Practical Activities Using Holland's Theory in Career Counseling Courses

By Diana Charnley & Regina Gavin Williams

Holland’s theory is one of the most utilized and well-known career development theories in use today (Gottfredson & Johnstun, 2009; Nauta, 2010). Holland’s theory is a person-environment fit model that focuses on pairing people who have certain characteristics with work environments that share those characteristics, thus facilitating a satisfying and enduring career match (Holland, 1959). Through use of assessment, Holland (1959) asserts that both people and jobs can be grouped into one of the following six categories: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional (RIASEC). Beyond the predominant group may be other resemblances, leading to a list of three categories or letters, referred to as the Holland Code.

Given the extensive use of Holland’s theory to structure career development across disciplines, most career development courses include instruction on this theory (Rayman & Gottfredson, 2020). Additionally, experiential learning formats lead to superior learning outcomes (Burch et al., 2019). Thus, experiential activities that apply Holland’s theory can be an essential learning tool within counselor education. Two activities that have been implemented in career counseling courses are shared herein: Career Interest Party and Holland Guess Who.

Career Interest Party

Utilizing the Career Interest Party exercise can help counselor educators strengthen their students’ career development facilitator skills and practice counseling micro skills. It can also help counselor educators introduce the topic of adolescent career-decision making and career exploration to their students. The Career Interest Party is an opportunity for adolescents to begin thinking about how academic majors and careers can be related to their personality and interests using Holland’s Code (Bolles, 2004). This exercise helps students learn about their interests and skills and how knowing their personality and interests might help them choose work environments and careers that are good matches. The facilitator of this activity gives the Career Interest Party worksheet to participants which includes the six RIASEC categories and a description of the common personality type associated with each. Participants are then asked to choose the group they are most drawn to - the people they would most like to meet and talk with, followed by a second and third choice of a group. This represents the participants’ three-letter Holland Code. Participants are then asked to mingle at the party according to their Holland code with stations around the room representing each of the six categories.

At each station is an envelope filled with example careers that best match that type according to the first letter in the code. Participants at each station are then instructed to choose three or four of the careers in the envelope and work together to brainstorm the post-secondary training that might be needed for that particular career, writing this information down to share in the larger group at the end of the activity. Participants will rotate three times and repeat this activity to complete their Holland Code. As a wrap-up, the facilitator leads a discussion about linking careers to personality and post-secondary education exploration. Counselor educators can have their students practice within the role of the facilitator, as well as serve in the role of participant to better conceptualize how they might administer this activity in professional practice.

Hexagon W People

Holland Guess Who

Holland Guess Who is an activity that allows students to apply and discuss their knowledge of RIASEC codes to well-known people. This activity helps students tie Holland’s theory to existing information about public figures using a game-based learning format, increasing learning effectiveness and interest in learners (Hajian, 2019).

In-Person Learning/Counseling Environments. When applying this activity in an in-person environment, areas of the room can be sectioned into each of the six codes. Visual aids can be useful in dividing the space. Then, select and share visual aids and information about well-known individuals and ask the group to vote (by moving to that area of the room) on which Holland code they think the person is highest in and why. The facilitator can then ask those in each area to explain why they chose that code and to remind all participants that they can move around the room freely if they change their mind. Facilitating a productive discussion may involve open ended questions for probing, such as:

  • What made you choose this code?
  • How does this code fit or not fit with their activities throughout their life?
  • Why did you choose this code over another?

Engaging two or more groups with one another and challenging them to debate their cases to one another can also be productive.

Virtual Learning/Counseling Environments. If conducting this activity virtually, utilizing the online communication platform resources (i.e., polls, reactions, emojis, jamboards) to creatively prompt students to vote and then discuss will also create a rich experience. Though this activity is an exercise to promote counseling student learning, it can also be applied as an intervention with career counseling groups and clients to facilitate deeper understanding of their career assessment results or personal characteristics within Holland’s Theory.

Considering Culture and Diversity. When choosing public figures, consideration of both diversity in careers and Holland codes as well as diversity and representation with respect to cultural identities is important to create a richer experience (Blustein, 2011; Gysbers et al., 2014; Magnano et al., 2021). One suggestion is to evaluate representation in examples using the ADDRESSING model (Hays, 2001). Some examples of different career paths and codes may include religious figures, celebrities, social justice advocates, politicians or world leaders, or artists and performers.

Implementing Creative Activities in Practice and the Classroom

Experiential learning activities can help students apply their knowledge of theory to practice and may better engage students in the learning process. The two career development activities presented allow students to conceptualize how Holland’s Theory is applied in career development via RIASEC personality types and Holland Codes. These activities can also add to students’ repertoire as future practitioners and encourage creativity in career counseling. The Career Interest Party and Holland Guess Who activities can be used as engaging tools to further clients' career exploration and decision-making processes, while taking their personal characteristics and best fit work environment into consideration.



Blustein, D. L. (2011). A relational theory of working. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79, 1–17.

Bolles, R. N. (2004). What color is your parachute? A practical guide for job-hunting and career changes. Ten Speed Press.

Burch, G. F., Giambatista, R., Batchelor, J. H., Burch, J. J., Hoover, J. D., & Heller, N.A. (2019). A meta-analysis of the relationship between experiential learning and learning outcomes. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 17(3), 239-273. https://doi.org/10.1111/dsji.12188

Gottfredson, G. D., & Johnstun, M. L. (2009). John Holland’s contributions: A theory-ridden approach to career assistance. The Career Development Quarterly, 58(2), 99-107. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2009.tb00050.x

Gysbers, N. C., Heppner, M. J. & Johnson, J. A. (2014). Career counseling: A life career development perspective. In N. C. Gysbers, M. J. Heppner, & J. A. Johnson (Eds.), Career counseling: Holism, diversity, and strengths (4th ed., pp. 3-20). American Counseling Association.

Hajian, S. (2019). Transfer of learning and teaching: A review of transfer theories and effective instructional practices. Journal of Education, 7(1), 93-111.

Hays, P. A. (2001). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: A framework for clinicians and counselors. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10411-000

Holland, J. L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6, 35-45. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0040767

Magnano, P., Zammitti, A., & Santisi, G. (2021). Representations of work and decent work and life planning: Qualitative research on a group of socially vulnerable people. TPM: Testing, Psychometrics, Methodology in Applied Psychology, 28, 1–13.

Nauta, M. M. (2010). The development, evolution, and status of Holland’s theory of vocational personalities: Reflections and future directions for counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 57(1), 11-22. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018213 

Rayman, J. R., & Gottfredson, G. D. (2020). My life with a theory: John L. Holland's autobiography and theory of careers. National Career Development Association.



Diana CharnleyDiana Charnley, PhD, LMHC (WA), LPC (MI), ACS, NCC (she/they) is a Core Faculty and CACREP Liaison at City University of Seattle, where she enjoys regularly teaching the career counseling course. Her PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision is from Western Michigan University. She is an LMHC in Washington state and an LPC in Michigan, as well as holding ACS and NCC credentials. She has a small telehealth private practice, including career counseling clients, and previous experience working as a career counselor and counselor in university, federal prison, in-patient, and agency settings with a variety of populations. She can be reached at charnleydiana@cityu.edu



Regina WilliamsRegina Gavin Williams, PhD, LCMHC (NC), NCC, is an Assistant Professor of Counselor Education and Director of the Career Counseling Program in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education and at North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC. She is also a licensed clinical mental health counselor (NC) working in private practice. Her research focuses on the college and career readiness, adult self-sufficiency and mental health/wellness of adolescents aging out of the foster care system, with a secondary research focus related to the intersection of career development and diversity. Her teaching interests include career counseling, multicultural and gender issues in counseling, and supervised practicum in counseling. She currently serves as the Chair of the North Carolina State Youth Advisory Council. She can be reached at rwill233@nccu.edu

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