Assessment centre activities and examples

7 September 2022

Are you an assessor looking for assessment centre activities to run? If so, we can help

Our experiential learning materials are used in assessment centres all over the world, by heavyweight names like these:

logos and testimonials for our materials

As an assessor, this post will guide you through the whole process and prepare you to lead a selection of effective activities.

Or if you’ll be attending an assessment centre, this post will give you an idea of the logic underpinning the activities you’re about to encounter.

Here’s what we’ll cover. Click the links to skip ahead to any section:

  1. Key assessment centre concepts
  2. Benefits of an assessment centre
  3. The role of the assessor
  4. Activities for recruitment assessment centres 
  5. Group assessment centre activities with examples
  6. Role-play assessment centre activities with examples
  7. Virtual assessment centre activities with examples
  8. In-tray assessment centre activities with examples
  9. FAQs

Key assessment centre concepts

We’ll start by introducing some key concepts in case you’re not familiar. To skip this and go straight to the activities, click here.

Assessment centre

A methodology used to identify the candidate(s) best suited to a role or position. 

Despite the name, an assessment centre isn’t a specific physical place. It’s a set of exercises to assist with personnel selection, designed to simulate the job and give participants an opportunity to demonstrate the skills required to succeed.

Assessor

A person tasked with carrying out assessment centre activities, often with formal training to ensure objectivity.

Candidate / participant

A person being assessed for their suitability for a role via completion of the assessment centre.

Interview

A type of assessment centre activity in which candidates are given question-based prompts to determine the suitability of their experience and attitude.

Group exercises

A type of assessment centre activity which multiple candidates work together to complete, possibly while playing assigned roles.

Presentation exercises

A type of assessment centre activity in which individuals give a presentation on areas requested by the assessor.

In-tray exercises

A type of assessment centre activity which simulates a workflow that a successful candidate will encounter on the job, to assess their ability to perform tasks, manage time, and delegate responsibility.

MTa Select

Our kit for assessment centres, containing eight activities designed especially to let candidates showcase their qualities while assessors observe a whole range of skills, attitudes, approaches and behaviours that might be missed in interviews.

Benefits of an assessment centre

Assessment centres are popular for a handful of reasons:

  • They save time and allow more effective use of resource by letting you assess multiple applicants at once
  • They reveal applicant traits that may not be obvious in a traditional interview context, for example leadership and interpersonal skills
  • They offer a more robust demonstration of participants’ soft skills than might be available through other methods
  • They are versatile and flexible, giving assessors the opportunity to assess a wide range of competencies
  • They leave an audit trail which can be used to demonstrate that fair hiring processes were followed

The role of the assessor

An assessor’s role is to observe participant behaviour, assess their performance, and carry out objective judgements based on predetermined criteria.

Assessors will understand that objectivity is hard to achieve. We are all prone to bias, and special frameworks or models of evaluation are often employed to ensure that assessment on a good-bad scale is consistent for different participants and by different assessors.

The ORCE Model is a popular assessment framework. By taking care to observe and record behaviour during the assessment, assessors have a more solid baseline to work from when classifying and evaluating it afterwards. 

There is plenty written about such frameworks – in academic contexts and beyond – so beyond mentioning their relevance, this blog post won’t go into any more detail.

(Note that effective assessment centre activities will be designed in such a way that the opportunity for such bias is reduced, but it is not possible to remove it completely.)

Assessors are also tasked with documenting the assessment process to create a record that can be referred back to at a future date, and which can demonstrate in a legal context that the recruitment process was carried out fairly and in accordance with relevant legislation.

What makes a good assessor?

Broadly speaking, an effective assessor will possess the following traits:

  • An ability to make accurate observations both of behaviours and their impact
  • An ability to remain objective while observing
  • An ability to accurately document your observations
  • An ability to assess observations with regard to the relevant criteria

These traits are relevant in all assessment centre contexts. Depending on the type of assessment centre you work in, you may need to develop one or more context-specific skills. 

Activities for recruitment assessment centres 

If you’ve been tasked with designing or running an assessment centre, you may be on the lookout for suitable activities. This section includes a few recommendations to get you started, along with information about their strengths and relevance.

The activities in this section flow nicely into each other and would work well for an assessment centre, if you’re in a hurry. 

Icebreaker

Icebreakers are best unobserved and unassessed, as it reduces the pressure on participants and lets them acclimatise to the day. 

One popular example of an icebreaker is to split into pairs or threes, give each participant a few secret things to find out about their teammates, and then invite them to share with the group at the end.

Skills assessed: the ability to listen, communication skills, presentation skills

Marshmallow challenge

To warm people up after the icebreaker, go for something fun and lowkey. One popular example is the marshmallow challenge, in which participants must build a tower as tall as possible using only marshmallows and dried spaghetti.

If you do run this activity, check out our blog post outlining how to do it properly: i.e., in a way that will actually give you something to assess. The marshmallow challenge is one of many activities which, done incorrectly, can yield little to no useful results.

Skills assessed: listening skills, valuing others’ ideas, leadership, influencing others, innovation, trial and error

Role-based scenario

Lots of assessment centres used role-based scenarios. The logic is that giving participants the opportunity to react to a scenario relevant to the role they’re applying for will prompt them to think about how they’d deal with it, and that discussing performance afterwards will allow other participants to input their ideas. 

In practice though, be aware that role-play can be a hindrance to proper assessment. Participants are being asked to imagine how someone else might respond to a situation, rather than showing how they would actually respond: as a result, you may be seeing a performance rather than real behaviour.

Skills assessed: role-specific qualities, communication skills (if discussed), presentation skills 

Hotseat

This simple activity can be useful in assessing how well participants perform under pressure. Prepare a selection of topics, then ask participants to give a 2-minute talk about their topic. Make sure to give all participants the same amount of time to prepare ahead of their talk, to ensure they’re held to similar standards.

To increase the predictive validity of this activity – that is, how well it indicates performance in the role – choose a topic that prompts thought and reflection relevant to the role. 

Skills assessed: ability to perform under pressure, communication skills, presentation skills

Interview

A traditional interview where candidates answer questions about their past experience and suitability for the role can be employed as part of an assessment centre. 

Constructing an effective interview is an art in itself, and one we won’t delve into here. We will say this, though: make sure questions are relevant to the role, and that they give participants the opportunity to demonstrate their suitability.

Skills assessed: ability to perform under pressure, communication skills, role-specific skills

MTa Select for recruitment assessment centres

Our MTa Select kit is designed especially for use in assessment centres. 

These assessment activities can be used to evaluate over one hundred defined qualities – including leadership, influencing, customer focus, conflict management and more – making them a popular choice for assessment centres worldwide.

 “MTa Select now forms an integral part of our Recruitment Assessment Centre – and has been well received by our own staff and candidates themselves”.

  • Constable John Ritchie, Grampian Police

If you’re looking for an assessment centre activity and would like a personalised recommendation, click here

Group assessment centre activities with examples

An integral part of an assessment centre is to see how participants interact with others, and group-based activities are a reliable way to assess this. Here are a few ideas for group assessment centre activities.

Group discussion

Split participants out into groups and give each group a topic. Ask them to discuss the topic, possibly with a prompt for different people to advocate for different stances within the discussion, then observe the ongoing discussion and interpersonal dynamics. 

Skills assessed: communication skills, ability to listen, valuing the opinions of others, ability to respond to new information

Group presentation

This group activity expands on the above by requiring a presentation at the end of the discussion, to which each participant must contribute. This addition allows assessors to see more interpersonal dynamics at play. 

Skills assessed: how roles emerge, leadership, how people advocate their ideas, negotiation, presentation skills

Case studies

This type of activity is a good twist on role-based activities, as they address some of the aforementioned shortcomings of role-play.

Assessors give each group a printout with details about a situation, then ask them to decide the most appropriate response from the company’s perspective. At the end, answers can be compared with company policy to determine the accuracy of their response. 

This type of activity can also be done individually.

Skills assessed: knowledge of the role, group decision making, communication skills.

The NASA Challenge

This group activity puts participants in a simulated lunar mission gone awry. Together, group members must decide which items they’ll take when traversing the treacherous lunar surface between their crashed lunar module and the mission control centre.

When running this activity, be careful that you’re doing it right.

We also offer the NASA Challenge as a virtual assessment centre activity over on MTa Immersion.

Skills assessed: listening skills, valuing others’ ideas, influencing others

Perspectives

This experiential learning activity is designed to get participants thinking about the best way to fulfil a deliberately ambiguous brief. Through the simple act of arranging pictures, participants are given an opportunity to advocate their ideas, attempt to build consensus and perform under pressure.

Observing who is able to do these things, and how well, should yield useful insights.

Perspectives is available as a virtual assessment centre activity on MTa Immersion and can be customised based on your requirements.

Skills assessed: advocating ideas, building consensus, working under pressure

Role-play assessment centre activities with examples

By asking participants to play specific roles, you can see how they behave in a wider variety of situations and within different power dynamics. 

However, as we mentioned previously, you may actually be assessing how good people are at acting. Participants are not responding to social stimuli as themselves, they’re responding how they think someone playing the role should respond.

Be aware of this if you decide to include role-play activities in your assessment centre. And remember: MTa Select avoids this issue by giving you the opportunity to see how people really behave: in real situations, and under real pressure.

Here are a few examples of role-play assessment centre activities.

Bad feedback

One participant plays the role of a superior, another plays a subordinate. The latter receives negative feedback and must deal with it gracefully and constructively.

Skills assessed: ability to receive bad feedback, ability to act on feedback, identify areas of improvement

Angry customer

One participant plays the role of a dissatisfied customer, another plays an employee dealing with them. They must follow company procedure as best as possible and potentially decide how to act when the procedure stops being relevant.

Skills assessed: ability to work under pressure, knowledge of procedures, customer interfacing skills

Role-specific situations

If you’re running an assessment centre for the police, it would make sense to simulate an arrest or the search of a suspect. This increases the predictive validity of the task by giving participants the chance to show how they’d approach a situation they are likely to encounter in the role.

Skills assessed: desired role-specific skills

Virtual assessment centre activities with examples

Given the advent of technology and remote working, some assessment centres will have online components (or be completely virtual). Here are some ideas for activities to use in this setting.

Virtual ice breaker

By using breakout rooms, you’re able to split participants into groups and give them a private environment to discuss things. Task the participants in each breakout room with finding facts about each other, then close the breakout rooms and invite all groups back to the main space to share.

Observe which participants are keen to share, how well they communicate, the type of information they share, and so on.

Virtual group discussion

Use breakout rooms to split participants into groups and give them the opportunity to discuss things in a private environment. By moving between breakout rooms, you are also able to observe and assess groups individually.

Consider not letting groups know when they will be observed: this will encourage them to discuss things naturally, rather than waiting until you arrive to begin.

Virtual group presentation

Expanding the group discussion into a group presentation, with the requirement to create digital presentation materials, gives you the opportunity to assess how well participants can use technology, collaborate on online documents, and so on.

Psychometric assessments

Many psychometric assessments are available, each offering insight into a different combination of traits. The most suitable one will depend on the situation and the nature of the role being assessed for.

These assessments can be done in person, but lend themselves particularly well to virtual.

In-tray assessment centre activities with examples

In-tray activities place participants in simulated work environments to give assessors a chance to see how they would behave in the role. There are a couple of ways to run these activities, with examples below.

Full inbox

Participants are given a simulated mailbox with a number of emails of varying urgency and are asked to prioritise these tasks and delegate (where relevant) to create an example workflow.

The expectation here isn’t for the participant to complete the work; rather to show that they are able to manage their time and respond to the pressures of the role, rather than just tackling tasks one at a time as they appear in their inbox (which is rarely the most efficient way off working).

Skills assessed: ability to delegate, time management skills, ability to manage a workload, performance under pressure

A paper-based version of the above

Not all roles and workplaces lend themselves best to digital. If you’re assessing for a role where there’ll be lots of interpersonal or paper-based tasks arriving, make sure this is reflected in the assessment centre.

You could give participants a tray full of documents and memos, then have people come to their desk to add other tasks to their workflow. The objective is the same: to create an indicative workflow and showcase how they would prioritise the incoming tasks.

Skills assessed: ability to delegate, time management skills, ability to manage a workload, performance under pressure

Just 35 Minutes

This activity from MTa Select is an in-tray exercise that utilises computer, fax and paper to simulate a busy work environment. Participants must identify the big issues and avoid getting caught up in the detail. 

Skills assessed: evaluating and judging, decision making, focusing on critical issues, prioritisation

FAQs

If you’ve still got questions about running an assessment centre, the following section should have you covered. And if not, drop us a message on the chat box below and we’ll do our best to help.

How should I structure an assessment centre?

Allow a full day to run the assessment centre, with time for introductions, explanations, and reviews. Remember that people’s ability to concentrate is limited, so a few hours in the middle of the day may yield better results than a whole day 9-5.

Aim for a large enough group to give participants the chance to interact with each other. Low double digits is a good size.

Leave time for lunch and other informal breaks, so that participants can interact in a natural setting: this can be just as revealing as the formal activities.

If you need a pre-made recruitment assessment centre, just run the five activities in this section.

What should an assessment centre include?

An assessment centre should include activities designed to test the competencies relevant for the role you are recruiting for.

You should also include time for review, where relevant. This gives you a mechanism to give feedback to participants and let them know next steps.

Factor in time for breaks and food, too! Participants will be at their best when they’re not under pressure for the whole day.

Some informal time at the beginning is a good shout as well, as it gives participants time to get acquainted with each other and the environment they’ll be spending time in.

What makes an effective assessment centre?

The best assessment centres utilise multiple exercises to assess each competency: i.e., a structured interview may assess communication, and a group exercise will give assessors another opportunity to observe participants communicating.

Similarly, intelligence could be assessed by a psychometric test and a work sample exercise.

How many assessors should there be in an assessment centre?

This depends on the role and the organisation: we would recommend at least 2.

How long should an assessment centre last? 

Again, this depends. We’d recommend not making an assessment centre longer than a workday. Ideally, a little shorter so that people can maintain concentration throughout.

Can you recommend any useful resources?

This chapter from a textbook dealing with the role of an assessor includes some useful information about common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

You can read about how MTa materials have helped a variety of organisations to run assessment centres:

Conclusion

Assessment centres are powerful tools for personnel selection, across a range of roles and industries.

Depending on the nature of the role you are recruiting for, the components of your assessment centre will vary. This blog post was written to connect you with some activities that might be suitable for your assessment centre.

For assessors looking for out-of-the-box activities, we have created MTa Select specifically to help you get more value from your assessment centres. 

If you need help finding activities for your assessment centre, get in touch via our contact form or the live chat below and we’ll be happy to help.