SHRM Certification Exams: Exploring Depth of Knowledge

How knowledge questions assess different levels of understanding and cognitive complexity

By Selina Russ and Ashley Silver, SHRM-CP April 15, 2021
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SHRM Certification Exams: Exploring Depth of Knowledge

​Educators who create assessments for children take great care to provide a complete measure of students' levels of understanding and cognitive abilities, with test questions that range from simple to complex. The same principles apply to assessments for adult learners, such as the SHRM certification exams. 

The SHRM certification exams are designed to assess the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics that HR professionals need to be successful in their roles, as outlined in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK). In the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP exams, there are two types of multiple-choice exam questions: those that test one's knowledge (knowledge items), and those that test one's judgment in certain situations (situational judgment items).

The Depth of Knowledge Framework

A knowledge item assesses one distinct piece of knowledge. The question is classified according to the depth of knowledge, or level of understanding, required to answer it. There are four levels of exam questions in the depth of knowledge framework: (1) recall, (2) understanding, (3) problem-solving and (4) critical evaluation.

Level 1 questions make up 20 percent to 25 percent of the knowledge items on both of the SHRM certification exams; Level 2 through Level 4 questions make up the remaining 75 percent to 80 percent of knowledge items.

(The depth of knowledge framework does not apply to situational judgment items because those questions are behavioral-based, not knowledge-based.) 

Basic Level: 'Recall' Questions 

Level 1 or recall questions represent the base of the framework, reflecting the surface of cognitive complexity. They serve an important purpose by requiring test-takers to access and recite information stored in their brains.

Recall questions may ask the test-taker to define a specific term, or they may supply a definition and ask the test-taker to identify the term being defined.

Example of a recall question and answer that could appear on a SHRM exam:

Q: What change management model follows the pattern of "unfreeze, change, refreeze"?

A: Lewin's Model.

Next Level: 'Understanding' Questions 

The more rigorous Level 2 or understanding questions act as a shovel to break through the Level 1 recall surface. They require test-takers to comprehend information, compare two things, translate by applying knowledge or interpret a concept in order to apply it. In other words, they assess one's ability to recognize how HR concepts and terms manifest themselves in the workplace.

Understanding questions are designed to ensure that candidates who pass the exam are both knowledgeable and possess the skills and abilities required to be a competent HR professional.

Example of an understanding question and answer that could appear on a SHRM exam:

Q: During a board meeting, a leader at a technology company describes a potential crisis that threatens the company's ability to operate. This action implements which step in Kotter's eight-step change management model?

A: Creating a sense of urgency.

To answer this question, the test-taker needs to remember all of the steps in Kotter's model and how to apply them properly. 

High Level: 'Problem-Solving' Questions

Level 3 or problem-solving questions require test-takers to apply their knowledge to develop a solution to a problem, which is something HR professionals do every day. To select the correct answer, one must draw on knowledge and understanding of many different concepts and strategies, which is more cognitively demanding than the recall of information.

Example of a problem-solving question and answer that could appear on a SHRM exam:

Q: After a recent layoff, the CEO announces plans to restructure the organization. Which action should leadership take first to help hesitant employees adjust to the changes?

A: Identify strong senior sponsorship for the change.

The problem presented in this question is the employees' hesitation. To answer, the test-taker needs to identify the action that will most effectively help them overcome it. 

Highest Level: 'Critical Evaluation' Questions 

Level 4 or critical evaluation questions, which ask test-takers to analyze information to predict an outcome, are the most challenging. A competent HR professional uses the ability to predict outcomes to guide business strategy and execution.

Example of a critical evaluation question that could appear on a SHRM exam:

Q: During a change management initiative, which outcome is most likely to happen if an organization focuses only on the bottom line?

A: The impacts of the change to the individuals currently working in the organization are overlooked.

Here, the test-taker must have knowledge of change management initiatives and how organizations choose to implement them. Using that knowledge, the HR professional should recommend ways to minimize any negative effects.

Cognitive Ability and Studying for Different Levels of Questions 

A savvy test-taker studies for a SHRM certification exam by preparing for questions at varying depths of knowledge using a variety of approaches.

Reading textbooks and reviewing vocabulary on flashcards are particularly helpful study techniques—not only for answering recall questions that involve definitions, but also for higher-level questions about the defined term. (Test-takers should be aware, however, that on a problem-solving question involving a certain term, for example, while knowing the definition of the term will help one understand what is being asked, knowing only the definition probably won't be enough for one to choose the right answer.)

Test-takers can prepare for questions at higher cognitive levels by reading case studies, engaging in role-playing and discussing best practices with a study group. These techniques help one explore the benefits and consequences of actions, think about the most effective ways to solve real-life problems, and predict outcomes to guide organizations in making smart decisions.

To learn more about how to use kinesthetic learning to prepare for a SHRM exam, check out this recent article.

Selina Russ is a specialist in exam publishing at SHRM. Ashley Silver, SHRM-CP, is a test development specialist at SHRM.

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