Needs Assessment

The Needs Assessment is undertaken to identify the goals for an instructional project. In doing so you are trying to identify the gap between the desired goals and the current status. This gap is referred to as a need (hence the term “Needs” Assessment). Burton and Merrill (1991) have summarized six types of educational needs:

  1. Normative need – A discrepancy between an individuals or groups present state and a given norm or standard. Normative needs exist if, for example, a student’s score on the SAT is lower than the national standard or average or if general education courses at a college do not meet state requirements.

  2. Felt need – A felt need is an individual desire or want that an individual has to improve either his or her performance. Asking people what they want is frequently used in identifying felt needs. One, however, should be cautious in using this type of data since perceptions of possibilities, social acceptance, and availabilities as well as personal attributes may influence what people say they want. When searching for felt needs, designers must be aware of needs that are motivated by a desire other than performance improvement.

  3. Expressed need or demand – A felt need becomes an expressed need when people put what they want into actions. For example, if more students sign up for an online course than the seat limit, then there may be an expressed need for more sections of the course. Expressed needs are often identified in suggestion boxes and in-house publications with a question-and-answer or suggestion column.

  4. Comparative need – A discrepancy between what one group has and what another group, with similar characteristics, has. A comparative need is present when two groups with similar characteristics do not receive a similar service. College A in a given state, for instance, has a modern computer laboratory, whereas College B in the same state does not. A comparative need may thus exist.

  5. Anticipated or future need – A discrepancy between what is presently available and the projected demands of the future. Undoubtedly, the identification of anticipated needs is critical in educational planning since this may help equip students with necessary knowledge and skills to deal with “what will be” rather than “what is”. Identifying such needs should be part of any planned change so training can be designed prior to implementation of the change. For example, a school principal and supervisors might decide to implement a new instructional technique (e.g., cooperative learning) next year. An anticipated need is the knowledge teachers require to use the cooperative learning method effectively in a classroom.

  6. Critical-incident need – Critical-incident needs emerge when failures that may be rare but have significant consequences happen. Shootings in Columbine High and other schools prompted needs for security measures to be taken in public schools as well as education on violence to be received by the public. Critical incident needs are identified by analyzing potential problems. For example, chemical plants and petroleum refineries often develop employee training programs for handling emergencies such as fires, explosions, or spills. Other critical incident needs are identified by asking “what if.’ questions; for example, what would happen if the main computer or phone system failed?

Determining Goals

During the Needs Assessment the designer attempts to identify the problem, then the causes of the problem, and then identifies an array of solutions that could be implemented to solve the problem. The result of this process is one or more well-defined goals. Goals are usually stated in terms of new skills, knowledge, or attitudes that you want the learners to acquire. This includes what will learners be able to do when they complete the instruction, and the real-world context in which they will have to use these new skills. The result of Needs Assessment is a clear description of a problem, evidence of the causes of the problem, and the nature of any suggested solutions. These solutions may or may not involve the development of new instruction.

Determining your goal is an important step because it will determine what you are going to teach and what the learners are going to learn. Goals statements are usually general statements that can be broken down into more specific statements (which you will do in a later step). The goals will direct all subsequent design decisions. Think of it as the top of a great pyramid. After you determine your goals, everything else must fit under it and support it.

When determining a goal, the description of what the learners will be able to do is not complete without a description of who the learners are, the context in which the learners will use the skills (performance context), and the tools that will be available to the learners. In the end a complete goal statement should describe the following:

  • The learners

  • What the learners will be able to do in the performance context.

  • The performance context in which the skills will be applied.

  • The tools that will be available to the learners in the performance context.

As Dick and Carey state, most of us are subject matter experts in some area. If you are developing instruction in a subject area that you are already an expert in, then it is much easier to come up with goals. Of course, for many of you, a list of goals has already been identified in the form of the now-infamous Standards of Learning (SOLs). Therefore, you may already have a set of goals from which to work. However, it would behoove you to tale a close look at any SOL goals you use to make sure that they fit the notion of a clearly stated instructional goal.

At times you may encounter a goal that is not clear enough. Robert Mager has developed a procedure to help designers clarify goals that are “fuzzy”, or too vague. Mager’s process involves the following steps:

  1. Write the goal down.

  2. Identify the behaviors that learners would demonstrate to reflect their achievement of the goal. Write everything down to start.

  3. Sort through the list of behaviors and select those that best represent what is meant by the unclear goal.

  4. Incorporate each of the behaviors into a statement that describes what the learner will be able to do.

  5. Examine the goal statement and ask yourself this: If learners achieved or demonstrated each of the performances, would you agree that they had achieved the goal? If the answer is yes, then you have clarified the goal.

Is Instruction the Answer?

Because of the improvements that instruction can make in the performance of students or employees, it is often chosen as a remedy for almost any problem that a teacher or trainer might be having. Any time expectations are not being met, someone may offer additional instruction as a solution. While instruction is an appropriate solution in some cases, other factors such as lack of motivation, lack of practice, or obstacles to success may be the cause of the poor performance. In these cases it is unlikely that additional instruction will result in improvements in performance. This is where the Needs Assessment can help out. If it turns out after the Needs Assessment that the performance problem is caused by a lack of skills, knowledge, or attitudes among the students or employees, then instruction can be developed to address these needs. If the problem stems from other factors, then additional instruction would not be the solution.

Robert Mager and Peter Pipe (1997) have described a procedure for analyzing and identifying the nature and cause of human performance problems. In their book, Analyzing Performance Problems or You Really Oughta Wanna, they provide a systematic approach to use while analyzing a problem, and provide a flowchart to demonstrate their approach. It involves a series of questions to ask yourself when faced with a performance problem. As they state in their Preface, “Solutions to problems are like keys in locks; they don’t work if they don’t fit. And if solutions aren’t the right ones, the problem doesn’t get solved.” Often what people think is “the problem” isn’t the problem at all.

For example, an airline executive was once flying First Class on his airline. When he ordered a glass of wine to calm his nerves, he noticed that the flight attendant served it to him in one of those normal drink cups as opposed to a wine glass. You know, the kind of cups they use to serve soda to the coach customers. However, company policy was that wine should be served in a special wine glass. He was so upset that when he returned to company headquarters he initiated the development of a training program designed to teach flight attendants which cups to use with which types of drinks. This training was developed and implemented to all flight attendants in the company at a substantial cost and time commitment. Several months later this same executive was once again flying First Class on his airline. He confidently ordered a glass of wine, and again it was served to him in a normal drink cup. Well, this infuriated the executive, who this time barked out at the flight attendant, “Don’t you know you’re supposed to serve wine in a wine glass and not a drink cup? Didn’t you go through the training program?” The flight attendant replied, “Why yes, we all know that, but we don’t have any wine glasses. All we have are drink cups.”

So you see, developing instruction is not always the solution. Sometimes, there are other solutions that may not initially be apparent (such as changing drink cup suppliers). That is where the Mager and Pipe procedure comes in. This is a real easy-to-follow procedure and would be worthwhile for you to review. We have provided their flowchart and a quick-reference checklist that outlines each step in the chart. They are available as a PDF file for you to download and review. Take some time to look it over. If you are interested in learning more about their process, we urge you to check out their book. This simple checklist will get you started, but it cannot adequately cover all the details of the process.