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ISD: Conducting a Needs Assessment

Worksheets and Job Aids

The following worksheets and job aids are available for needs assessment purposes. Before using the worksheets and job aids be sure to read this entire section.  These document require Adobe Acrobat.


The instructional design process is more than just a procedure to develop training. It is used to uncover human performance problems and to identify their solutions. Deficiencies in performance occur every day in varying degrees and for a variety of reasons.

There are four main causes:

  • Environmental,
  • Organizational,
  • Motivational, and
  • Lack of knowledge, skills or attitudes.

Environmental, organizational, and motivational causes include such issues as not having adequate equipment for the job, lack of outcomes for non-performance, lack of positive reinforcement and others.

Human performance problems are not always solved via instruction. Instruction should only be used when the performance problem stems from a lack of knowledge, skills or attitudes and when instruction is the most cost-effective solution. Instruction should not be used as the solution when a performance problem stems from lack of motivation, feedback, incentives, or some other cause. Needs assessment, the first step in the instructional design process, serves as an objective way of uncovering human performance problems or potential problems.

The following definitions are useful.

  • Need:  A gap separating what people know, do or feel from what they should know, do or feel to perform competently.
  • Training Need: A gap that can be closed by training.
  • Performance Problem Analysis: A simple, quick assessment to determine if training is the solution to a performance problem or potential problem. It can lead to the conclusion that a comprehensive needs assessment is warranted.
  • Comprehensive Needs Assessment/Analysis: The process of identifying causes of performance problems in order to select methods, means, tactics, tools and approaches for solving the problems.

Performance Problem Analysis

Needs assessment begins with a simple analysis of the performance problem to determine if training is the solution or if a more comprehensive needs assessment is warranted.

A performance problem analysis is made more objective by the use of a problem-solving model. The model mentioned above was adapted from a model found in Analyzing Performance Problems, by Robert F. Mager and Peter Pipe and is available above in PDF format.

Responding to the questions posed by the model should not involve the collection of large amounts of data nor the involvement of large numbers of employees. It is a rather informal, "first-cut" at determining if training is the best solution to solve the identified performance problem.

Comprehensive Needs Assessment

The requirement for a comprehensive needs assessment is dependent on the results from the performance problem analysis. If the analysis of the performance problem clearly indicates a training need, no further needs assessment is necessary. If the result is not clear, a more comprehensive needs assessment is warranted.

Two hypothetical examples are helpful to demonstrate this point.

  • Example One - Congress passes a law that requires NRCS to collect water samples from all PL566 impoundments and test for a number of pollutants. Some very precise sampling techniques are required. The performance problem analysis determines very clearly that training is needed to close the gap between what employees now know and can do and what is needed for successful collection and testing of the water samples. At this point a design team would typically be called together to design training without a formal needs assessment.
  • Example Two - A study of the NRCS progress reporting system indicates a sharp downward trend in the number of conservation practices being applied nationwide. Someone attributes this to a lack of training in conservation planning, which is producing poor plans and little progress. Completing the performance problem analysis produces no conclusive results. At this point a comprehensive needs assessment is warranted before any training is designed.

A comprehensive needs assessment can result in a considerable investment in time and other resources. The NEDC has a process in place and can lead the effort if warranted and approved by the Employee Development Board.

Formal Training Design

Formal training design, where employee development specialists and design teams collaborate over a period of time, is generally needed when training:

  • Will affect large numbers of employees,
  • Will be institutionalized, and/or
  • is critical to achieving the mission of the organization.

Training design at this level can require considerable investment and should be initiated only when supported by the "performance problem analysis" or a "comprehensive needs assessment. "

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