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Jim Altschuld on So They Think They Need a Needs Assessment!

Hi, my name is Jim Altschuld.  I am a faculty emeritus at the Ohio State University in the school of educational policy and leadership.  Today I will be sharing some tips on needs assessment.

You’re called in and they want to assess their needs.    That’s great because you’ve been steeped in Witkin, Altschuld, Kaufman, Gupta, McKillip, Leigh, Watkins, Wedman, and others – no problem, no sweat let’s get started.   Not so fast!   Hold on a second!

Hot Tip: Most of the time sponsors have vague ideas of what a need is, what it means to conduct an assessment, and what they would do with the results.  So one of your first tasks is to gently question what’s prompting the request and what they understand.  Ask about why your help was sought, what is the nature of problems, how they know about them – where is the information coming from, and lots of probes like this.  Do it softly but get people to open up in this way, for better or worse this is lightly camouflaged reconnaissance.   You’ll probably have to guide and teach them in a subtle not pedantic manner.

Hot Tip: It may be that an assessment is not necessarily the best thing to do!   All that may be required is a quick analysis of already available data and reports or a brief scanning of a few articles and sources.   Indeed, this has been the experience of several of the above authors as noted in the case descriptions below.

  • Case 1 The consultant was brought in to assess needs via a survey that the sponsoring agency felt was best.   After initial interactions it was clear that they would be wasting their money and her time, as the agency did not know what was involved in a survey, wasn’t sure of the direction of the assessment and what questions to ask, and hadn’t in any way explored other methodological options.
  • Case 2 An agency requested a needs assessment but after initial discussions the needs were but not what the agency really needed to focus upon. The external consultant told the agency this, and lost compensation as a result, but gained in professional satisfaction.
  • Case 3 A curriculum planning group sought assistance with needs assessment subsequent to having done review of pertinent literature and analysis of their current offerings.   As it turns out, the group’s only need was guidance in organizing what they had already explored.

In every case the role for the needs assessor, the costs to the sponsoring group, and the formal collection of new data were greatly reduced or totally negated.  The effect of the reconnaissance effort is underscored and is highly recommended before beginning any needs assessment project.   It might lead to less compensated work for the evaluator but it is in keeping with the professionalism of the field and making sure that stakeholders receive maximum benefit from what a skilled and trained evaluator can provide.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org.

1 thought on “Jim Altschuld on So They Think They Need a Needs Assessment!”

  1. Excellent point. We must remember that just like other activities (training, building bridges, conducting research, etc.), needs assessments are also activities that may or may not be justified. Before investing time and money you must consider your options, and not conducting a needs assessment is an alternative that we frequently forget.

    Thanks for the great reminder!

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