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Assessing What Learners Know and Need to Know

Jeffrey Lockwood, a trainer for a large computer manufacturer, was thinking of offering a new non-credit workshop on stress management for employees. He had read about the need for such a learning experience in a recent trade journal, had completed an employee needs assessment that confirmed his suspicions, and had talked to the personnel director about the increasing number of employees who had been calling in sick in recent months. The personnel director thought that the stress associated with their large new government contract accounted for much of the sick leave.

Jeffrey talked to his supervisor, Mary Lyons, about the results of his needs analysis. Mary wondered if such a workshop was really justified given the current strain on training personnel just to keep up with the workshops required for the new contract. Jeff showed her some of the figures he had compiled and also discussed the articles he had read demonstrating the adverse effects of workplace stress. After they discussed the situation for awhile and considered the potential impact on the whole organization if the stress wasn't managed better, Mary agreed that they should begin conducting the workshop at least on a trial basis.

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Assessing what learners know or need to know is an important feature of the individualizing approach. This is true for a wide range of educational settings, including both formal and informal situations and independent study possibilities. This chapter centers on formal classroom or training situations, but the notion of assessing needs as a prelude to planning learning activities is important in many other kinds of settings.

Individual Needs Assessment Techniques

1. The active involvement of learners in assessing those needs that will serve as a foundation for subsequent learning is crucial to success of the individualizing process.

Utilizing needs as a basis for planning subsequent instruction or training program content is an important part of the process. Not only did Jeffrey obtain potential needs information from the professional literature he read and from talking with the personnel director, he also actively involved the potential trainees in the process with his needs assessment survey.

A number of techniques can be used to assess learning needs at the individual level, ranging from survey forms to personal interviews. Each has its particular uses and limitations. One of us (Hiemstra, 1985a) has synthesized some information about a variety of needs assessment techniques. A summary of this information is found in the resources portion of this book. (Note: It also can be found in Appendix 6B of  /commch6.html).

2. The first technique that we advocate for a formal setting asks the learner to give written responses to a needs assessment tool.

A variety of forms or assessment devices are available that test some knowledge area or provide a pretest on various abilities (Knowles, 1975, 1984, 1986; Robinson, Athanasiou, & Head, 1969; Robinson & Shaver, 1969). Smith and Cunningham (1987) also provide a source book that contains a multitude of references on various topics, many of which include either assessment forms or materials from which assessment forms can be derived. Guglielmino (1977), Knowles (1975), and Oddi (1984) have developed instruments or forms that assess the ability to undertake self-directed learning activities.

Often it makes most sense to construct your own instrument as opposed to finding an existing one. This affords maximum flexibility and

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usually results in something directly related to the learning experience as conceived by you or the sponsoring organization. Such an approach also permits modifications over time as changes in knowledge or in your learners dictate.

The construction of such a tool involves looking at desired competencies, requirements, and text or resource materials to identify terms, concepts, definitions, and other informational needs that appear to make up probable parameters for the learning experience. It is important that your skill and expertise be employed to pick out those elements or potential topics of importance to the content area. Note, though, the deliberate use of the term probable parameters above. This step is where individualizing instruction may begin to differ from more traditional approaches.

We employ the needs assessment instrument as a tool for facilitating participation by learners in selecting the actual content of the course. The format that we find most helpful is fairly simply and yet complex enough to stimulate thinking and searching on the part of the learner. It is adapted from Knowles (1975) Self-Directed Learning; this book, along with one by Knowles and Associates (1984), also describes several other self-rating ideas or forms. Exhibit 1 provides a sample form based on a graduate course for adult education students entitled Program Planning and Evaluation in Adult Education. We use only four self-rating categories, "don't know," "low competence," "medium competence," and "high competence." We also have found that if more than fifteen categories or content areas are provided, people seem to have a difficult time carrying out the self-rating.

It has been our experience that the most useful needs assessment form is an evolving product. By that we mean the form will probably change each time you prepare for a particular learning experience. Certainly the instructor learns a great deal about the content, what works and what doesn't, each time the course or workshop is taught. In addition, the knowledge areas to be covered constantly change through evolving research, literature, and organizational knowledge.

There are, however, two difficulties that we have experienced is using such a form. Sometimes learners have difficulty rating themselves and may have to utilize the "don't know" category for

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several of the potential content areas. Individual discussion with an instructor to clarify terms, provide some background information, or help build some context, both when the form is filled out and when it is used as an aid in completing the learning contract, may be needed. The point is to help each learner make as honest an evaluation as possible.

Another problem deals with the differences that are likely to exist from one person to the next as self-ratings are made. For instance, a set of skills rated by one person as high may only be rated as medium or low by another person based on experiential or self-confidence differences. In addition, it can be difficult for a learner to provide accurate assessments on all items because of a lack of experience or the passing of considerable time since a skill or knowledge area had been addressed. Thus, the ranking each person is asked to do by going through the list a second time helps to somewhat balance out comparisons between people when the instruments are used for a group needs assessment process described in the next section. It also is important to encourage each person to add special or personal need items for either individual or group study.

If it is impossible to predesign an instrument, learners can be asked to list their expectations, suggest personal needs, and/or begin a process of designing learning objectives. In a workshop related to community education, for example, we use a gaming and simulation device in the first session as a means of stimulating awareness by learners regarding what they do and don't know. In one of our graduate courses, a pre-test of knowledge most likely to be covered during the semester is administered to stimulate thinking about the range of topic possibilities. Personal interviews of learners or even the administering of standardized tests also could be used to help both learner and instructor understand more about what is and what is not known.

The purpose of these individual activities is to begin building personal ownership for learning and an acceptance of personal responsibility through a process involving self-recognition of strengths and weaknesses. Such activities move learners from a zone of comfort to one of some discomfort where they need to struggle

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Exhibit 1. Needs Diagnosis Form.


NAME _______________________________________________________     DATE __________________________________

Diagnostic Form

Program Planning and Evaluation in Adult Education

 This form is designed to assist you in assessing your personal level of competence and need related to some of the content areas that can or will be covered in this course. This information will help you and me plan together a sequence of learning experiences that will build on and supplement current strengths, so as to develop as efficiently as possible many of the professional competencies that are required to work effectively in educational agencies and programs.

For each potential content area, please check the most relevant column indicating a self-rating. To assist in the decision regarding which column to check for each area, the information that is being sought in each of the four columns is indicated below.

Self-Rate Your Competency on Each Potential Area                      DK  LO  MD   HI
1. Objectives - Ability to identify, select, and write various types of objectives for use in program planning ___ ___ ___ ___
2. Needs Assessment - Ability to conduct needs analysis as a basis for planning and setting agency or program goals ___ ___ ___ ___
3. Goal Analysis - Ability to analyze and set long- and short-range program goals ___ ___ ___ ___
4. Program Planning Process - Ability to utilize a sequence of steps in planning and operating a program ___ ___ ___ ___
5. Scheduling and Sequencing - Ability to bring together appropriate learners, mentors, materials, equipment, and facilities through good time management techniques ___ ___ ___ ___
6. Evaluation Planning - Ability to plan some evaluation strategies in conjunction with your program goals ___ ___ ___ ___
7. Evaluation Data Collection - Ability to construct usable instruments for data collection             ___ ___ ___ ___
8. Program Planning Theory - Familiar with the various program planning models and related research findings ___ ___ ___ ___
9. Methods and Material Selection - Able to select and use instructional methods, materials, and resources that are appropriate and related to the needs and abilities of individual learners ___ ___ ___ ___
10. Advisory Councils - Understanding of the selection, training, and use of program planning advisory councils ___ ___ ___ ___
11. Evaluation Theory - Familiarity with the various approaches to and philosophies of evaluation ___ ___ ___ ___
12. Terminology - Familiarity with various terms related to the technical procedures of planning programs ___ ___ ___ ___
13. Organizational Constraints - Understanding of the organizational constraints and climate related to planning and evaluation ___ ___ ___ ___
14. Literature Base - Familiarity with the theory, research, and literature related to program planning and evaluation ___ ___ ___ ___
15. Other: ___ ___ ___ ___
16. Other: ___ ___ ___ ___
17. Other: ___ ___ ___ ___
18. Other: ___ ___ ___ ___
19. Other: ___ ___ ___ ___
20. Other: ___ ___ ___ ___

Now that you have completed your self-ratings, please go back and numerically rank each "LO" that you checked according to the level of importance you would attach to it. Think of this in terms of the time that should be allotted in class for learning activities related to the content area. Thank you!


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with new ideas, new concepts, or changing perceptions of personal abilities. By facilitating a look at personal needs rather than a guess at such needs on the part of the instructor, each learner will begin to see how the learning experiences can be used to fill in gaps or to enhance personal strengths.

Group Activities

Putting learners in touch with others is determining specific content areas or learning activities to be pursued during subsequent activities. It also helps facilitate our three R's: Relationship with each other; Relationship with the instructor; and Relationship with the course content.

This at first may sound unnecessary within a process where individualizing the instruction is stressed. However, it has been our experience that something is gained through the synergistic exchange of ideas and personal views regarding needs and subsequent thoughts about relevant content that should be covered in the learning activities. Hearing how others are both similar and dissimilar seems to help most individuals obtain a perspective on why certain topics may be important to cover in a particular learning experience even if they don't necessarily meet every person's immediately recognized needs.

3. A useful group technique is the discussion of those individual needs that come to light when participants complete a written diagnostic form.

The technique that we utilize most often in our graduate courses involves the formation of small groups. This typically follows the completion of written diagnostic forms and at the conclusion of our first time together or during an early portion of the second session. If possible, we like to group together some people experienced with the individualizing process and some people who are not. Frequently, certain learners will be asked ahead of time to serve as a leader for the groups.

We ask people to move into a group setting of four to six people (we use some counting off technique, select group members ourselves if we have a grouping reason, or let learners form their own groups). If possible, we have extra rooms available or will use areas like hallways, private offices, or staff lounges so that group discussion taking place is not disruptive to other groups. We ask that a group leader be determined if one has not already been designated and that a group recorder be selected.

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The leader and group members are instructed to use the needs diagnosis form as a discussion initiator by going through and ranking the listed topics in terms of those requiring the most attention in future group discussion and activity. This entails some tabulations relative to how each person has rated a topic on the form. This also initiates discussion of the various topics, facilitates a recognition of differences within the group, and occasionally prompts a need for clarification from the instructor. We make ourselves available as a resource but attempt to keep somewhat a low profile during the process and typically act only to define terms or describe the needs assessment activity. We want learners to struggle initially with the concepts, terms, or language and believe this begins the modeling of team building and conflict resolution, both useful activities in an individualizing approach.

The groups work for twenty to forty minutes, discussing their individual rankings, tallying a group total on each item, and addressing new needs that surface from individual needs assessment forms or during the group discussion. Each group brings back a composite report at the end of the group session that contains summary findings, describes other topics they would like addressed, and provides suggestions relative to instructional techniques or learning resources. Unless there are unusual time constraints, each group makes an oral report of its findings to the rest of the class.

Learners are encouraged to keep their individual needs assessment forms for use in planning future personal inquiry activities and in filling out the subsequent learning contract, although if they have particular needs to be drawn to the instructor's attention, any such forms can be turned in along with the group report. We also encourage each group during the discussion activity to determine if there are additional topics to the ones listed that require some attention during future meetings. As noted above, each leader or recorder is asked to make a brief report to the larger group when small group discussion has ended so everyone can see how similar or different were their own rankings and have an opportunity to seek clarification or to make other related suggestions.

If the formation of small groups is not feasible or if some sort of group

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report is not appropriate, another useful technique is to form learners into dyads or triads and ask them to discuss their perceptions of needs and subsequent necessary learning activities. We have used this approach in training sessions where the time is short or when the content is fairly specifically prescribed. The discussion seems to help provide some clarification and initial awareness of how others view personal needs and potential learning activities.

Ongoing Assessment

4. The assessment of needs requires attention throughout the learning process.

The individual and group activities described in the preceding section take place for the most part during the first few hours that learners and a facilitator are together. However, learners should be encouraged to analyze their needs throughout the experience. As new needs emerge or as earlier determined needs become more clear or less relevant, we provide opportunities for learners to alter their learning activities through modifications in the learning contract. Obviously, there comes a point in any formal course or workshop where changing learning plans becomes impossible or impractical, especially if some sort of formal grade or evaluation must take place, but the continuation of learning pursuits after a formal course has finished can provide very meaningful experiences.

In one of our semester courses, we attempt to complete the individual and group needs assessment activities within the first one or two sessions with learners. We use the information to build a tentative learning plan or group track. We then communicate such information back to the learners the next time we see them to provide some understanding of what will be covered in the formal setting so that they can match their individual needs with planned group or in-class activities and know what to emphasize in their learning contracts.

Helping learners understand the value of assessing personal needs enhances their ability to carry out diagnosis efforts in subsequent learning experiences. Perhaps the ultimate compliment came during the evaluation activities after a course that we had taught

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together. One of the learners noted that after he recognized that he could assess his own needs and then have the freedom to match his learning experiences with those needs, he was able to hone in more on what he was studying while at the same time feeling he had personal power over the nature of the thinking he did on the subject. We believe the individualizing instructional approach helps both learners and instructors achieve this kind of recognition of personal freedom and worth.


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