At Butte College in Northern California, Brian Donnelly is the only career counselor for about 10,000 students.
He doesn’t have much time to interact personally with his advisees—a typical day only allows for about seven individual appointments of one hour each. Those limits are especially unfortunate, Donnelly says, because many Butte students are the first in their families to attend college and could benefit from substantive advice about choosing their majors, classes and future jobs.
“Colleges design themselves in a way that requires students to navigate a cafeteria-style menu of courses with little guidance,” Donnelly said Tuesday during a webinar about community college advising. Yet his students often “don’t have the time, energy or outreach to explore careers in a meaningful way.”
So Donnelly looked for a digital tool that could more efficiently deliver guidance to students about choosing a major and a career—which in turn could help them avoid dead-ends in their course paths and graduate faster. Donnelly ended up turning to personality and personal-interest tests.
Colleges have long relied on pen-and-paper assessments purporting to measure students’ personalities, interests and values, Donnelly says. In recent years, digital test tools with the same aims have proliferated. Donnelly selected a career-advising platform owned by the Myers-Briggs Company—yes, the makers of that classic personality test. The system offers students a short online assessment of their interests, then matches them with Butte degree programs that may be a good fit for them.
The hope is that such tools are more accurate and evidence-backed than the typical Buzzfeed quiz. But experts say not all of them are really up to the tricky task of guiding students through their education and career options.
While psychologists largely agree that certain personality traits can be measured (for example, the Big Five: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience), researchers disagree on exactly how to do so and for what purposes. Once you know you rank high for, say, agreeableness, how can you apply that information to your daily life?
Much modern vocational personality research and advice is based on theories developed decades ago by John L. Holland, a psychologist who worked at National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the American College Testing Program and Johns Hopkins University. Holland divided personality into six main types and suggested that people who match their type to their work environment are more likely to succeed and be satisfied in their jobs.
Holland’s system has critics, but the outcomes of academic studies that have used Holland’s classifications suggest that students who choose their college majors based on their personalities and interests are likely to earn higher grades, graduate on time and be more satisfied in their careers, according to a 2014 white paper by Lawrence K. Jones, a professor emeritus in the College of Education at North Carolina State University who develops personality tests. The assessment Butte uses incorporates Holland’s theories with a shortened version of the Strong Interest Inventory.
Yet not all assessment tools based on Holland’s theories are valid, Jones says, meaning that some lack evidence that they actually measure what they purport to measure. He advises colleges to make sure tests that claim to match students’ personalities and interests to majors or careers come with technical manuals that cite relevant research published in respected journals.
Jones is a career-discernment test developer with some skin in the game, but he’s certainly not alone in advocating for valid, reliable and fair personality assessments.
And those aren’t the only qualities to consider. Even if a test is proven to be valid, reliable and fair, using it in the wrong context or for the wrong purpose can stunt its usefulness, says Gavan O’Shea, an industrial-organizational psychologist who works as the manager of creative services for HumRRO, a nonprofit research and consulting firm that builds assessments for hiring, education and credentialing.
“It would be really important for whoever wants to use an assessment to say, ‘Show me exactly what has this tool in the past really been shown to predict,’” he says. “Are you using this in the way it was designed to be used? Is there evidence supporting the use you want to put this assessment to?”
Last spring, Donnelly and colleagues took their tool to three dozen area high schools for students to use ahead of selecting their first Butte classes and their majors.
“If it’s a well-informed decision, they know exactly what they’re getting into, and they’re more likely to complete,” Donnelly said in an interview with EdSurge.
With so many students to assist, Donnelly says he likes that the system makes it easy for students to interpret their results on their own without needing much additional help.
But incoming students also have opportunities to meet with advisors early in their college careers to discuss their test results.
That kind of interpersonal coaching remains important even with the most sophisticated tests, according to O’Shea, who thinks assessments don’t fully replace career counselors like Donnelly.
“It’s great to have someone who has experience using those tools to provide one-on-one guidance to people,” he says. “They could really ask excellent questions to go beyond the higher-level information the test can provide. There’s always going to be elements of people’s unique interests that aren’t going to be captured 100 percent in the tool.”