A modest proposal (for the next Extra Class question pool)

A modest proposal (for the next Extra Class question pool)

By Dan Romanchik, KB6NU

 At our last club meeting, I was discussing the changes to the Extra Class question pool with someone, and the topic of memorizing the answers popped up. As I always do, I mentioned that many of the questions you can only get right by memorizing the answer. At that point, someone down the way piped up. “Not me,” he said, “I studied the material so that I didn’t have to memorize the answers.”

At that point, the president called the meeting to order, so I didn’t get to challenge him on that point, but that statement is just plain wrong. First of all, it’s true that some questions you can only get right by memorizing the answer. Almost all of the rules questions are that way, for example.

Secondly, there is no way to study the rest of the material in any depth and still have time to actually be an amateur radio operator. The amount of material that the Extra Class question pool covers takes an electrical engineering student four years or more to study thoroughly. And even then, some topics are bound to get short shrift.

So, we’re back to memorizing. I would say that even an “engaged” person will memorize about half the answers. I’d go even further and say that those that “study” the technical topics, don’t study it as thoroughly as a college student would.

For example, there are a dozen questions in Section E7G – Active filters and op-amp circuits: active audio filters; characteristics; basic circuit design; operational amplifiers. Despite the name, you don’t need to know how to design or build an op-amp filter. All you really need to know is that op-amps are high gain devices and if you have a circuit like the one shown below, Vout/Vin = RF/R1.

These concepts are relatively easy to learn. but there are also two questions on filter “ringing.” Honestly, you’re better off just memorizing the answers to those questions unless you have a real interest in active filters that use op amps. Wading into the mathematics isn’t all that hard, but when you consider this is only one of dozens of topics, you can see where doing any kind of in-depth study is going to take you months, if not years, to accomplish.

A modest proposal

The end result of this approach to testing is that we have many Extra Class licensees who know about a lot of things, but not in very much depth. Perhaps that’s OK. Perhaps that’s just what the question pool committee of the National Council of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (NCVEC) was shooting for. If, however, we want an Extra Class license to denote that the licensee has some real technical expertise, I have a modest proposal.

Basically, my idea is that instead of testing on an incredibly wide range of topics, we test applicants on a set of basics, plus one or two particular topics. These would be topics that the person has expertise in already or enough of an interest in to study the topic in some depth.

Below are the topics that I would consider to be basic and some that I consider to be more specialized. This is, of course, not an extensive list.

  • Basic questions (20 questions, everyone takes this part of the exam)
    • Safety
    • Rules and regulations
    • Electrical principles/basic circuits
  • Technical Interests (Choose two, 20 questions each)
    • Antennas and transmission lines
    • Radio wave propagation
    • EMI/RFI
    • Analog and digital design
    • Digital communications and networking
    • Software/software-defined radio
    • Operating: contests, DXing, direction finding, etc.
    • VHF/UHF

The questions in each of the technical interest question pools would be designed to really test the knowledge of the person taking the test. We’d have to figure out a way to make them difficult enough so that one couldn’t just simply memorize the answer. Questions could appear in one or more technical interest test. For example, a question on VHF/UHF propagation could appear in both the Radio Wave Propagation and VHF/UHF question pools.

Having said all this, I realize that this would not be easy to implement. You’d have to first decide on the topics and then enlist experts for each of the topics and get them to come up with a list of 80 – 100 questions each.

I realize that this has very little chance of being adopted, but it’s interesting to think about, no? And, we have four years to do this, so it could be possible.


Dan Romanchik, KB6NU, is the author of the KB6NU amateur radio blog (KB6NU.Com), the “No Nonsense” amateur radio license study guides (KB6NU.Com/study-guides/), and often appears on the ICQPodcast (icqpodcast.com). When he’s not thinking up ways to make the lives of the NCVEC question pool committee more difficult, he likes to build stuff and operate CW on the HF bands.