Needs assessment is one of the key components in the instructional design process. It is commonly perceived as a process of identifying the area of underperformance within the organization in order to address it by designing an intervention. However, both its definition and its application in the analytical process differ from the popular perception of the subject. The following paper explores the significance of needs assessment for the instructional design and details the process of analysis of the obtained data in order to identify and address the existing gap in student performance.
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Value for Instructional Design Process
In simplest terms, needs assessment is the process of gathering information on the performance of employees in the organization (Brown & Green, 2015). In such context, its importance is limited to the role of the informative tool in the sense that it is required for the development of a successful intervention. However, it should be understood that its role is both more specific and better defined. The most important component of needs assessment is the focus on the difference between the actual and the desirable level of performance (Swart, MacLeod, Paul, Zhang, & Gagulic, 2014). Unless the actual level of performance is included in the equation, the needs assessment remains a formulation of the desire and cannot be meaningfully interpreted and utilized by an instructional designer (Caffarella & Daffron, 2013).
This difference illustrates one of the essential characteristics of needs assessment since formulating the desired outcome is a relatively simple and intuitive process and does not require data collection and analysis. However, it should be pointed out that it also does not provide enough information for designing an intervention.
Once acknowledged and accounted for in the measurements, the difference (termed “gap” in the instructional design literature) bears functional implications important for the intervention development process. Its value, however, is not limited to the identification of the necessary areas of improvement. For instance, it also provides information on which areas are the least viable for investment.
While it may seem an obvious outcome, it provides means for a more efficient allocation of resources and has the potential to further improve the cost-effectiveness of the intervention. For example, in a scenario where organizational performance does not meet the required the required threshold, it is highly likely that the top management will suggest one of the popular interventions (e.g. inventory management optimization) as a solution.
While there is a possibility that such partially intuitive decision will yield positive results, it is also possible that due to the lack of understanding the resources will be applied in the wrong area, leading to both redundancy and a waste of effort. An appropriate needs assessment, on the other hand, may reveal that the actual gap is caused by the insufficient knowledge of the new equipment and that it could have been addressed much more effectively by constructing a training program for the employees. Most importantly, in the scenario above, a timely needs assessment could have prevented unnecessary spending, and, perhaps even more importantly, could prevent confusion in the workplace and dilution of control of the managerial segment (Reigeluth, 2013).
Next, needs assessment can be used as a preventive measure rather than an intervention. In other words, instead of serving as a tool for identification of deficiencies that are already present within the organization and are responsible for the existing performance gaps, it can be used for detection of the possible future ones. For instance, in the scenario when the organization’s management decides to purchase new equipment, such action would necessitate an update of skill set of the employees. However, the success of training will depend, among other factors, on the knowledge and experience already available to the participants.
While these resources can be estimated by skillful managers familiar with their subordinates, a much better outcome can be secured through needs assessment. The data gathered in the process would identify the size of the gap (and, by extension, the amount of resources required to address it), determine the areas of knowledge that demand the most coverage in order to maximize efficiency of the new equipment, and recognize the aspects that meet the intended level of performance, thus minimizing the unnecessary expenses and human resources (Cook et al., 2013). It should be mentioned that such application is a less common occurrence since needs assessment is traditionally associated with providing solutions to the already apparent issues. Nevertheless, its design and purpose allow for such application while the information above suggests its usefulness for the instructional design process.
Finally, the most common types of needs assessment include an important element that increases its value for instructional designers. With the exception of its most simple variety, the alpha-assessment, all assessment types include the possibility of identifying and weighing the alternative courses of action (Brown & Green, 2015). Such function further increases the clarity of analysis and, therefore, contributes to the needs assessment value for instructional design process.
Application for Analysis
In order to ensure the applicability of data to identification and closure of the gap in students’ knowledge, it is first necessary to ensure that the data collection will focus on the right area. According to McKenzie (2017), this can be achieved through a series of pre-needs questions aimed at orienting the designer in the right direction. In the simplest terms, the questions that should be asked prior to the commencing of the procedure ensure that uncommon causes and unexpected yet obvious issues within the organization remain unnoticed and, by extension, unaddressed.
Some of these questions are relatively simple and broad, such as “What is the core mission of the organization?” However, they also do not require significant time and resource investment and can possibly prevent major inconsistencies at the analysis stage, which increases their significance. It is important to note that at this stage the assessment facilitator works primarily with the top management segment in order to obtain the necessary hindsight and get access to the information on the overall performance and the observed issues (Piskurich, 2015).
Once this information is gathered, it should be reviewed to highlight several important aspects. These include the alignment of the stated assessment goals with the probable causes of the problem or issue at hand, the agreement of involved stakeholders over the intended goals of the inquiry, and the outcomes of the previous attempts to address the situation (Romiszowski, 2016). Unless acknowledged, these aspects may later serve as significant barriers to intervention implementation and can undermine its effectiveness.
Once the direction of the assessment is outlined, it is then necessary to specify the target audience and select sampling methods. The most often overlooked aspect of the former is the choice of appropriate measurement of proficiency (Rothwell & Kazanas, 2008). In some instances, the traditional metrics do not coincide with the causes of the problem, which leads to the false impression that the issue is either insignificant or successfully addressed (Piskurich, 2015).
Once the metrics are chosen it becomes possible to select the sampling methods that correspond to the objectives identified in the design process. After this, the designer can select the data collection methods and develop tools suitable for his or her goals. The choice must be verified for consistency with the chosen data analysis methods, and the detected discrepancies should be adjusted or restructured.
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After all of the identified issues are conclusively resolved, it is possible to proceed to assessment implementation. The analysis is performed based on the data gathered using the designated tools. Since the ways of metrics assessment are already established in the previous segment, it is possible to analyze the responses and calculate the current state of their knowledge. Next, the desired objectives formulated by the management can be converted to the same format and contrasted. If the data can be disaggregated to identify specific areas of weakness, these then can be matched with the specific objectives set as a result of collaboration between the management and the designer. With this data on hand, it is possible to proceed to creation of the instructions intended for gap closure.
The instructions are to be based on the alternatives that were determined as most promising in terms of contribution to the issue. Depending on the priorities stated by the organization, it may be necessary to include cost-effectiveness as one of the factors that influence the choice of activities. The best way to ensure this is to recognize the strengths demonstrated by the students and incorporate the information into the design of the intervention.
For instance, if the goal of the program is to familiarize the participants with the new piece of equipment, prior experience of similar kind can be useful even if it does not have an apparent connection to the issue at hand. Thus, the instructional designer can include references to this experience in order to make the instructions more accessible. In addition, such move will enhance confidence of the students and help to narrow the perceived knowledge gap (Brown & Green, 2015). Finally, it is important to include the possibility of intermediary evaluation in order to monitor the progress of the gap closure.
Considering the information above, it is important to recognize the limiting factors that may affect the plan. First, it is possible that the data gathered on the needs assessment stage could not be disaggregated, in which case it would be necessary to approximate the direction of the instructional design. As a result, the relevance of the intervention may be compromised (Lawson, 2015). In addition, various sources of information have their individual limitation (e.g. high resource requirements for interviews or the lack of comprehensive information in written documentation). Finally, the specified goals may not correspond to the students’ learning capacity and can be unrealistic, which will not necessarily be apparent to the instructional designer until later in the course of events.
Needs assessment is a necessary prerequisite for needs analysis and an important component of the instructional design process. It provides the designers with the enhanced understanding of the issue, minimizes the emergence of unforeseen factors, and offers means of monitoring and timely adjustments. Despite the existence of limiting factors, it is possible to recommend it as a necessary component of the planning process.
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