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Using the Self-Directed Search: Career Explorer with high-risk middle school students.

The Self-Directed Search: Career Explorer was used with 98 (95% African American) high-risk middle school students as part of 14 structured career groups based on Cognitive Information Processing theory. Results and implications are presented on the outcomes of this program.


With increasing pressure on middle school students to make preliminary decisions that will have an impact on their future careers, such as identifying an educational track to follow in high school, the need for valid and reliable career testing and career counseling for this age group is becoming more evident. Although many articles (Gottfredson, 2002; Rayman & Atanasoff, 1999; Reardon & Lenz, 1999) have focused on the use of the Self-Directed Search with high school students, college students, and adults, very few studies have focused on the utility of the middle school version, the Self-Directed Search: Career Explorer (SDS:CE; Holland & Powell, 1994), or how it might be incorporated into a career counseling program for students at risk of dropping out of school. Finding a valid and reliable tool to use in an efficient, theoretically based approach was our goal.

The first goal was to use the SDS:CE version and accompanying interpretive report with high-risk middle school students. A second goal was to explore the use of these tools within a structured group counseling approach based on Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) career theory (Peterson, Sampson, Lenz, & Reardon, 2002) as the organizing framework.

Program Description

On the basis of general group counseling principles and CIP theory (Peterson et al., 2002), a 6-week, 30 minutes-per-session group format was used. CIP theory includes four main career choice components: knowledge about self, knowledge about options, decision making, and metacognitions (how one thinks about one's decision making). During Session 1, members of the group introduced themselves, received information about confidentiality, and completed the SDS:CE. Beginning with Session 2, 1 week was allowed per CIP component; Session 6 focused on group closure.

In Session 2, students' SDS:CE interpretive reports were returned to the students and discussed. Students narrowed their options by crossing off unattractive occupations, highlighting those for further consideration, and placing a question mark next to occupations for which they needed additional information or were unsure. Students wrote a reason for crossing off a particular occupation beside the ones they eliminated. In Session 3, students met in the media center and were shown how to use various Internet-based career information sites, such as the online Occupational Outlook Handbook (U.S. Department of Labor, 2006), to help narrow options from their SDS:CE interpretive reports further and increase occupational knowledge. Session 4 focused on decision making, and Session 5 addressed self-talk through a modified board game.

The SDS:CE (Holland & Powell, 1994) was chosen because of its psychometric properties and appropriateness for use with students at the middle school level. The computer-based SDS:CE interpretive report (Reardon & PAR Staff, 1994), based on their SDS:CE results, was provided to the students. In a study conducted by Jones, Sheffield, and Joyner (2000), middle school students responded favorably to the SDS:CE. Others (O'Brien, Dukstein, Jackson, Tomlinson, & Kamatuka, 1999) have found that students' confidence in the career decision-making process increased and occupations that were more congruent were selected after a 1-week career program that included taking the SDS:CE. The SDS:CE has high reliability, with K-R 20 coefficients above .91 for each summary scale (Holland, Powell, & Fritzsche, 1994).

Ninety-eight students from a public middle school located in the southeastern United States returned permission forms to be included in career counseling groups (14 groups total) and to participate in research. Ninety-one students (41 boys, 50 girls) completed the SDS:CE in its entirety; the majority of the students (95%) were African American and on free/reduced-price lunch programs. This middle school was the recipient of a 5-year GEAR-UP grant to increase the number of middle school students who stay in school and to encourage them to obtain some type of postsecondary training. Case workers associated with the GEAR-UP program identified students participating in this study as being at risk for dropping out of school because of poor attendance, low grades, high number of discipline referrals, or a combination of those factors.

One-way analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were conducted to determine the presence of significant mean differences. In addition, reliability analyses for the six scales were also conducted, and Pearson product-moment correlations were performed on the summary scales.


The most common primary Holland (1997) codes by gender for these middle school students were Artistic (n = 13, 32%) and Realistic (n = 10, 24%) for boys and Social (n = 19, 73%) and Artistic (n = 16, 32%) for girls. An ANOVA revealed significant differences for two types: Realistic, F(1, 89) = 21.85, p < .0001; and Social, F(1, 89) = 4.95, p < .05. Boys had higher mean scores on the Realistic scale (M = 22.83, SD = 13.70) compared with girls (M = 11.78, SD = 8.56), whereas girls had higher Social scale scores (M = 30.84, SD = 11.80) compared with boys (M = 25.38, SD = 11.30). More detailed information and tables are available in Osborn and Reardon (2004).

Reliability analyses were conducted on the total scale for each primary Holland code. Internal consistency reports were Realistic (.86), Investigative (.78), Artistic (.82), Social (.83), Enterprising (.84), and Conventional (.83). Pearson product-moment correlations for the summary scales were all positive and significant at the p < .001 level. Consistency was demonstrated by high correlations between Realistic-Investigative, Investigative-Artistic, Artistic-Social, and Enterprising-Conventional primary types.

Ninety-seven aspirations were listed at the middle school level. The most common aspirations for girls were teacher, lawyer, and singer, whereas professional athlete, lawyer, and doctor were the most common for boys. Aspiration summary codes were examined by gender, and significant differences were found. Boys had higher Realistic and Conventional summary scores, and girls had higher Artistic and Enterprising summary scores.

At the conclusion of the 6-week group career counseling experience, anecdotal comments from students indicated that they had learned about their interests, occupations, postsecondary opportunities, and decision-making approach and how to improve their positive self-talk. In addition, many stated that they found the groups enjoyable and that they would prefer the sessions to be longer in terms of time and the number of sessions. The most common negative statements had to do with physical space, such as the room location.

Implications for Practice

Our results suggest that the SDS:CE is a psychometrically sound instrument for this group of middle school students, specifically, for students who have been identified as being at risk of dropping out of school. On the basis of our experience with running 14 groups, we have suggestions for administration, scoring, and interpretation of the SDS:CE. We recommend that it be administered prior to the first session, which will allow for the profiles to be scored and reports generated (and thus available) for the first counseling session. Second, we recommend that the group leader walk among the students and read the items aloud. We found this to be a useful strategy in minimizing random response patterns and mistakes and helped slower or poor readers to stay on task.

Some students had one very high summary code, such as a 40, and the other scores were similar to each other and much lower. In this case, the group leader would include all occupations listed for that highest code, in addition to the original permutations of the three-letter summary code, with the assumption that the student would be more satisfied with the options that kept that highest code first. Anecdotal statements from students with this adjusted report seem to support this assumption; however, additional research focused on this question should be conducted.

We found some specific interventions to be effective when going over the SDS:CE interpretive reports with students. First, provide students with highlighters for marking occupations as a way to engage them in processing their interpretive reports. Second, a very brief overview of the report contents followed by a period of time for participants to review the report may be preferred to "walking them through the report" page by page. Third, group leaders may find that asking each group member to share with the larger group some themes they saw in the occupations they had highlighted, as well as those that they had crossed out, is a useful activity. Often, this was an eye-opening experience for them, in that they would make statements like "I didn't think about how much I really like working with my hands" or "I guess I really hate any job where I'll be sitting all day." In this way, the SDS:CE interpretive report helped to increase students' self-knowledge as described by CIP theory (Peterson et al., 2002).

Specific career concerns for middle school students have included the need for these students to see the connection between school and work (Shepherd Johnson, 2000), to develop interpersonal skills (Hill & Rojewski, 1999), and to increase occupational knowledge (Shepherd Johnson, 2000). The 6-week, CIP-formatted groups allowed us to address each of these issues. CIP theory has been described in the literature as a cognitive approach to career counseling and as having promise for the delivery of career services (Jepsen, 2000). It has been shown to be an effective tool in helping middle school students participating in a workshop on educational choices (Peterson, Long, & Phillips, 1999). We found that the coupling of the SDS:CE with CIP theory provided an easy-to-understand framework for the content and process of these career counseling groups.


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Hill, R. B., & Rojewski, J. W. (1999). Double jeopardy. Work ethic differences in youth at risk of school failure. The Career Development Quarterly, 47, 267-279.

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Holland, J. L., & Powell, A. B. (1994). Self-Directed Search: Career Explorer. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

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Osborn, D. S., & Reardon, R. C. (2004). Using the Self-Directed Search: Career Explorer with high-risk middle school students: Technical report number 42. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, Center for the Study of Technology in Counseling and Career Development. Retrieved December 2, 2005, from

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Debra S. Osborn, Counselor Education Program, Department of Psychological and Social Foundations, University of South Florida; Robert C. Reardon, Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, Florida State University. The authors express appreciation to Sarah Hartley and Jon Shy for their review of this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Debra S. Osborn, University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, Tampa, FL 33620 (e-mail:
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Author:Reardon, Robert C.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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