My Advice to Coaches Studying for the ICF Coach Knowledge Assessment (CKA)


This blog post was originally published in September 2016. Please check the International Coach Federation Website for details on credentialing with the ICF and the Coach Knowledge Exam, which may have changed since this posting. The information in this post may not be accurate and is a place to record my personal opinions and insights.

I have decided to keep this post up, based on the feedback received from you all, that these insights were helpful and empowering.

If you are a coach studying for the ICF Coach Knowledge Exam, good luck! Drop me a line and let me know how you are doing. This world needs more professional coaches and I have first hand seen the profound shift that coaching can make in ones life, health and career.


In order to become an Associate Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF) I completed an internationally recognized, accredited coach training program through Newfield Network.

It is extremely important to me as a Coach, that my services are of the highest professional standard and informed by sound research and ethics.  In exploring professional certification, I discovered that my values align with those of the ICF:

Integrity, excellence, collaboration and respect.  


Once I had completed the two-year certified and accredited coach training program through Newfield Network (becoming a Newfield Certified Ontological Coach)  I applied for Associate Certified Coach through the ICF, submitting my coaching hours, a recorded coaching call with a client and completing the Coach Knowledge Exam. *Update - 2019 I am currently in the process of acquiring my PCC credential.

I write this article not only as a coach who went through the CKA, but also as a learning specialist. I have spent over a decade as an embedded coach at a large Canadian Research University, coaching undergraduate and graduate students to academic success. I witnessed the profound impact of coaching combined with academic development and learning strategies.

Learning strategies vary from person to person, but having been immersed in this environment for some time, I can’t help but make notes on these things, and so I share with you my own preparation for the CKA. This is not intended to be a study guide or comprehensive overview or what you need to know for the coach knowledge assessment.


My preparation for the Coach Knowledge Exam went as follows:

Gather together all of the information and training I received.

I started a binder and in it, included:

-Printouts of all details on the Coach Knowledge Assessment from the ICF website

-ICF Website frequently asked questions and definition of coaching

-ICF  11 core competencies

-ICF Code of Ethics and Code of Ethics FAQ as well as Professional Code of Conduct

-Printouts of any articles I could find on the experience of taking the CKA, like this one on Linked In 

-My course notebook from the Certified Coach Training and Personal and Professional Mastery Program.  Through coach training, I would take notes on the content but also on what the trainer was doing. What were their mannerisms, what were they doing with us? What was the intention behind questions? I’d note when a method was particularly powerful, or a practice that I wanted to incorporate into my own work.

When you are in Coach Training, actively take notes on everything and anything that strikes you as beneficial to your learning, including observations, not just course content.  Go back and review, and add in additional observations and reflections.

Since my coach training has concluded, I have visited and revisited my notebook, recording thoughts and observations from working with clients that deepen my learning in a particular facet, for example, the Observer-Action-Result model of ontological coaching.

As I write this post, I am looking through my journal. I recorded all content and theory from the two in-person conferences, separated by competencies, and in the margins put observational notes, marked with a star when it was watching live coaching. I’d add a circle if it was a tip or piece of advice for building a coaching business, or a useful tip from the trainer.

This is a technique I taught at University. Use different symbols, coding or even locations in a journal for different types of information. In coach training you are learning so many different things:

-Coaching competencies

-Coaching models

-Coaching techniques

-Mind-body-spirit practices (practical application)

-Business and entrepreneurship advice

One of the most effective study techniques is the process of building a visual flow chart or mind map. As you do so, you are engaging with information, processing it on a deeper level and filing it into your long term memory. Drawing mind maps feels enjoyable, and if you like to organize, it does not feel like studying. It’s almost as gratifying as organizing your desk during a procrastination session. ALMOST.

On I created mind maps (I am a visual learner and use this preference/strength to my advantage.)  I decided to create three mind maps

1.) The coaching core competencies (with any notes from my various sources above

2.) Ethical and professional guidelines (with any notes from my various sources above, particularly "scenarios" covered in training or in reading)

3.) Coaching definitions, theory and models

Review  your own Coach Training Observed Coaching Calls and the Feedback you Received on Your Coaching (According to the ICF Core Competencies)

The deepest learning occurs when we immerse ourselves into the practice of core competencies and become them. When we are embedding skills, we must return and reflect to deepen the embedding process. With observed coaching calls and the feedback from your mentor coach, your understanding of the competencies deepens dramatically. I found it extremely helpful to review all of my feedback alongside the notes I made during coaching calls. Each piece of feedback I’d note down in a printout of the competencies. Things like this far out perform simply highlighting and rewriting as a study strategy.


Know Your Learning Preferences and Strengths

What are your learning preferences and strengths?  Go with them.  Are you an auditory learner? (You learn from conversation, podcasts, debate, vocal reviewing and presenting or teaching.)

Written learner? (You enjoy re-writing notes, writing observations, journals.)

Visual learner? (Your jam is visual maps, diagrams and figures, doodles and stick figures, arrows and embellishments in your notes.)

Kinesthetic learner? (Need to physically structure your study space, mix studying with movement, treat each competency separately in stacks of notes or separate books / pages, move things from binder to binder, or work with different stacks of paper and cue cards.)

(There are SO many different wants to approach a study session and they are a reflection of our strengths!)

Know When to Stop Studying and JUST DO IT.

Many of the great painters have reflected on one specific challenge of creating a masterpiece: It is difficult to know when to stop. At what point is the painting complete?  Likewise, I find itdifficult to decide when I was "ready" to stop studying and sit down and complete the Coach Knowledge Assessment.

As coaches we could go on FOREVER taking more certifications, more courses, gather more information, do more preparation, etc. I speak of this because I know.

I decided to complete the CKA within 4 months of receiving my Newfield Coach Certification, because I knew I was at risk of going down the “continuing professional development funnel.”

I created a two week study strategy: Approximately 1 hour a night, preparing deeply over the first week, of course with the first 1-2 days creating a structure and mind maps which took about 2 hours. I call this structuring “the filing cabinet” for my brain. It’s an intentional part of my study strategy.

The second week was more focused review of competencies, layering in the feedback and notes I mentioned above. These were longer study sessions.

(By the way, after coaching 3000 students, I can tell you that nobody EVER feels "ready" but you do feel a slight shift as your level of preparedness increases.)


Ground yourself.

In Coach training we are exposed to grounding and centering exercises that we may explore with our clients when it serves the session and the clients' goals.

During the exam time it is very easy to go charging in, eager and ready to go with the energy of pushing forward. This is spurred on by our own biochemical systems, preparing our body for maximum mental and physical performance, and probably the 3 cups of coffee we injest before an exam.

It is absolutely critical to get that eager energy under control, because the coach knowledge assessment isn’t like a firework of intellectual activity with a big bright explosion and then nothing. It’s a 2-3 exam with thoughtful consideration, paced answering and calm, grounded consideration.

Keep in mind with our i-phone brains and for some of us, extended absence from higher education, we are working with undisciplined monkey brains that haven’t had to focus for some time. Truthfully, it was really difficult for me to get back my powers of focus. The first ten minutes of the exam I was reading, and then re-reading sentences, telling myself to pay attention, be present, etc. I didn’t do a mindful / grounding activity or ritual before the exam and I should have.

Be prepared for different question formats.

My advice is to be prepared both for shorter sentences as well as longer scenario-based sentences, and to put in some time centering and grounding in the days leading up to the exam - Though it is a tall order to walk into an exam focused, centred, grounded and devoid of stress, it is a reasonable order to walk into an exam centred and grounded.  This is so, so important for questions that involve reflection, critical analysis and longer paragraphs.

We can use our own coaching skills on ourselves - once we observe our body, feelings and thoughts operating in a way that do not serve us in an exam situation we can course correct in an instant. That’s the gift of your coach training!

About 10 questions in I decided to do a breathing exercise to focus and ground myself, and slow down my racing, scattered mind. This was tremendously helpful for the rest of the exam. Periodically I’d reassure myself that I have hundreds of coaching hours, training, learning conference calls, continuing education, professional development and reading. Our training programs prepare us well for this!

I also found it helpful to hold a pen up to the sentences on the computer screen and use it to physically ground my eyes and focus, much like I would underline a sentence on a paper exam in University.  Computer-based exams can present a challenge for kinesthetic and visual types like myself, and a somatic practice can be so helpful.

The website for the Coach Knowledge Exam is simple, easy to negotiate and very user-friendly once you get started.  The simplicity of the platform allows the coach to fully engage with their knowledge (rather than worrying about how to use the interface.)  The coach can focus on bringing their knowledge to bear on the questions and scenarios which are well worded and constructed, and highly relevant to our practice as professional coaches. It was an enjoyable and interesting exam that lets you put into practice what you know. It’s not simple regurgitation of concepts definitions and ideas.

The exam offers the ability to mark questions for later review / return and will make note of any questions skipped.  I was quite surprised that I missed answering 3-4 questions at the end of the exam, and was thankful for this feature.  With 155 questions, it is easy to miss one or two.  I was able to complete the exam in approximately 1h 45 minutes with a return to approximately 11 questions that were marked for a second review.

So there you go, I hope this was a helpful read for you and I am so excited you are here, reading this, and going for it. Coaching will change your life and your career. It sure did mine. Please drop me a comment and let me know how it went, or share this with a fellow coach. Let’s support each other and spread this amazing profession.