Have you ever wondered who wrote the questions on the ATCB exam? Did you know that the ATCB offers opportunity for its members to make changes to this exam in order to maintain the competency level of its professional members? Having been an exam writer for the ATCB for over a year, I will share how I began, and my experience volunteering for the Board.

My practice as an exam writer was greatly informed by my own experience with the exam itself. In 2017 I was qualified to take the ATBC exam to become board certified. Like many others, I dreaded the 200 questions and the three-hour marathon session, but was motivated to take it mainly because I was interested in expanding my practice to include supervision of students and new professionals. I passed the exam in one try, and in doing so gained a great deal of respect for it and fully comprehended its value. 

Afterward, I recognized a few things, First, the exam asks you to think as an art therapist and test your professional judgment in clinical situations. It was obvious that you are expected to know what is helpful and consider the contextual elements. Second, I felt some of the questions were too long. With 200 questions that include clinical vignettes, it was a lot to read. I felt it was partly an endurance test, a demanding factor irrelevant to my art therapy competency. Admittedly, I was so overstimulated  I had to bury my face in a pillow for hours that evening to recover. Third, I felt that some of the questions and answers could be understood from different perspectives. There are many variables for art therapy settings and possible decisions that an art therapist can make. I felt as if more than one answer could be correct in some situations if you consider presenting situations in different contexts. Walking away from it, I felt things could be changed to make the exam more user-friendly while maintaining its vigor. Therefore, when the Board called for volunteers to develop the exam, I jumped at the opportunity. 

My experience as a therapist influences my perspective when I write for these exams. Much of what we do is to hold others: We hold the time and the therapeutic space in the art room. We hold others’ emotional experiences and keep their stories in mind. We hold their artwork. As an exam writer, I hold other art therapists’ perspectives and practices in mind, and think about what would make sense to people practicing in different parts of the world and cities around the country. I know art therapists practicing outside the United States, and in 10 states across the country. Art therapists everywhere continue to push boundaries and set up practices in uncharted places. My career, in diverse settings with a wide range of populations, also informs my thoughts about the exam. There are fundamental principles and boundaries that allow an art therapist to work across different environments. It is important that working art therapists share these values and understandings of how to achieve success in different settings. 

Everything written for the ATCBE is grounded in current research and available literature. Even though a lot of us have empirical knowledge learned from our teachers or gained in the field, unless things were written in a peer-reviewed publication, we are not able to apply them to the exam. In this way, the exam develops as the field of knowledge does. Conversely, it stimulates me as a practitioner to become interested in contributing to the field’s literature. It can be quite interesting to think about how to create questions based on what’s written in a book or journal article. At the same time, it has become obvious to me that we need more people to help develop the profession and reflect its diversity. 

We know that art therapists must constantly make decisions that are ethically sound during client care; I do make a point to focus the exam on measure of competency but not put the candidates in awkward positions. There were times I reviewed an exam item that gave at least two answers that could both be right. Recalling my own experience with the exam, I make a point to rewrite such items so that we can focus on competency, especially when it comes to following certain rules. 

Volunteering for the ATCB exam board has many benefits. I have received training on how to construct exam items. I have also learned about the philosophy and techniques involved in writing exam questions. I work remotely and anonymously with other qualified exam writers; we review each other’s items. We are each assigned topic areas of our choice and pitch in on items others have drafted. Through the experience made possible by the new online platform, this process allows us to focus on what is universally acceptable in art therapy practices across the board. Volunteering for the ATCBE board has also brought some welcomed changes to my professional practice by satisfying some of my scholarly interests. Reading and mapping the history of the literature within my area of interest, I have begun to see things that could be done better in the field. The lack of literature in some areas also means there is a lack of knowledge to be passed to newer generations of art therapists. This has ignited my interest in writing about my own practice. 

Another aspect I enjoy about exam writing is that it calls for critical thinking and editing skills. Being a non-native speaker, I focus on writing items that get to the point and nothing more. I focus on keeping the core question intact with the fewest words. Much of the characteristics of Hemingway’s writing (short and to the point) and “The Elements of Style” (you can only read it one way, and it means only one thing) are called for. I believe in efficiency. I think what I bring to the exam-writing table is a lean approach, and I call out things I feel are not relevant to art therapy competency. Much like the job of an art therapist, making something user-friendly is a covert act; when you do it well, it is not noticeable, but you know you are making a difference. 

Are you interested in volunteering for the ATCB? Email atcbinfo@atcb.org for more information.


Written by:

Shan Ru Lin