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I'm considering getting a U.S. amateur radio operator license.

If you want to study to pass a license test, there are many resources to learn the answers to the entirety of the question pool: online practice exams and study aids, “ham cram” courses, etc. I came across one document (not quickly finding the link again) which basically takes the entire question pool and rephrases each question into a paragraph which briefly describes the broader topic and gives the question and answer as an example of that topic.

But I've looked through the question pool, and it seems obvious to me that the questions are not comprehensive; just like any test one might find in school, they are intended to sample your grasp of a larger body of knowledge. So, where's a copy of the syllabus for “U.S. Amateur Radio 101”?

What topics should the holder of a Technician, General, or Extra license have knowledge of? What would be the content of the question pool if test-takers had infinite patience, and could be tested on every fact rather than a sampling?

Or, addressing my actual plans: what topics should I ensure are contained in my study materials, given that

  • I remember best when I have theory rather than only disconnected facts,
  • and I've looked at what the question pool is testing and it seems worthwhile to me to also know the material that obviously could be in the pool, but happens not to be,
  • but I also fully expect to learn just-in-time as I start projects, so material which is neither on the test nor “you need to know not to do this” is a lower priority.

If I just wanted to pass the test, then judging by some online practice tests, I could get all the way to Extra on my electrical knowledge, common sense, and a bit of luck, but that's not what I want to do!

(I could ask “What book/resource is appropriate for this learning style?” but that would be shopping. If you have such a suggestion, you could turn that into a description of what it covers and how that is relevant.)

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If I just wanted to pass the test, then judging by some online practice tests, I could get all the way to Extra on my electrical knowledge, common sense, and a bit of luck, but that's not what I want to do!

I think that they body of knowledge they are testing may once have been fairly focused, but it has become a bit muddled by attempts to include new technologies without completely losing touch with the roots of the hobby. At least that is my perspective as someone who took the Tech exam, then the General 4 weeks later and the Extra 4 weeks after that.

A simple summary is this:

  • The rules (FCC Part 97)
  • Operating practices, including customs not required by FCC rules
  • Amateur radio "technology": operating modes, types of antennas, etc.
  • Enough physics to understand propagation and basic electronics
  • Basic electronics sufficient to understand, build and maintain basic radio equipment
  • Safety practices (physical, electical and RF)

For someone who's technically oriented, the new material is really just the first 3 items. Like you I wanted to be sure I understood the material so I could fully participate. As you have already guessed, it's completely impractical to comprehensively test anyone. Again, as a new ham myself, some glaring omissions in the testing is actual operating practices: how to get onto a repeater and what the protocol is for participating, similar for HF nets, contest rules and practices, what the heck are all these knobs for on this radio?

I think in other countries they include a practical portion on the test and these things have to be known in advance. I didn't have an Elmer (teacher/mentor), I just got the books and did the tests and didn't get a radio until I was a General, so all this had to be learned on the fly and took a while. If you have access to a live ham, this part will go a lot more smoothly for you. I am still learning what some of these knobs do 6 months later...

As @Phil Frost related, it's pretty easy to just pass the test if that's your goal. The US tests are 4 distractor multiple choice tests with 74% for mastery. So you need only 28 out of 35 for the Technician and General tests and 37 out of 50 on the Extra class test. The tests are constructed such that each section of the material is represented by at least one question.

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  • $\begingroup$ The tech and general exams have 35 questions each, not 50. $\endgroup$ – Andrew N5ITM Feb 19 '14 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, I fat fingered that. I have now fixed the answer. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – WPrecht Feb 19 '14 at 15:41
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If I just wanted to pass the test, then judging by some online practice tests, I could get all the way to Extra on my electrical knowledge, common sense, and a bit of luck, but that's not what I want to do!

That's how I did it. Many of the questions are about electrical engineering, having to do with antennas, feedlines, Ohm's and Joule's laws, Smith charts, and so on. The higher-class tests have more of this. If you are well-versed in RF engineering, can do basic arithmetic, and read a polar graph, you are set in this department.

There are also questions about regulations. If you really want to study the body of knowledge itself and not the question pool, then go read the FCC's part 97. But really, most of this falls under common sense (don't declare an emergency because you can't find your keys) and the rest is rote memorization (the 20 meter band starts at 14 MHz). Reading the rules directly is dry, painful reading, and it all boils down to "operate within the allocated frequencies, and don't be a jerk" anyway.

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What topics should the holder of a Technician, General, or Extra license have knowledge of? What would be the content of the question pool if test-takers had infinite patience, and could be tested on every fact rather than a sampling?

I recently passed my extra exam. From my perspective the following are common on all exams:

  1. Knowledge of best practices
  2. Knowledge of laws regarding ham radio
  3. Some very basic knowledge on VECs/VEs
  4. Electrical safety (in particular safety with AC)

You can quite literally pass each exam not knowing any math at all. Will you be effective? Yes, probably. The amount of work you have to do today to get on the air is significantly less than when ham radio first started. Should you learn the math? Yeah, if you like math or are interested in electronics or why things work.

Specifically For the Technician

It has been a while since I've seen this exam but from what I remember there was a lot of emphasis on basic electronics (capacitors and resistors, ohms law, I think there was some mention of KVL/KCL related to this but nothing on the test). There were some soft-pitched questions on AC voltage, RMS, etc.

The vast majority of the technician was just regurgitating rules and regulations for each question. Perfect cramming material. I wouldn't feel bad about cramming for this exam. It's very simple.

Specifically for the General

The same requirements for the technician with some added electrical engineering stuff. I really only remember having to actually study the antenna portion and some of the line matching, SWR, etc stuff. Everything else was slightly more questions on rules and regulations (in particular bands you can and can't operate in) and some questions on ham equipment.

Specifically for the Extra

This exam was significantly harder, and required more dedicated study. About half the questions are crammable (basically all the rules and regs from technician and general, what acronyms are, etc) but the rest was basically uncrammable and required some significant study.

  1. Basic reactance/impedence/frequency calculations
  2. Polar coordinates, plotting reactances and resistances on a graph
  3. Phase angle/Phasor diagram stuff. Trigonometry.
  4. Knowing some deeper knowledge on antennas including ground reflections, etc
  5. Knowing more about what protocols are useful for various kinds of transmission types
  6. Knowing current/voltage relationships through inductors
  7. SWR matching, impedence matching
  8. Atmospheric conditions, knowing why radio waves are reflected/bent/amplified in various conditions (more or less really, really basic electromagnetism)
  9. Op-Amp calculations, how they work, etc
  10. Some basic stuff on microwave radio (nothing complicated, but generally how it works and what is special about the circuits for microwave)

There's more, but that's all that I can remember having to really study for. By the end of the extra you should have a decent grasp on basic DC and AC electronics stuff as it relates to radios. You should also know all of the major rules and regulations for ham radio, operating overseas, and other stuff related to that.

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