How to Conduct a Needs Assessment

The most common goal of instructional design is to bring about a change. But what is that change? It is the instructional designer's job to make this determination. Determining the source of the problem, whether after being told only that there is a problem or the specific change that needs to come about, requires a needs assessment or analysis.

Determine Instructional Needs

The main purpose of the needs assessment is to determine instructional needs. What is it that learners need to know? Do they need to learn a new software program? Do they need to learn how to properly interact with their coworkers? These are some examples of instructional needs.

Typically, there are a number of questions that guide the assessment. The needs assessment should answer these questions:

  • Who is requesting the change?
  • What is the change that is being asked for?
  • When does the change need to be implemented?
  • Is instructional training the best method to bring about the change?

The instructional designer should work on answering the following five questions during the needs analysis process:

  1. Why? – Why is the learning being requested? What issue or problem does it need to address?
  2. Who? – Who is requesting the learning? Who will the learning be targeted at?
  3. How? – How can the issue or problem be addressed?
  4. What? – What is the best way to address the issue or problem? What learning format should be used (online, instructor-led, etc.)? What else, if anything, should be considered?
  5. When? – When does the learning need to occur? What are the timeframes in which it will take place?

Implement a Procedure

There are a number of different ways that the needs assessment can be conducted. No matter the method that is used, the results should be the same. Most often, a combination of techniques will be used.

The four steps of the needs assessment are as follows:

  1. Planning – In this step of the process, the instructional designer will, possibly along with other members of the project team, define the audience for the instruction and then determine exactly what type of information needs to be collected.
  2. Data Collection – In the data collection step, the instructional designer collects data as to what the problem is and how it is affecting learners.
  3. Data Analysis – In the data analysis step, the data is organized and then prioritized to determine learning needs.
  4. Reporting on Results – The final step, reporting on the results, should include a summary of results and finally a recommended solution.

Procedure Structure

Gather Data

Data gathering methods in a needs assessment can consist of the following:

  • Individual Interviews – Interviews are beneficial because they allow the interviewer to ask follow-up and clarification questions. Some disadvantages to interviews include that the interviewee may be self-conscious and they require the interviewer to possess interviewing skills.
  • Questionnaires and Surveys – If conducted anonymously, these can often provide beneficial information; however, there is no opportunity to ask clarifying questions or for participants to expound on their thoughts.
  • Focus Groups – Focus groups can build involvement with learners and may bring up unexpected issues that need to be addressed. Pitfalls of focus groups include that they may be difficult to conduct and the information derived from them may be hard to quantify.
  • Committees – Creating an advisory committee allows visibility into the data gathering from stakeholders and decision makers; however, the data may not be extremely relevant and it may lead to a "group think" situation, where differing opinions are not expressed.
  • Independent Research – Researching an issue independently is useful in that the instructional designer can access a variety of data; however, the data itself has the potential to be misleading or irrelevant to the current situation.
  • Observation – Observing learners in their work situation usually yields pertinent and relevant information, but it can be time consuming and logistically difficult to coordinate.
Author: Margaux Judge

Margaux Judge has worked as an e-learning editor and instructional designer for over ten years, writing and editing a wide variety of courses, from technical topics to soft skills. She has a Bachelor's degree in English and Textual Studies from Syracuse University and a Master's degree in Television Writing from Boston University.

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