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Learning theory of careers choice & counselling

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People acquire their preferences through a variety of learning experiences, beliefs about themselves and the nature of their world emerge through direct and indirect education experiences. They take action on the basis of their beliefs using learned skills.

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

From social learning to happenstance

The original theory (Krumboltz et al, 1976, Mitchell & Krumboltz, 1990), known as the social learning theory of career decision making (SLTCDM), has recently been developed into the learning theory of careers counselling (LTCC) (Mitchell and Krumboltz, 1996). The more recent version attempts to integrate practical ideas, research and procedures to provide a theory that goes beyond an explanation of why people pursue various jobs: `While the two theories were published at different times, they can be regarded as one theory with two parts. Part one (SLTCDM) explains the origins of career choice and part two (LTCC) explains what career counsellors can do about many career related problems' (Mitchell and Krumboltz, 1996, 234). Most recently, Krumboltz has been developing and integrating ideas about the role of chance (happenstance) in career decision making. Summaries of these theory developments are given below.

At the heart of Krumboltz's thinking is Bandura's Social Learning Theory (SLT). Bandura identified three major types of learning experiences:

a) Instrumental:
results from direct experience when an individual is positively reinforced or punished for some behaviour and its associated cognitive skills.
b) Associative:
results from direct experience together with reinforcement when an individual associates some previously affectively neutral event or stimulus with an emotionally laden stimulus.
c) Vicarious:
when individuals learn new behaviours and skills by observing the behaviours of others or by gaining new information and ideas through media such as books, films and television.


This theory focuses on teaching clients career decision-making alternatives and makes use of the concept of the `triadic reciprocal interaction' (learning as the interaction with environment and genetic endowment) and emphasises the role of instrumental & associative learning. Consequently, key concepts/tools for the practitioner are reinforcement and modelling. The application of this theory to practice involves the practitioner attempting to identify and correct any incorrect beliefs held by the client about the decision making process.

It was developed to address the questions:

  • why people enter particular educational course or jobs;
  • why they may change direction during their lives;
  • why they may express various preferences for different activities at different points in their lives.

The following are identified as influential in these processes:

1.1 Influential factors:

Krumboltz examines the impact of 4 categories of factors:

1. Genetic Endowment and Special Abilities

  • race
  • gender
  • physical appearance & characteristics .

Individuals differ both in their ability to benefit from learning experiences and to get access to different learning experiences because of these types of inherited qualities.

2. Environmental Conditions and Events

  • social, cultural & political
  • economic forces
  • natural forces & natural resources.

These are generally outside the control of any one individual. Their influence can be planned or unplanned.

3. Learning Experiences

Each individual has a unique history of learning experiences that results in their occupational choice. They often don't remember the specific character or sequence of these learning experiences, but rather they remember general conclusions from them (e.g. I love animals/working with children). The two main types of learning experiences identified in the theory are:

instrumental learning experience

which consists of:

  • preceding circumstances/stimulus;
  • behavioural responses (overt & covert);
  • consequences .

associative learning experience

where individuals perceive a relationship between two (or more) sets of stimuli in the environment (e.g observation, reading or hearing about occupations). This can result in occupational stereotypes.

4. Task Approach Skills

Interactions among learning experiences, genetic characterises, and environmental influences result in the development of task approach skills. These include:

  • personal standards of performance;
  • work habits;
  • emotional responses.

Previously learned task approach skills that are applied to a new task or problem both affect the outcome of that task or problem and may themselves be modified.

1.2 Resulting cognitions, beliefs, skills & actions:

As a result of the complex interaction of these four types of influencing factors (i.e. genetic endowment, environment, learning and task approach skills), people form generalisations (beliefs) which represent their own reality. These beliefs about themselves and the world of work influence their approach to learning new skills and ultimately affect their aspirations and actions. The SLTCDM refers to people's beliefs about themselves as either:

Self-Observation Generalisations:
an overt or covert statement evaluating one's own performance or assessing one's own interests and values. Involves a constant assessment of our own performance;


World-View Generalisations:
observations about our environment which is used to predict what will occur in the future and in other environments (e.g. the caring professions).

1.3 Task Approach Skills and Career Decision Making:

Krumboltz proposes a seven stage career decision-making model (DECIDES):

Define the problem:
recognizing the decision;
Establish the action plan:
refining the decision;
Clarify the values:
examining (self-observations & world-view generalisations);
Identify alternatives:
generating alternatives;
Discover probable outcomes:
gathering information;
Eliminate alternatives:
assessing information
Start action:
planning & executing this 6 step sequence of decision-making behaviours.

The use of these task approach skills of career decision making depends on relevant learning. The most effective career development requires individuals to be exposed to the widest possible range of learning experiences, regardless of race, gender, etc.

1.4 Potential Problems for Professional Practice:

Several types of problems may arise because of dysfunctional or inaccurate world-view and self-observation generalizations. According to Krumboltz, these are that people may:

  • fail to recognize that a problem exists;
  • fail to make a decision or solve a problem ;
  • eliminate a potentially satisfying alternative for inappropriate reasons ;
  • choose poor alternatives for inappropriate reasons;
  • become anxious over perceived inability to achieve goals.

Techniques and strategies for guidance follow from an assessment of the problem.


In 1996, Krumboltz developed the Learning Theory of Careers Choice and Counselling (LTCC). Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996:250) state that `the Social Learning Theory of Careers Decision Making provides a coherent explanation of a person's career path after it happens but it does not explain what a careers counselor can do to help people shape their own paths'. So, the LTCC was developed to provide `a guide to practising career counsellors who want to know what they can do now to help people troubled with a variety of career-related concerns'.

2.1 Summary of Practical Applications:

Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996) identify four fundamental trends with which people must cope when making career choices in modern society and with which careers practitioners must help:

    a) People need to expand their capabilities and interests:
    Practitioners should assist clients to explore new activities, rather than routinely directing them on the basis of measured interests that reflect limited past experiences.
    b) People need to prepare for changing work tasks:
    Learning new skills for the changing labour market can be very stressful for clients. Practitioners have a role to play in helping them to help them cope with stress as they learn to develop new skills on an ongoing basis.
    c) People need to be empowered to take action:
    Many issues relevant to career decisions are often overlooked in guidance practice (for example, a family’s reaction to taking a particular job). This could cause a fear of the decision making process (referred to by Krumboltz as `zeteophobia') or cause delay in making a decision. Practitioners need to be prepared to help with these issues as well as providing effective support during the exploration process.
    d) Career Practitioners need to play an extended role:
    Career and personal counselling should be integrated. Issues such as burnout, career change, peer relationships, obstacles to career development and the work role itself together with its effect on other life roles are examples of potential problems that should attract the support of the careers practitioner.

2.2 Other suggestions:

    • The role of careers practitioners and the goals of careers guidance and counselling need to be re-evaluated. Practitioners actively need to promote client learning. This may require creative re-thinking which involves designing new learning experiences for clients (e.g. careers practitioners become coaches and mentors to help clients meet the changes in work force requirements). It will also involve developing flexibility in clients (e.g. teaching clients that the criteria for work satisfaction are likely to change over time, as are labour market requirements).
    • Learning experiences should be used to increase the range of opportunities that can be considered in career exploration. Practitioners should attempt to discover unlimited experiences among clients and offer proper learning solutions.
    • Assessment results (of aptitudes, interests, beliefs, values and personality types) can be used to create new learning experiences. For example, aptitude test results can be used to focus on new learning. Key interests identified through assessment need to be developed. The key issue for practitioners is to resist accepting test results as an indication of `given' abilities. Rather, as a framework for identifying areas for change and development.
    • Intervention strategies suggested by Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996) include those which are:
    • a) developmental and preventive:
      e.g. careers education, use of job clubs, occupational information resources and simulations like work experience.
      b) targeted and remedial:
      ~career practitioners becoming proficient in using cognitive restructuring. This implies `reframing' the perspective of the client. For example, a client who is extremely nervous about attending for selection interview should rather accept that the interview is an opportunity to impress the prospective employers and the other candidates (positive self-talk).
      ~careers practitioners should use behavioural counselling techniques, including role playing or trying new behaviours, desensitization when dealing with phobias and `paradoxical intention' (i.e. a client is helped to engage in the types of behaviour that have created a problem).

2.3 Evaluating and Applying the LTCC:

Krumboltz discusses the increasingly important questions of measuring the outcomes of guidance and evaluating practice.

a) New Outcome Measures:

Two favourite measures in careers practice are:

  • indecision:a major goal for practice has been overcoming decision. However, in the new labour market, being `open minded' will be an increasingly attractive quality.
  • congruence:work environments are becoming increasingly fluid. Job descriptions are becoming less task orientated and more outcome orientated. Trying to match individuals to congruent environments assumes that both individuals and environments will remain constant.

b) Emerging Criteria:

The LTCC would put more emphasis on practitioners asking questions like these:

  • How successful have my interventions been in stimulating new learning on the part of my clients?
  • How well have my interventions helped my clients cope will a constantly changing world of work?
  • How much progress are my clients making in creating a satisfying life for themselves?


Most recently, Krumboltz has been developing his ideas around supporting (even encouraging) career indecision (Mitchell et al., 1999; Krumboltz & Levin, 2004). He promotes the idea that not only is indecision sensible and desirable, but that clients can create and benefit from unplanned events.

Key ideas from this new development of the theory are:

  • The ultimate goal of career counselling is creating satisfying lives, not just making a decision;
  • Tests should be used to stimulate learning, not just to match;
  • Practitioners should get clients to engage in exploratory action;
  • Open-mindedness should be celebrated, not discouraged;
  • Benefits should be maximised from unplanned events; and
  • Lifelong learning is essential.

Some of the implications for practitioners for this new dimension of the theory are discussed and include:

  • Career counselling should be a lifelong process, not a one-off event;
  • The distinction between career counselling and personal counselling should disappear;
  • ‘Transitional counselling’ is more appropriate than career counselling;
  • Professional training should be expanded to ensure practitioners are properly supported in this extended role.


Empirical evidence relevant to the SLTCDM is reviewed by Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996), who conclude that there is considerable support for key propositions in the theory, but that: `Much remains to be learned' (p270). The strength of the theory lies in its potential to `evolve and change easily as new facts and anomalies are revealed' (Krumboltz, 1994, p29). Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) identify the strengths of SLTCDM as: `first in its great explicitness with respect to its objectives and the means to accomplish these objectives, and second in its emphasis on the environment and social influences' (p177). Brown (1990) agrees with this analysis, though observes that although materials have been produced, they have not yet been integrated into career development programmes to the extent of those produced by Holland and Super (p357).

Negative aspects of the theory are also identified. Brown (1990) argues that the biggest weakness of the theory is its failure to account for job change (p357), whilst Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) argue that there is too much emphasis on the choice itself and not enough on the adjustment process. One other weakness is the `paucity of new data to validate the idea of the theory and the relative shortage of new ideas or methods to accomplish its objectives' (Osipow and Fitzgerald, 1996, p177). Brown (1990) notes that although Krumboltz's theory is currently not a major influence on either research or the practice of career counselling, this seems likely to change since it is attractive in different respects to both researchers and practitioners (p357).


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