Demystifying Assessments: 10 Essential Questions to Structure Your Approach
By Roberta Neault
Whether to inform a case management process, to assist with career life decision-making, or to measure outcomes of counseling interventions, effective assessment is an essential counseling competency. The following ten questions will help you keep your assessments on track.
Begin by clarifying who “the client” is. Many times this is straightforward (i.e., the person sitting with you in your office) but, in cases where a third party has requested the assessment or you are working within a program funded for a specific purpose, then your assessment process will be impacted by external requirement or restrictions.
Once you’re clear about who your clients are, the next step is to agree on the purpose for assessment. Knowing what outcome you are working toward will guide your assessment approach. For example, although an assessment of emotional intelligence might be relevant for an individual considering a helping profession, an assessment of mechanical aptitude may be more relevant for someone considering automotive-related trades.”
Logistics such as where the assessment will occur are also important to consider. Although some assessment can be accomplished within your office, it may also be helpful to observe your clients at work, school, or home, engaged in everyday tasks or interactions. Some assessment tools are available online; consider whether to maximize your time with clients by having them independently complete some assessment activities as homework. Your decision will be impacted by the type of assessment tool and your purpose (e.g., if administering an aptitude assessment for screening purposes, you’ll want to ensure that the individual completing the tool is actually the person you intended to test, rather than a helpful parent or friend!).
You’ll also need to determine who owns the assessment results (i.e., Will results be reported to anyone other than the individual you are assessing?). This is crucial to ensure your client is giving truly “informed consent” to engage in the assessment process.
Most clients requesting an assessment, as well as many colleagues who may refer clients to you for assessment, have a very limited understanding of the range of tools and techniques available, what can be measured, and why one approach might be chosen over another. Rather than simply complying with requests or referrals, use your assessment expertise and full counseling skills to ensure you understand the underlying need.
Many assessment tools are restricted for purchase and use by professionals with specific qualifications. Generally, publishers and distributors indicate required qualifications as “A Level” (unrestricted), “B Level” (university training in tests and measurements), or “C Level” (advanced training and supervision in the use of specific assessment tools). Although many counselors with a Masters degree will meet the “B Level” requirements, the ethical principle of not working beyond your competency also applies. If in doubt about which tools you are qualified to use, consult, refer, or seek out additional supervision and training as you add new assessment tools to your toolkit.
As with most aspects of counseling, there will generally be a variety of assessment approaches to consider. You will have choices to make about which strategies and tools to use, how much to try to accomplish in one session, and whether to collect information from others (e.g., parents, teachers, or employers). Budgets, schedules, location, and program mandate will also impact your approach. Take time to plan an effective assessment approach that will maximize results with minimal resource investment.
Your job is far from done when clients have completed the assessment tools you’ve selected. Rather, just as in any research project, data analysis is the important piece – without integration and interpretation, raw data can be meaningless or misleading. Allow sufficient time for this stage of the process. With your assessment purpose in mind, read through results, background material, and your counseling notes to identify patterns, themes, and any puzzling inconsistencies. Mind mapping tools or post-it notes may help with this process. Regardless of whether you need to prepare a written report or will brief the client on the results in conversation, this integrative piece is a crucial component of a comprehensive assessment process. Simply reviewing the results from one assessment tool after another, without integration and interpretation, will not achieve the same goal.
Sometimes assessment results raise additional questions. In counseling, the assessment process is ongoing. Continue to revisit your understanding of your client’s concerns, goals, and unique situation, using a variety of formal and informal tools and techniques.
Finally, it’s important to equip your client to effectively use the assessment results. Consider what resources might be helpful take-aways (e.g., a one page summary, charts and graphs, an action plan, a narrative report?). Also, guide your client’s consideration of who to share results with and how to do that most appropriately. For career development within an organization, for example, it may be helpful to share with an employer that a particular interest has surfaced, but it could be distracting to provide an employer with a 20 page report from an interest inventory. Similarly, although it may be personally helpful to understand one’s own tendency to procrastinate, it may be a career-limiting move to share such results in a career portfolio presented during a job interview!
A comprehensive assessment process can enhance counseling immensely, saving time, money, and other resources and maximizing your clients’ potential to achieve their counseling goals. Go beyond “test and tell” . . . instead embed ongoing assessment into your overall counseling strategy.
For a single page handout summarizing the 10 questions presented here, go to: http://www.lifestrategies.ca/docs/10-Essential-Questions-to-Structure-Your-Assessment-Approach.pdf
Dr. Roberta Neault, CCC, RRP, GCDFi, CCDP is a counselor educator at Yorkville University, just completing her term as editor of the Journal of Employment Counseling, and, speaks extensively on the topic of assessment. Contact Roberta at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about e-courses on assessment, visit: http://www.yorkvilleu.ca/programs/faculty-of-behavioural-sciences/continuing-professional-education/