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Change Is Here: The CBT Format Mechanical PE Exams

by Dr. Tom Brown, PE

Mechanical Computer-Based Testing – This Changes Everything!

The three Mechanical PE Exams are now to be offered only in the year-round Computer-Based Testing (CBT) format starting in April of 2020. This change in the testing method for the PE Exam presents a new challenge for anyone taking the exam. To help you understand how this will affect you, I will be outlining the implications of the CBT exam and giving you my advice regarding this change.

NCEES first introduced Computer-Based Testing (CBT) for the FE Exams in January 2014, and the Chemical PE Exam converted to the CBT format in 2018. The Environmental PE Exam converted in 2019, with the Mechanical following in 2020 and Civil to follow in 2023 (https://ncees.org/exams/cbt/).

The official NCEES Reference Handbook for the Mechanical CBT exam is now available for download from NCEES in PDF format. You’ll need to create an NCEES account to access it. With the introduction of this new Reference Handbook, there is also the possibility that there could be changes in the exam specifications, although we have not seen those yet.

The most significant consequence of the CBT exam format for examinees of the PE Exam is that no personal reference materials will be allowed into the exam facility. The only reference that will be available to you during the exam is a searchable PDF of the Reference Handbook, sharing half the 24-inch computer screen with the PE Exam itself. The PE Mechanical Reference Handbook is over 500 pages, with 200 pages for Machine Design & Materials topics, 275 pages for Thermal & Fluids Systems, and 385 pages for HVAC & Refrigeration. Let that sink in. Think about how that limits your ability to prepare for this exam and what it means to have only one, generic, on-screen reference to help you solve problems during the exam.

Change is indeed here, and I will be addressing the specifics and consequences of those changes in future posts, but from what I can discern, the new format is going to present you with an exam experience that is more challenging and one for which carefully preparing and choosing your exam references will no longer give you an advantage. A new approach is needed, and that is exactly what my team and I have been developing for some time. 

CBT Means No Personal References During Exam

In the long history of the PE Exam, you could bring almost any personal reference to the exam facility. I remember when I took the exam many, many years ago, a fellow examinee rolled in with a steamer trunk full of books. In the face of that long-standing tradition, the upcoming transition to the CBT format is very disconcerting indeed. In this new format, you will not be allowed to take a single reference to the exam with you. Not one! 

Instead, you will be presented with a searchable PDF of the NCEES Reference Handbook, sharing half of the 24-inch computer screen with the PE Exam itself. The official NCEES Reference Handbook for the Mechanical CBT exam is now available for download from NCEES in PDF format. You’ll need to create an NCEES account to access it. The PE Mechanical Reference Handbook is just over 500 pages, with 200 pages for Machine Design & Materials, 275 pages for Thermal & Fluids Systems, and 385 pages for HVAC & Refrigeration. 

The thought of getting to be familiar with hundreds of pages of information is daunting, to say the least. Also, having looked through this handbook since its release, I’ve found that, while some of the material provided in it is excellent and even a great improvement over other references, there are many serious gaps. And the Handbook preface clearly states that, while the handbook contains material that may be helpful in answering questions on the exam, “it does not contain all information required to answer every question; theories, conversions, formulas, and definitions that examinees are expected to know have not been included.” Let that sink in.

It is clear that one of the keys to success on with this exam format will be familiarity with this handbook and the ability to quickly search and find what you need with ease. With that in mind, I have made that familiarization a priority in our new courses, giving you tools to facilitate your ability to use the Reference Handbook and lots of practice using it.

Another key to success will be addressing the many gaps that exist in the Reference Handbook. You are going to need to rely on your memory more than ever with this exam. The old Dr. Tom Method used the process of assembling the reference materials to improve the retention of the information learned. The more effort our students put into preparing and organizing their references, the better they did on the exam. I have seen this consistently in many years helping engineers to pass the PE Exam. As the CBT format essentially makes that effort obsolete, I have had to devise another method to help cement these concepts into your memory so that they are ready for you to recall on the exam. The new method also requires a good deal of effort on your part but will give you a distinct advantage on exam day. 

The CBT Exam Experience

Knowing in advance what the experience of taking a CBT PE Exam will be like is an important consideration, because, for many people what keeps them from passing is the nervousness generated by the exam experience itself and not their lack of understanding or ability to solve problems. There’s a lot about the CBT exam experience to create anxiety, but let’s see if we can attack it head-on and develop a strategy for minimizing the impact. 

One key change in the exam experience is that the CBT format uses what is called Linear On The Fly (LOTF) testing, meaning that each examinee will get a different exam. Previously, when the NCEES administered the Pencil-and-Paper PE Exams, everyone in the country took the exact same exam in their discipline. Yes, the questions for one exam cycle would be different from another, but everyone was facing the same changes each time. However, with the CBT exam, you might get a lot of questions in an area you are not very familiar with and the person beside you, or one who comes in another day, gets just the right number of questions in the areas they are familiar and very few in their weak areas. This sets up a much bigger “roll of the dice” factor, and I have a “minimum of high regard” for that philosophy of testing. It will, however, be the case for the CBT format. Knowing this in advance, you can prepare yourself for the possibility that you may get an unlucky roll, and realize if your first attempt trips you up, it doesn’t mean you’re destined not to pass. On another attempt, the dice might fall your way.

There have always been rules about what you can and cannot bring into the PE Exam, but the CBT format takes that to a new level. You need to be prepared to run the gauntlet calmly. To familiarize yourself with that experience, I recommend that you watch the NCEES YouTube video showing what happens when you arrive at a Pearson VUE Testing Center to take your exam. First, you read the rules, show an approved ID, provide a digital signature, have your picture taken, and then provide a palm vein scan. You are told to pull out all the pockets of their pants, do a 360º turn in front of the administrative assistant, put everything but the few allowable items into a locker. Next, another ID check and palm vein scan, and you are given your work pad and pen and escorted to the testing room door where you are to read, yet again, the rules. You are then escorted into the small testing room and the cubicle where you will spend the next eight hours taking the exam, carefully watched by a proctor over security cameras. At your cubicle, you watch a short tutorial on how to proceed with the CBT exam, then the clock starts and will literally count down the seconds until your time is over. You can take breaks (palm vein scan going out and coming back), and you are intensely watched so that if you access your locker you don’t violate one of the rules. There are numerous security procedures that you must follow precisely or your exam will be invalidated. You can learn more about the new CBT experience from a series of NCEES videos. 

My impression of taking the exam under CBT format conditions is that it is a very solitary and isolating experience. For some that may be a comfortable environment; for others, it could be very intimidating. My advice is to replicate that environment as much as you can as you prepare for the exam and to visualize yourself taking the exam under these conditions. A sense of familiarity with the exam environment is your best defense against nerves on exam day.

Allowable Items on the CBT Exam

The downloadable NCEES Examinee Guide contains information for the both the CBT and Pencil-and-Paper exams, including a list of what items you are allowed to have during the exam. For the CBT exam, this list of allowed items is very limited. 

The following items are allowed: official ID, one approved calculator without cover (spare must be in a locker), a key to the locker, booklet and marker supplied by Pearson VUE, eyeglasses without the case, light sweater or jacket, and approved medications. You will be given a pad and a special pen to do all your calculations, which will stay in the exam facility when you have completed the exam. You may ask for additional pads or pens during the exam. That is it. 

Then there is the long list of items not allowed. Cell phones and computers, of course, fitness trackers, pagers, watches, wallets, purses, hats and other head coverings (unless religious in nature), bags, coats, books, notes, pens, pencils, erasers, food, and beverages.

Please note that books and notes are included in the list of banned items. That means no references whatsoever. Your only reference during the exam is limited to the provided NCEES Reference Handbook PDF shown on your computer screen. 

Time Allotment on the CBT Exam

Time management is troublesome for all of us, especially on tests, and particularly on a test as important to one’s future as the PE Exam. So it’s worth taking a look at the challenge of time management on the CBT PE Exam. 

It is not official, however, it can probably be assumed that the time allotment for the CBT versions of the Mechanical and Civil PE Exams will be the same as the current CBT Chemical PE Exam. The time you have remaining is shown on the screen and continues to count down as you work through the exam. The total time is 9 hours, broken down as follows:

  • 2 minutes to read and sign the Nondisclosure Agreement. If you don’t sign, it is over.
  • 8 minutes for an online tutorial on how to navigate the exam screen.
  • 8 hours for the exam.
  • 50 minutes for a lunch break, where you decide when to take the break. You will want to take this break after 4 hours where hopefully you have had a chance to answer half of the 80 questions. If you don’t take a break, you lose the 50 minutes; it does not add to your time. If you spend more than 50 minutes on your break, the exam time clock re-starts after the 50 minutes. At the end of 8 hours to the second, the exam is over.

With the CBT format, you must be vigilant in your time management, because you have to decide when you take the break and you have to make sure you allow enough time to get to all 80 questions.

CBT Brings New Types of Questions

New question types will be introduced with the new CBT exam format. The new CBT exams will not only have the traditional multiple-choice questions but four additional question types. They are referred to by the NCEES as AITs, Alternative Item Types. The four new question types include: 

  • Multiple correct options – allows multiple choices to be correct and can have more than the usual four possible answers
  • Point and click –  click on part of a graphic to answer
  • Drag and drop – click on and drag items to match, sort, rank, or label
  • Fill in the blank – space provided to type a response to the question.  

It’s a good idea to become familiar with these new questions types. The 2016 NCEES Practice Exam does not include any of these types of questions, but we will be including some of these in our courses. 

CBT – Greater Flexibility, but Is It Really an Advantage?

Flexibility is definitely one of the things that is appealing to some people about the change to the CBT format. With CBT exams, you can take the exam year-round, at multiple locations, on a date you schedule, and you can get your results in 8 to 10 days. You can also take the exam up to three times in a 12-month period, with some additional restrictions within that period (only one time within one of four 3-month windows: January – March, April – June, July – September, and October – December). So if you don’t pass, you could potentially take the exam again in as little as two weeks. 

The flexibility of the CBT exam certainly makes it easier for you to fit the exam into your schedule and to keep taking more swings at it in a shorter period of time. But are these really advantages? Passing the PE Exam requires more than just taking a whack at it until you pass. It requires a serious commitment to the task of mastering the knowledge and skills required to pass. Human nature being what it is, having the specific date of the Pencil-and-Paper exam means you must make a commitment knowing there is no turning back. Not so with the CBT exam. Human nature works against you there. It will be easy to put off taking the exam, letting all manner of life events keep you from taking it. Even if you pick a day, you can easily change it, and if something happens on the morning of the exam, it is easy to reschedule. The value of that flexibility can evaporate into thin air if you never actually make the commitment and stick to it. 

The PE Exam is not a doctor’s appointment to be wedged into your hectic schedule. It is a major life event that will have serious implications for your future, and it should be treated as such. My advice is to make a personal commitment to a specific date to take the PE Exam and stick with it. Begin your preparation with that exam date in mind and work steadily through your review, letting that date motivate you to stay on task. 

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