value. 

One of the most common questions I get from people interested in certification is where to find something they can listen to in the car, on a walk, or even at work. I’ve mentioned before that as busy as I am with kids and work, I really like to listen to podcasts and other audio programs while I’m washing dishes or chaperoning people around town. Today, I’m excited to announce the presale for the new HR certification audio series.

Until now there has only been a minimal selection in the market for audio prep tools, and they are all fairly pricey. I wanted to develop something that would help to improve the HR certification prep experience while still meeting that need for auditory learners. We are launching this in time for people to use it for 2017 exam preparation.

The Details

This program is in presale and officially opens up later this spring. I have been developing it since late 2016 and expect the first version to be available by the end of February. Presale supporters will be the first to gain access to the audio course when it opens. The course will have lessons spanning all areas of HR to help students better understand best practices and have the most up-to-date knowledge of how to leverage those practices for business success. In addition, these courses can be used for recertification credits! If you’re currently certified and want to use the content in these courses for recertification purposes, you can manually add them to your profile to get credit.

Is this just for the PHR or SPHR?

No. I’ve had dozens of students use our other courses to study for the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP exams. I’ve also had some even use it for the aPHR exam with excellent results. The principles explored in this audio study course will be applicable across the spectrum of HR. If you like the kind of work I do here at upstartHR (including the podcast) or if you’re interesting in improving your HR game, this will help you.

What is included? 

The course will initially include audio lessons totaling more than 3 hours of content. This will grow to 5+ hours by June and could eventually reach 10+ hours of training by the fall, depending on the level of interest in the course. It’s my goal for learners to be able to use these audio lessons for reinforcing concepts, examining practical applications, and exploring case studies of HR in action.

What is the format?

The presale will include mp3 audio files so learners can learn anywhere. The official launch later this spring will include a CD option as well. At that time, the course will be offered in either format or as a combined offer to allow learners to study anytime, anywhere. The mp3 files will include lifetime access in the event you need to put off your studies, come back later to refresh, or just want to use them for recertification credits after you pass your exam.

What is the price? 

The presale price has been discounted to allow as many people as possible to access the course. I regularly get questions from people needing tools that don’t cost an arm and a leg to purchase, and these definitely make that cut.

  • Digital mp3 audio course presale price: $47

As a reminder, this price is temporary and will increase after the presale period closes.

Special Presale Bonus Offer: For a short time only, we are bundling this audio with our powerful SPHR course to help people get a jump start on their certification prep. The bundle price is just $127, a savings of more than 10% off the combined set of tools. This offer will not be available after the presale period closes. Click here to get the limited time bundle.

If you have questions, please contact me at and I’ll be glad to answer them. I’m excited about the next evolution of certification preparation support here at upstartHR, where we’ve been helping hundreds of HR professionals like you with certification for more than seven years. If you want to go ahead and get on the list for the limited time presale, click here. If you want the bundle with the SPHR email course, be sure to click here.