Do personality tests make you afraid to be yourself?

Early March, I journeyed London to Birmingham for a focus group with students of Birmingham City University. BCU is currently in the process of launching GradPlus, a student development and employability program, that forms part of their vision to transform how they link student, education, community and business. To find out more about the BCU GradPlus initiative and the evolving role of education in student employment and personal development, visit http://www.bcu.ac.uk/student-info/why-study-at-bcu/bcu-graduate-plus. Potential.ly will form a key part of Grad+, and I was keen to understand how to best maximize student engagement and impact of the GradPlus program by sitting down and discussing it with some BCU students in a small focus group.

My first focus group at BCU consisted of eight high performing students in the Health, Education and Life Sciences faculty. What started off as a slightly awkward ‘vibe’ – quite typical of what happens when strangers get to know each other – quickly turned into an atmosphere of trust and relaxation once we’d made some quick introductions and explained some ground rules. My only requirements? That everyone be honest about their experience with Potential.ly and respectful to their fellow students and their thoughts and opinions. As far as I was concerned, everything else was fair game.

The students exhibited great insight and willingness to share their experiences and build on their opinions by seeking out the experiences of their peers. One topic that emerged, is one that I repeatedly encounter, and that is that personality tests can be a bit intimidating. Questions such as “am I allowed to be me?” or “how will people think of me” pose a challenge and the discussion explored the potential reluctance of some students to complete the questionnaire honestly. This was motivated by the presumption that certain traits or characteristics (such as organised, confident) are highly desired by tutors or employers. The concept of “highly desirable traits” evolved into the “ideal personality” – the idea that tutors/employers had a preconception of what constituted the ‘perfect person’ and would serve as the basis for decision making and attitude towards the student.

I believe this small sample reflects many of the concerns surrounding personality testing – and that many people have the idea or belief that there is such a thing as the “ideal personality”. I’m sure we’ve all at some point experienced the squirming feelings accompanying a perceived inadequacy and the resulting insecurity. People can be afraid that they won’t be perceived as ‘normal’, peers or managers may look at them differently and that we’ve all voiced – either aloud or to ourselves – “I wish I was more like…”. The idea that an archetypal or “apex personality” exists is however a complete myth!

The traditional remit of the education system has been to transmit knowledge and categorise according to performance. The economics of classrooms require a streamlining of thought, a practice that means focus on the group rather than individuals. The result is that individuality and diversity, although valued in philosophy, is often given little time to develop.

Universities have a responsibility to build on the foundations of school and evolve the interaction from “institution instruct, students comply” to “students drive, institutions guide”. This entails a shift from linear to dyadic communication and building student empowerment to be active participants in their education by actively engaging in experiences and initiatives that develop their confidence, competency and capability. Institutions have a responsibility to create values and infrastructure that places deliberate focus on personal development within education, that operates in conjunction with academic outcomes and connects the resources available to achieve this. Institutions need to pioneer this change, recognizing that this change is not a ‘local philosophy’ but the new raison d’etre of education.

So what is our role in this new raison d’etre as technology providers? Our responsibility is to support universities in building the infrastructure and mechanism for delivering on their aspirations. To provide clarity on a medium that is, in some cases, misunderstood or under appreciated. Potential.ly is a friendly interface for the two key stakeholders in the student development relationship; the student and personal tutor. For students, it helps students understand and appreciate their personal preferences and style. To understand that awareness is not a limitation, rather the frontier of an unchartered journey that cannot be completed in isolation – from oneself or others. For personal tutors, it supports them in provoking ideas and conversation and facilitating the exchange to allow innovation and evolution of thought and action.

So what’s in it for us? The end goal is to be an active participants and thought leader in the great education debate. In the short term, we’re here to create the conversation and demonstrate how we can be a part of the change.

About the author

Clayton Black

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