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Short Takes #19: Two Methods to PASS the Ham Exams

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

We've all seen the books, articles, YouTube videos and in-person training classes dedicated to the topic of getting that first ham radio license. There's a lot out there. I am sure it's a bit confusing for a newcomer to the radio hobby, because the available resources are so different from one another . . . there are very thorough radio and electronics theory classes leading to the Technician license, but there are also books, videos and apps that promise a far quicker entry into our hobby.

Licensed operators are always the ones who get asked what they recommend, and each of us has a method that we found best suited personally at the time we licensed. Depending upon the person who asks, and what I know about them, I have always recommended an in-person class if I know a club holding one, and if not than I have a favorite book or two that I'll refer from Amazon and suggest they come back and talk to me along the way with questions. And, of course, I'd suggest they take the practice exams right here on QRZ. That's all fine. But lately, I've watched as two different training methods roll out for those who are learning amateur radio. My opinion has changed on the process that works best. Let me tell you what I mean, and in the comments section linked at the end, please let me know if you think I am off base!

One method, the tried-and-true (which I went through so many years ago for my first license) is to study radio electronics and theory, looking closely at those topics which will be covered in the exam. The ARRL books and most ham club classes are good examples of this kind of rigorous study, and the result for the individual is that we end up with a solid radio operator who is already comfortable with what he/she will encounter in their first station. These new hams are the best of the bunch, for sure. (Only the old-timers will agree with me on this, but maybe -- just maybe -- we were producing even better operators when code was included in the testing.)

But don't you agree that this extensive study might put off some potential operators, who are interested in the cool factors of digital modes or super long distance "my antenna to theirs" (no Internet) communications?

Another Way to Go About Becoming a Ham

When I stated that my opinion was a bit in flux about the best way to study and become a ham, what I was referring to is the faster process of using books and quizes (like those I will tell you about here shortly) with the actual license questions included and study becoming one of rote memorization. I realize that this sounds like a contradiction, because I already stated that we get better new operators when they know about radio theory and understand the words behind the test questions. But I am finding, and I hope you have as well, that the "easy way" doesn't produce bad operators as I had first imagined.

Instead of someone who knows Ohm's Law inside out, or how that antenna propagates, the "easy way" produces operators that must "learn on the job" so to speak. I've met both types of new operators over the last couple of years. Both must learn about radio protocol once they start getting on the air, and there doesn't appear to be a noticeable difference after they've had some on-the-air experience. Sure, the radio theory guys have more knowledge to to fall back on in getting their station set up and when they run into difficulties. But honestly, I think it is fine to learn as you go and getting that first license into their hands and letting them experience a "taste" of radio seems to bring the level of enthusiasm to the point where they become self-taught very quickly. Six months into their new radio hobby, both the operator who took a lengthy course on theory and the other operator who studied via a set of quizes or flashcards seem to be at the same level of radio sophistication.

Because a long-term concern for all of us is that we must continually refresh our user base by the addition of new hams, I'm changing my tune a bit and telling those with an early interest that it depends on their learning style but it may not be necessary to spend a couple of months with theory. While some people need the class experience because they are learners who take notes and do better with a "teacher" explaining concepts, others are good with rote memorization or reading books with the answers because they are visual learners and reading (and re-reading) the questions and the correct answer is all they need in order to pass that Technician level test. 

The New N2RJ Book on the Technician Class Test

Ria Jairam is a well-known ham, and the latest book on ham training comes from the N2RJ shack.  It's available through Amazon at this link. If you've seen Ria's presentations at QSO Today and other venues, you'll know she has an easy-to-understand approach to just about any ham radio subject. She's likeable and writes about radio theory in the same way that she speaks. Even the most cynical old-timer will look this book over and see great value for the newcomer.

An interesting part of the book is that section which simply lists all of the FCC questions for the current Technician Class examination. The fact is, Ria doesn't publish the wrong answers. It's her belief that learning this material will come far easier (after her technical introductions to the various topics) if the reader sees only the correct answer. That way, those who have truly studied the book get into the examination room and feel comfortable when they see the answer that looks familiar. It won't always be the fellow or gal who studied theory the hardest who gets the questions correct . . . readers of Ria's book who have reviewed the questions/answers section will recognize the right answers and walk away with their new license. Ria has stated (in our attached discussion forum) that it was not her goal to produce a faster result, only one backed by meaningful understanding of the topics. But let's be realistic -- it is faster that way.

Two Approaches to Take the "Easy Way" One Step Further

There's another approach which builds on the same idea. That is, practicing the actual questions via a website or flash card deck can be used to supplement a book like Ria's (or any of the amateur radio license handbooks). One way to do this is to utilize the excellent system that QRZ.com has integrated into the suite of products available here, completely without cost. Fred Lloyd (AA7BQ) founded QRZ thirty years ago this month, and thousands of hams have used his software built into the website to practice what they are learning in order to ace the FCC tests. You'll find the QRZ practice tests at the "Resources" menu item at the top of QRZ, or linked right here. The way QRZ's system works is to randomly select questions from the pool and present you with exactly the sort of experience you'd have sitting in a VE session with your local ham club. See how you do! Start getting in the range of 75% or more right and you're on your way to a PASS.

There's another approach as well, a great piece of public-access software called Anki. I used this to ensure that I had all my ducks in a row before I took my Amateur Extra exam. Anki is a Japanese word that means "memorization," but Anki memorization methods are far from the usual approach. It uses flashcard decks that are accessible through any browser. You'll find it at this link. (It also is available as a portable app, developed by a 3rd party for the iPhone and Android phone platforms, but there may be a cost for those.)

 Anki Flashcards are called "Decks," and like other public-access software, anyone can contribute to the library of Decks. Luckily, hams before you have already placed the Technician, General, and Amateur Extra decks into the shared library which you'll find on the Anki web. They are all current with today's Q's and A's. Anki will not pre-select a random 35 or 50 questions for you, though. You'll be working with a full deck of flashcards covering the entirety of the questions in the FCC pool.

Anki has a unique algorithm that will keep putting the Q's you are having trouble with back into your deck to be asked again at a later point. Keep stumbling on that question and you'll see it pop up very regularly. The software has uncanny intuition as to what it is that you need to study, so just like with the QRZ testing, you can combine it with a book like Ria's, or the ARRL testing guides. Whether it's with these flashcards or just repeatedly testing yourself on QRZ.com's hamtest section, you won't learn radio theory . . .  but you'll still ace the test!

Now, the question remains, is there really a problem "learning on the job" for a ham who passes the test in this manner? I used to believe it was a mistake, but as I said earlier, I've now seen plenty of operators who come out of both training methods, and while the tried-and-true "study the basics first" approach still wins out, it's only by a hair. Both methods bring new people into the fold. New hams bring life into the service and ensure it continues beyond us. Perhaps making the process a bit easier or "fine tuned" to the newcomer's learning style isn't a bad thing at all for that first license.

73 for now,


Have a comment? See what others are saying now in our Forum discussion!


Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated October 18, 2023 01:20