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




R NeaultDr. 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 roberta@lifestrategies.ca. For information about e-courses on assessment, visit: http://www.yorkvilleu.ca/programs/faculty-of-behavioural-sciences/continuing-professional-education/


Printer-Friendly Version


Akintunde Akinmolayan   on Tuesday 09/25/2012 at 03:36 PM

Thank you for this beautiful piece -- it is clear and direct. Can I learn the use of 'B' and 'C' levels of Assessment tools even when I don't have a degree in Psychology, Counselling, etc?

Deirdre Pickerell   on Wednesday 09/26/2012 at 11:25 AM

Hi there :-) Roberta is out of town at the moment so I'm responding on her behalf. You can learn to use "B" level assessments either through specific training focused on a particular assessment (e.g., become a certified user of the MBTI) or through a Masters level course in tests and measurements. See http://tiny.cc/k008kw for more info on a course Roberta teaches. You do need a BA to take the course but it doesn't have to be in Psychology or Counseling. If you don't have a degree, at all (sorry - it isn't completely clear from your post) then you may have to take training on the specific assessments you may want to use (if available). Don't hesitate to email me if you want to chat further. Almost all "C" level tests are restricted to those with PhDs.

Roberta Neault   on Thursday 10/11/2012 at 07:38 PM

I'm so glad you found the article helpful. Deirdre responded about training - decisions about B and C level qualifications are made by the test publishers/distributors, so it's best to check with the organization you would purchase assessments from to confirm their exact requirements.

In the meantime, if you'd like some other concise assessment-related tip sheets, you can find several in our resource section at: www.lifestrategies.ca

Henry Jefferson   on Wednesday 05/07/2014 at 06:04 PM

Thank you for this comprehensive approach to assessment, Dr. Neault.
I was wondering, as one of the experts you can kindly comment on how can assessment help underprivileged groups to be empowered?
I love how you started with who the client is and the purposes. As a practitioner, I am sadden to see assessment used to simplify complexity of life and reduce the dimensions of context to gain limited epistemic insight. This is in light of philosophers and researchers are becoming skeptical of one assessment construct fits all.
Thank you

Roberta Neault   on Thursday 05/08/2014 at 10:57 AM

Great question, Henry, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this article. I've written several assessment-related tip sheets that might be helpful; here's one: http://lifestrategies.ca/docs/10-Tips-for-Integrating-Assessment-Results-Into-Career-Conversations.pdf

I really like Stephen Covey's principle: Begin with the end in mind. Your question was how assessments can be used to help underprivileged groups become empowered. So - with that as my "end" I'd want to choose my tools wisely.

There has long been controversy about misuse of aptitude and achievement assessment tools, for example, on minority groups that are not appropriately represented in the comparison norm groups. Therefore, it would be very important not to use such tools to screen someone out. However, a fair tool (i.e., appropriately normed) could also screen someone in - someone who would not normally have had access to specific opportunities. Common uses of assessments for purposes like this provide access to scholarships and bursaries, for example.

As a career counsellor, I don't "test and tell." However, I do use assessment tools, on occasion, to broaden a client's consideration of careers beyond what has been normal in his/her family or community. I see assessment tools as an opportunity (I'm using "an" very intentionally here - "one" opportunity of many, many different routes to the same destination) to help a client systematically organize his/her self-knowledge and then compare it to career possibilities that may be worth considering. I also do this through use of informational interviewing, role models, job shadows, work experience placements, continuing education opportunities, professional association events, mentoring, and many other techniques and interventions that open a client's eyes to possibilities.

Although I don't use standardized assessment tools with most of my clients (I'm not a "one size fits all" type of counsellor :-)), I've definitely seen some "aha moments" as people have been prompted to see new possibilities within themselves through reviewing their assessment results.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.