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Change Is Coming to the Civil PE Exams!
by Dr. Tom Brown, PE
Civil Computer-Based Testing – This Changes Everything!
It is now official – the five Civil PE Exams are scheduled to convert to the year-round Computer-Based Testing (CBT) format starting in 2023. This change in the testing method for the PE Exam has huge consequences 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.
Here’s the bottom line up front – Civil Engineers, take the Pencil-and-Paper exam before it’s too late.
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 is converted in 2019, with the Mechanical following in 2020 and Civil in 2023 (https://ncees.org/exams/cbt/).
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 Civil Reference Handbook is not yet available, but if the Mechanical handbook is any reference, it’s going to be lengthy. The PE Mechanical Reference Handbook is over 500 pages. With five disciplines in Civil, I anticipate that the Civil Handbook will be even longer. 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.
It is clear to me that the most viable response to this change is to take the PE Exam before this transition takes place. That means only a handful more exam-taking opportunities. Change is indeed coming.
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 PE Civil Reference Handbook is not yet available, but if the Mechanical handbook is any reference, it’s going to be lengthy. The PE Mechanical Reference Handbook is over 500 pages. With five disciplines in Civil, I anticipate that the Civil Handbook will be even longer. The thought of getting to be familiar with hundreds of pages of information is daunting, to say the least. Also, having looked through the Mechanical 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.
With the old format, which is now referred to as a Pencil-and-Paper exam, the process of assembling the reference materials to take into the exam was a vital part of your preparation. Deciding what to take and preparing your references for easy access to information, required much thought, resulting in better retention of that information. I have seen this consistently in many years helping engineers to pass the PE Exam. The more effort our students put into preparing and organizing their references, the better they do on the exam. Beyond the exam, the materials you generate in preparing for the PE Exam are also materials you can use once you become a licensed professional engineer. It is unfortunate that the CBT format will make that effort obsolete. No longer will you be able to enter the exam with the sense of confidence and accomplishment that you had collected, created and brought to the exam the materials that you needed to succeed, and leave with a wealth of materials you can use in your life as a PE. I’m afraid that, instead, there will now be merely a sense of just surviving the CBT exam experience.
There is clearly an advantage in preparing for the PE Exam with materials you gather and create yourself, as well as great reward in passing the PE Exam knowing you were the one who compiled the reference materials. And for these reasons alone, my advice is to take and pass the PE exam now, before the change takes place!
The CBT Exam Experience Versus the Pencil-and-Paper Exam Experience
Understanding the difference in the experience of taking a CBT PE Exam and taking a Pencil-and-Paper PE Exam 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.
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. Currently, when the NCEES administers the Pencil-and-Paper PE Exams, everyone in the country takes the exact same exam in their discipline. Yes, the questions for one exam cycle will be different from another, but everyone is 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.
If that doesn’t make you nervous enough, then watch the NCEES YouTube video showing what will happen when you arrive at a Pearson VUE Testing Center to take your exam. The sight of someone having to pull out all the pockets of their pants and do a 360º turn in front of the administrative assistant is a bit disconcerting. The assistant is smiling, but the adversarial nature of the things you are required to do is unnerving, to say the least. 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 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.
In contrast, for a Pencil-and-Paper exam, you arrive along with hundreds of other people and are shown to a large table in a very large open auditorium where you can begin to set up all the references you have brought. Yes, no cell phones or computers, but you can have just about anything else including food and drink, though at some locations these are restricted. In the CBT cubicle, you can’t even chew gum. In the pencil and paper environment, there is an air of excitement and expectation, that you are part of a bigger world. Yes, you are sitting in a pre-assigned seat and someone asks for your ID, but that is it. You sit waiting for the exam to begin among a great many others with the same ambition of becoming a PE. Instructions are read to you by a person at the front of the room, usually at a podium. A team of proctors circulates, helping people get settled. Professional, but very friendly. During the exam, if you have to use the restroom, you simply raise your hand. Once the Pencil-and-Paper exam starts, there is a big clock on the wall and periodically the time remaining will be announced. Again, none of the intimidation generated by the CBT format.
Those are my impressions of the two vastly different exam experiences, and the Pencil-and-Paper exam wins hands down in my book. I can tell you that without a doubt I would not be looking forward to taking the exam under CBT format conditions. I would like to think that it would not affect the outcome, however, I am sure my stress level would be maxed out during the entire experience. If the CBT experience does not appeal to you, then your only option is to take the Pencil-and-Paper PE exam now and pass!
Allowable Items – CBT Exam versus Pencil-and-Paper 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.
As for the current Pencil-and-Paper format, yes, you need an official ID, and you are not allowed any electronic devices including cell phones, computers, fitness trackers, or smartwatches (wristwatches are okay). However, you will have your personalized reference materials and approved calculator (and spare if you like), and you can bring in two straightedges (such as a ruler, scale, triangle, or protractor) and handheld magnifying glass. You can even have snacks (hard candies, candy bars, and even gum which is restricted in the CBT facility) and nonalcoholic beverages.
You can essentially set up a home away from home for the duration of the exam. I remember having a bag with morning goodies to eat and drink and then a separate bag for the afternoon. I know the chocolate yogurt flavored raisins I consumed during the afternoon portion of the exam were a key to my success. Not a chance having those in a Pearson VUE testing center, except during your timed 50-minute lunch break.
If you like “rules”, then you are going to love the new CBT format. If not, then if you don’t take and pass the Civil PE Exam before the conversion, you will have no choice but to comply with a great many rules.
Time Allotment – CBT Exam versus Pencil-and-Paper 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 how meeting the challenge of time management differs on the CBT PE Exam and the Pencil-and-Paper PE Exam.
Let’s start with the current Pencil-and-Paper exams, which are 8 hours total divided into two 4-hour sessions with and an official 1-hour break in between. You have exactly 40 questions to answer in the first 4 hours and exactly 40 questions in the second 4 hours. There is a big clock on the wall and periodically the time remaining will be announced. Time is called after each of these sessions, and all work is to be stopped. Time management is handled by the NCEES representatives, leaving your mind free to concentrate on the exam. You certainly need to pace yourself and make sure not to get stuck on tricky problems, but one nice thing about this format is that there is no chance that you will take more time on the first 40 questions and then not have enough time for the second 40 questions.
Now let’s look at the CBT 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. Another thing to worry about during the exam. Civil Engineers, the only way to avoid the extra pressure of time management associated with the CBT exam format is to take and pass the Civil PE Exam before the conversion. Once the last Pencil-and-Paper exam is administered, you’ll be stuck with CBT.
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.
While these changes allow for a whole host of new type problems, not being familiar with how these are to work could be troublesome. For example, will spelling be a problem with fill-in-the-blank questions? Spelling was never my strong suit. Will 23,000 and 23000 both be acceptable?
Currently, the Pencil-and-Paper PE Exams are all multiple choice with four possible answers – a very familiar format that we have come to expect in these type exams, and one that presents no unknown factors to provoke additional anxiety. Just another reason for Civil Engineers to take the Civil PE Exam before the Pencil-and-Paper exam is no longer an option.
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 Pencil-and-Paper exam, on the other hand, is only offered twice a year on specific dates in April and October at a limited number of locations, and it takes a month or more to get your results. So if you don’t pass, you have to wait at least six months to take the exam again. But when you think about it, the CBT exam only gets you one extra try per year (three vs. two).
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 find the personal strength to 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. In my analysis, the advantages of the Pencil-and-Paper exam, which I’ve outlined above, far outweigh anything you would gain in flexibility from the CBT exam. My advice is to make the commitment now to take the PE Exam before the change to CBT takes place. The knowledge that your opportunities to take the exam in the current format are limited might very well be the motivation that gets you a Pass!
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