Change Is Coming to the PE Exams!

Computer-Based Testing – This Changes Everything!

Although still unofficial, the three Mechanical PE Exams are scheduled to transition to the year-round Computer-Based Testing (CBT) format starting in January of 2020, and the five Civil PE Exams will transition 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 – take the Pencil-and-Paper exam now, before it’s too late.

NCEES first introduced Computer-Based Testing (CBT) for the FE Exams in January 2014, and it has been expected that they would move to this format for the PE Exams, but until now no transition schedule had been established. Now it has. Some CBT exams will be offered year-round. In this category, the Chemical PE Exam transitioned to the CBT format for 2018, and the Environmental PE Exam is scheduled to transition in 2019, with the Mechanical following in 2020 and Civil in 2023. Other CBT exams will only be offered one day a year. The Nuclear PE Exam falls into this category and has already transitioned to the CBT format. Over the next five years, about a dozen other PE Exams will transition to the CBT format offered one day a year.

The NCEES says that transition dates for all the future transitions to CBT will be confirmed one year in advance. Along with the confirmation, the official NCEES Reference Handbook for the exam will be made available for download in PDF format. With the introduction of this new Reference Handbook, there is also the possibility that there could be changes in the exam specifications.

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. For the Chemical PE Exam, the PE Chemical Reference Handbook is almost 600 pages, so the Mechanical and Civil handbooks will most likely be similar in length, if not 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. For Mechanical, that means only two more exam taking opportunities: the April 2019 Exam and October 2019 Exam. For Civil, it means a few more years. After that, the only choice will be the CBT format. Change is indeed coming, 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 daunting and one for which carefully preparing and choosing your exam references will no longer give you an advantage. My advice is to take and pass the PE exam now if you can before the change takes place!

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. And this reference is likely to be many hundreds of pages long. For the Chemical PE Exam, the Reference Handbook is almost 600 pages. The thought of getting to be familiar will 600 pages of information is almost incomprehensible, and printing it out gains you little or nothing, because that’s not how you will have access to it during the exam.

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 became 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 a 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.

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