- Needs Assessment -


Needs assessment involves the identification of what students are capable of doing at present (i.e., "what is") and what they should be able to do upon the completion of the instruction (i.e., "what should be"). That is, a need is considered as a discrepancy between what we want things to be and what they currently are. The process of determining a need (or needs) for new instruction to take place is generally regarded as the first step in instructional design. Note that it may not be a good practice to revamp an old course or design a new one when students are learning well, when instructional materials on the subject area are available, and when problems identified have little to do with instruction.


Types of Needs

Burton and Merrill (1991) have summarized six types of educational needs based on Bradshaw's and Mager's work (as cited in Burton & Merrill, 1991).

1. Normative need.  A normative need emerges when an individual or group fails to meet certain established standards. 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.  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. A teacher may see a need for students to receive education on some topics (e.g., the creation of science), but does not "want" to be involved in teaching these issues.

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, administrators may start discussing the need for more sections and faculty.

4. Comparative need.  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.  Anticipated needs refer to assessing 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.

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 and the Okalahoma City bombing prompted needs for security measures to be taken in public schools and federal buildings as well as education on violence and anti-government organizations to be received by the public. Critical-incident needs also exist when inappropriate medical training leads to mal-practice or when insufficient rescue training and equipment results in the cost of extra lives in a major earthquake.


Phases of Needs Assessment

Needs assessment at the course or curriculum level may contain the following activities. Assessing needs at the lesson and unit levels may take a less formal approach.

1. List goals.  Collection of goals may be achieved by reviewing goals statements and requirements of the state, accrediting agencies, professional organizations, and SCCC and other community colleges. In addition, you can review existing course materials, course objectives from other colleges, and reports of needs assessment from similar courses. You may also survey and interview students, alumni, educators, and employees. Reviewing literature concerning trends in your field and observing experts performing skills that students must acquire are also helpful (Burton & Merrill, 1991; McClelland, 1994a,b,c,d; Smith & Regan, 1999). 

2. Determine whether or how well the identified goals are being achieved.  To measure current level of goal attainment, you can give paper-and-pencil tests, observe how students perform critical tasks, and/or ask student to self-assess their learning. Moreover, you can examine artifacts students produced and collect data regarding students' grades in the course you have been teaching. If you plan to teach a new course, you can collect grades in similar courses and consider the projected enrollment.

3. Determine gaps between the desired and actual performance.  Gaps between "what ought to be" and "what is" can be stated in percentages. For instance, based on a paper-and-pencil test, only 50 percent of the students were able to describe the main themes of the journal articles provided. Or, given 10 probability questions with either independent or dependent events, only 43 percent of the students were able to compute the probabilities correctly.

4. Set priorities.  Prioritizing gaps is subjective in nature. Several criteria, however, can be used to facilitate the decision-making process. You can prioritize what you want to attend to based on the importance of the goal, the magnitude of the gap, the number of students affected, the consequences of not reaching the goal, and the amount of cost and time needed to meet the goal (Burton & Merrill, 1991; Smith & Ragan, 1999).



Burton, J. K., & Merrill, P. F. (1991). Needs assessment: Goals, needs and priorities. In L. J. Briggs, K. L. Gustafson, & Tillman, M. H. (Eds.), Instructional design principles and applications (pp. 17-43). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.


McClelland, S. B. (1994a) Training needs assessment data-gathering methods: Part 1, survey questionnaires. Journal of European Industrial Training, 18(1), 22-26.


McClelland, S. B. (1994b) Training needs assessment data-gathering methods: Part 2, individual interviews. Journal of European Industrial Training, 18(2), 27-31.


McClelland, S. B. (1994c) Training needs assessment data-gathering methods: Part 3, focus groups. Journal of European Industrial Training, 18(3), 29-32.


McClelland, S. B. (1994d) Training needs assessment data-gathering methods: Part 4, on-site observations. Journal of European Industrial Training, 18(5), 4-7.

Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (1999). Instructional design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.