Prepping for the BCBA Exam is More Than Content; Memorizing Alone

As another BCBA exam gets close, more folks call me to help reduce exam stress - I might be able to provide. I have a specific and unique test prep framework to offer and have been working with individuals online to towards individualized test preparation.

Whether for the next BCBA exam or one a little further out, I can help you pass your exam. And when I provide ongoing BCBA supervision, test preparation and related development is an active and ongoing aspect of sessions.

Towards specific test preparation, I routinely identify that while strong content knowledge is key, even the most thorough content knowledge may not always be enough. I've worked with a number of folks on test preparation over the years who came knowing the content but still struggled with the exam process.

Certification exams can be tough for their connection to starting or advancing a career; the increased potential for promotions and more responsibility. Having to retake the BCBA exam not only gets expensive but brings still more stress...and the distinctive need to break free of that cycle!

As an exam gets closer, it's not the time to start rereading chapter summaries from the beginning of Cooper, Bailey or others or trying to cover the breadth of content material by way of broader study guides/systems. All that often does is use time in a less efficient manner and make the process seem even more overwhelming.

And more stress is not typically the most effective study strategy!

Instead, specific content areas should become a focus; identifying and targeting specific strengths and weakness across the Task List becomes a key. Test taking skills both, overall and as related to the BCBA exam in particular become pivotal. Above all, study and test preparation must become increasingly differentiated and prescriptive for each test taker. And this is, exactly, what I do....

There are other good mock exams and study systems available. But HOW to use them most effectively based on individual preference and learning/study style remains the key. While the strategy offered up by a given mock exam/study guide developer may work for some, there is always a reasonable chance that those recommendations may not be the most effective for you.

But once paid for, either those other systems help...or they don't...and 'within treatment (within test prep!)' modifications are not typically available. My service includes regularly scheduled live online sessions and my own original materials with each session helping to guide the next. I respond to and differentiate test prep instruction always supporting each person one at a time!

Good exams; good practice exams should be instructional in themselves rather than being focused more on 'right' and 'wrong' content questions followed by going back to memorize the correct response.

Effective test preparation should also help provide a better understanding why specific content questions were answered incorrectly combined with a prioritizing of the test taking process...the non-content areas of effective test taking...and how that has impacted.

The way to do exactly this is in the combination of more intensive test taking practice in order to target non-content strategies while simultaneously practicing selected content. That the BCBA exam presents - as an exam should - questions in a randomized manner rather than in ordered sections makes being able to comfortably shift from topic to topic and across very different areas of content very important.

Whether taking the exam for the first time or if the next one is a retake, here are some points and thoughts to start considering beyond content alone. All are active component pieces of my BCBA test preparation process and service.

  • Before you take the exam - as part of your test review/prep - don't try to cover everything. Assess for and better understand that which you do know and that which you don't know...that to which you need to pay more attention. Consistently narrow down your specific areas where more intensive study is needed over your review process. Stay connected to the whole but increasingly focus in on what's important for you. This is a primary component strategy in my individualized approach when providing BCBA supervision and/or specific test preparation.

  • BCBA candidates who bring many years of related experience whether as special or general education teachers, licensed counselors or long time RBTs need to leave those years at the door, so to speak, when sitting for the exam. Your experience and training is invaluable and will make you an even stronger BCBA...once you pass the exam! But take care and don't try to consider ALL the alternatives; the additional information you think should be in - or you presume to be part of - a given question/vignette. Again, only answer the question in front of you based on the information in that question as connected to the answers provided for that question.

  • Don't try to answer questions - and especially so longer vignettes - first in your head then hope your answer shows up in the multiple choice. Instead, take a quick look at the answers before you read the question to know what you need to think about – or – read the question but go directly to the given responses to make your selection without trying to think up the answer first. Go from the possible answers back to the question and not from the question to the answers. Make your selection based ONLY on the information provided in the question.

  • Practice reading, writing, 'talking,' thinking and doing concept development like a Behavior Analyst. This is another component piece I prioritize when I work with folks. Practice on your spouse/close friends...but don't overdo it, either! And take care to do this with other Behavior Analysts, your instructors, supervisors and similarly trained/experienced colleagues since it can really tick off others less familiar with the language...even lose their collaboration and participation!

  • Being able to consistently define behavioral terms and concepts is at the foundation. But being able to define the Matching Law; behavioral cusps or stimulus control without being able to explain/understand their use in applied behavioral practice will not only bode poorly for the exam but reduce your capacity as a Behavioral Analyst as well.

  • Tell me...what are behavioral cusps and how do do they help prioritize behavioral/instructional planning? If you aren't certain, don't review the entire chapter where they appear. Specifically find and read, instead, the paragraph or two - or three - which talks about behavioral cusps.

  • Read each question very carefully and think like a Behavior Analyst…look for and focus in on the language which is observable, measurable and operationalized. If the language in a given answer just doesn't quite make sense; if it's not consistent with Behavior Analysis, it probably isn't the correct answer!

  • As when completing any word problem, identify and then don't get hung up on irrelevant sentences or statements.

  • Watch the language in the question. One example are questions which asks you to identify ‘what is NOT….?’ This means you’ll need to select the response which is NOT correct/the answer which least fits the question.

  • Common to multiple choice tests is that certain questions may have more than one reasonable answer among the choices given. Again, watch the language and read the question carefully. Look for the most immediate/direct response rather than others which 'may be' or could be applicable. If the question asks what 'would you do first,' for instance, other choices that identify correct steps but come later on in the given process would not apply. Again, only answer the question you see using the information you are given.

  • Be specific to the question. Should a question ask if 'positive reinforcement' is either A. a planned consequence to a desired behavior intended to impact future responding; or B. a planned consequence to a desired behavior intended to increase future responding...though 'A.' might not be - exactly - incorrect, 'B.' is more specific to this question - and much more accurate.

  • Ok...quick...give me a working definition of stimulus equivalence theory followed by how it applies to/how to use it when teaching basic verbal operants.

  • Throw out multiple-choice answers which are obviously incorrect. If the question/vignette talks about; makes reference to a behavioral decrease, for instance, ‘reinforcement’ cannot be one of the choices you'll need to consider.

  • Be able to clearly differentiate and know the differences between operant v. respondent conditioning; evocative and abative effects; eliciting and evoking behavior. Know the difference between an autoclitic and an intraverbal and why these do not reflect a point-to-point correspondence but why tacts, echoics and mands do. Know the aspects of behavioral change related to each of these.

  • So....what specifically makes tacts, echoics and mands a point to point correspondence while autoclitics and intraverbals are not?

  • As per the BACB Exam Content question breakdown, consider that almost 35% of test questions focus on elements of behavioral change; considerations and systems. That's a lot of questions! Skim through these areas on the 4th Edition Task List. How many are you 'fluent' with; which ones might be useful to review? This is another area I actively emphasize with both supervisees and test prep students.

  • Quiz time....name three ways to establish internal validity in a Changing Criterion design. What do you think - are they in your brain?

  • Consider that multiple choice tests in general - as opposed to fill in the blank or short answer - should have the correct answer identified somewhere in the choices given. I consider it important for BCBA candidates (and BCBAs) to develop as much 'automaticity' as possible across a broad range of definitions, concepts and applications combined with very strong content knowledge. But a multiple choice test also means that even if haven't cold stone memorized every single term and/or concept ( ! ), the more familiar you are with most, the better chance you will have of finding the correct answer if you are not otherwise certain.

  • Do you know what a semilogarithmic chart is - how it's set up? How about Multiple Probe designs; a variant of the Multiple Baseline. How do Multiple Probe designs differ from Multiple Baseline? When might you use a Multiple Probe design?

  • This next concept is probably not original to me…but remember there is no ‘autism’ in Applied Behavior Analysis. Do not answer questions from the vantage point of either ‘autism’ services or an autism agency.

Allow me a very relevant 'for instance:'

I was doing a test prep with a group of folks a few years ago reviewing a few questions out of Bailey and Burch and came upon the following one which I've recreated from memory and modified a bit.

A Behavior Analyst is serving a child at 15 hours per week who is making slow but steady progress. The BCBA has reason to believe that increasing the child’s hours to 25 per week would greatly benefit the rate of acquisition. When this was recommended during a family meeting, the parents advised that they wanted to continue services at 15 hours per week, that they were pleased with their child's progress thus far, and that more hours would also conflict with their work schedules. The parents of the next child on the agency's waitlist had already agreed to 40 hours per week of service. What should the BCBA do?

A. Move the first child down to 5 hours per week to make time for the second child at 40 hours per week

B. Let the 15 hour a week family know they’ll need to agree with the BCBA’s recommendations for the additional needed time or be moved back to the waitlist;

C. Temporarily delay services to both families and talk with full the team to get their opinions;

D. Ask the agency owner what to do.

E. Continue with the 15 hour a week child and let the other family know they’ll be on the waitlist

I was intrigued - a bit troubled, actually - with the number of my test prep participants who selected 'B.'.…who felt that the 15 hour a week family should be expected to follow BCBA recommendations or (even temporarily) lose services.

The correct answer is 'E.'

When I pointed out that the answer many identified (B.) was an (unethical) business decision, not behavioral analytic and not clinically valid, many were surprised.

Again, remember to approach the BCBA exam as a Clinical Behavior Analyst and not as an ‘autism specialist’ and, certainly, not as the 'owner' of an autism agency.

A few more things to consider...

  • Be sure to thoroughly review foundational definitions and behavioral concepts; know ALL of the components of verbal behavior.

  • Ok...give me the correct (technical) definition of an autoclitic? How about naming and defining every verbal operant. Can you?? Can you briefly explain how to shape echoics into tacts into mands?

  • As you review foundational definitions and concepts, select out a few of those more common and think about their applications; how you might use them for a client or two you now have or is in your memory…and do that while thinking like a Behavior Analyst using correct behavioral language and terminology.

  • Read, understand and respond to questions/explanations using behavioral terminology...again, practice reading and 'talking' like a Behavior Analyst. A number of my BCBA supervisees and test prep students have shared that they haven't had much chance - to sometimes include in their grad program - to 'talk' Behavior Analysis. Language is both important and organizing.

How about a quick multiple choice from my mock exam process...answer this....

When Tonya watches and imitates the appropriate behavior of peers during school assemblies, the process by which she has learned desired assembly behavior is best known as

A. Shaping by Approximation

B. Vicarious Reinforcement

C. Task Analysis

D. Reinforcer Establishing Effect

Do you know the correct answer? Are you sure....??

  • Remember that ‘ABA’ is not a strategy; it’s not an intervention and it is not population specific but the field of Applied Behavior Analysis.

  • When reading client-targeted vignettes, especially if you are not certain of which letter to select, generally go towards the answer which is more obviously and specifically client-centered/client focused.

  • Last one...!...Identify a primary difference between DRD and a DRL reinforcement schedule. And what is a DRD schedule, anyway?

Being able to comfortably move from question to question; from one domain to another is very important and part of the blend of content and non-content test taking strategies that I emphasize in my test preparation system for the BCBA exam. And the exact kinds of quick probes/conversations I've written into this article are another component strategy piece I routinely employ.

Professional certification tests are tough beyond the challenge of the content alone. It’s also important not to carry too much in with you whether this is a retake; you’ve struggled on some practice tests, are having a lousy week or, in general, just don’t feel as confident as you’d like. Believe me that, on this last point, you’ll be in very good and shared company!

And it is my bet that you very likely know much more than you may even think!

Take a deep breath, relax, read each question carefully and answer each question the best you can. That’s all you can do. And don’t get hung up by a particular question. Mark it, keep going and then come back to it.

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