How Knowledge and Situational Judgment Questions Differ on the SHRM Certification Exam

Understand the characteristics of and distinctions between these test items

By Selina Russ and Mark Smith, Ph.D. November 19, 2020
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How Knowledge and Situational Judgment Questions Differ on the SHRM Certification Exam

​As you prepare for the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP certification exam, it is important to understand how the exams are created and how the questions are formatted.

All of the exam content is based on the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK), which is itself based on a comprehensive study of the HR field. This document is revised and refreshed every few years.

The SHRM BoCK covers two broad areas of competencies: behavioral and technical. Eight behavioral competencies describe the general behaviors and characteristics that an HR professional needs to perform in the workplace. One technical competency describes the specific knowledge required to perform in 15 HR functional areas. Every competency lists proficiency indicators that reflect HR best practice.

Mastery of knowledge, skills and abilities facilitates and enhances one's performance in an HR role. To test a candidate's mastery of the information necessary to indicate proficiency in the competencies, the SHRM certification exams use three distinct types of multiple-choice questions: SHRM knowledge items, foundational knowledge items and situational judgment items.

Testing One's Knowledge

Knowledge questions test understanding of the SHRM BoCK. Each SHRM knowledge item covers an important piece of information from the technical competency's 15 functional areas. Each foundational knowledge item covers a key piece of information, shown as a key concept, from the eight behavioral competencies defined in the SHRM BoCK.

Both kinds of knowledge questions will have one correct answer, supported by a rationale explaining why that response is correct and the others are clearly incorrect. Each rationale is tied to a documented, credible source.

In developing knowledge items for the exam, SHRM takes great care to make sure that the incorrect answers are still plausible.

Testing One's Judgment

Situational judgment questions present scenarios based on real situations experienced by practicing SHRM-certified HR professionals—situations that most HR professionals are likely to experience during their own careers. These items test the examinee's ability to choose the most effective course of action in the given scenario.

Each scenario features two to four questions that highlight different aspects of the situation presented. Like foundational knowledge items, situational judgment items focus on the SHRM BoCK's behavioral competencies. Unlike knowledge items, all of the response options for situational judgment items could be correct actions to take to address the situation. The correct answer, however, is the action that is the most effective—what one should do.

A panel of SHRM-certified subject matter experts determine the correct response option—the most effective action—by consulting the proficiency indicators in the SHRM BoCK. The alternative response options describe actions of varying degrees of effectiveness.

Therefore, examinees should not approach situational judgment items in terms of how HR in their own organizations would act. Rather, examinees should answer based on general HR best practice, as reflected in the SHRM BoCK's proficiency indicators.

What's the Difference?

To demonstrate the difference between a knowledge item and a situational judgment item, let's use the behavioral competency of Communication as an example.

A knowledge item covering this area might ask about different types of communications media, such as e-mail or town hall meetings. A situational judgment item might present a specific scenario involving communication, then ask how to effectively communicate with leaders to solve a problem given the circumstances presented.

Familiarize yourself with the SHRM BoCK's different competencies and proficiency indicators to become more confident in your holistic understanding of HR. Understand how the questions are developed and formatted to ensure that you are well-equipped to demonstrate this knowledge on the SHRM certification exam.

Selina Russ is a specialist in exam publishing at SHRM. Mark Smith, Ph.D., is SHRM's director of exam development.

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