5 Needs Assessment Models

Too often, instructional designers and subject matter experts team up to create training resources without first taking a good look at what is really needed. Perhaps a full lesson, unit, or even a course is not what is actually needed to resolve a skills or knowledge deficit. Perhaps the skills or knowledge being targeted by the project are not really needed by the organization or the learners. It is important to complete a needs analysis or needs assessment to avoid wasting time and resources creating unnecessary learning experiences.

Lloyd Rieber (2016) provides an excellent overview of the importance of conducting a needs assessment as the first step in the ISD process.

To Be Honest…

While the needs assessment process is extremely important, many of us working on everyday ID projects are often brought into the picture after the need to create an online course has already been established. You may be developing an online version of an academic course that has already been approved and included in an institution’s academic calendar or a course that already exists in a K12 school system. The broad scope of the learning outcomes and topics to be covered has already been established. For this reason, I ask participants in my instructional design courses to act under the assumption that initial needs assessment stages have already been completed for their projects. When preparing their needs analysis and project proposals, I instead ask them to describe the relevant contextual details for their working contexts, and to consider what additional types of needs analyses they might need to consider in a full-blown ID project. In this chapter, I will briefly introduce some of the types of needs analyses you might encounter once ID projects have moved to the stage where the instructional designer and subject matter expert (who may or may not be the same person) are brought into the picture. I will point to some good resources for deeper exploration of needs assessment and needs analysis and wrap up with a template that I often ask my students to work with to prepare their project proposals.

A Brief Look at Needs Assessment Models

It is important to remember that there is more than one type or model of needs analysis that you can conduct. Each serves a different purpose, and each is important to consider. Watch Maynard (2013)’s Employee Training – Needs Assessment video for a brief introduction to some of these considerations.

Valenti (2014) lists three types of needs assessment used for different purposes and provides an explanation of when to use each one:

  1. Performance Gap Analysis
  2. Annual Training Plan
  3. Curriculum Plan

Clark (2015) focuses in more detail on what he calls a Training Needs Assessment, which he describes as the final stage in a backwards design process:

  1. Business Needs (determining the big picture needs of the organization).
  2. Performance Needs (determining what skills, knowledge, or behaviors are needed throughout the organization to achieve the overarching goals).
  3. Training Needs (determining what learning experiences and resources are needed to develop those skills, knowledges, or behaviors).

Looking at things in more of an education sector context, Franklin (n.d.) discusses what Smith and Ragan described as three main needs assessment approaches:

  1. Discrepancy-Based Approach (what skills, knowledge, or performances are missing amongst that target learners).
  2. Innovation Approach (what new or novel skills, knowledges, or performances do you want an individual or group to adopt).
  3. Problem-finding/Problem-solving Approach (what problem do you need to solve through a learning or training intervention).

Essential Questions

As you can see, there is similarity and overlap in how different people have described various needs assessment approaches. Slade (2017) nicely summarizes three essential questions that need to be answered through whatever model is used before designing a learning or training experience:

  1. What are people doing?
  2. What do you want people doing?
  3. Why aren’t people doing it?

If you can answer these questions, then you are well on your way to determining what is needed in a learning experience or course. However, you need to have a good understanding of your target learners if you are to truly know the extent of their prior knowledge, the reasons for performance gaps, and the contextual factors that will influence your decisions as you design the learning experiences for your instructional design project.

The ID Project Proposal (A Template for Summarizing Your ID Project’s Needs)

Before participants in my instructional design courses can begin their ID projects, they need to determine what topic to pursue. I typically allow participants to choose any topic they want, as I want them to have a vested interest in the project (as opposed to completing busy work just for marks!). I have found that most participants choose to develop a prototype for an online course that they need to develop and deliver in their actual work contexts (so completing the ID project for my course has a double benefit for them!). The following template is divided into two sections. In part 1, I ask students to answer questions about the needs assessment process from the perspective of their working contexts. In part 2, I ask them to provide more specific details that would arise from the needs assessment process for their chosen course or instructional topic. Keep in mind these questions can be answered from the perspective of a K12 teacher, a higher education faculty member, or a workplace training developer. The template is formatted according to APA version 7 standards.


Download Word (.docx) Version of the Needs Assessment and Proposal APA v7 TEMPLATE


Activity iconTry your hand at answering the questions in the Needs Assessment and Proposal Template. You can use this to help you narrow down a topic for your own ID pilot project.


Course Participants

Alert!If you are a participant in one of my instructional design courses, please refer to the following for detailed instructions and appropriate templates (if applicable) for official course assignments:

Further Reading

Further ReadingSome resources for those interested in taking a deeper dive into various models of needs assessment and how to apply them:


Clark, D. (2015). Needs Assessments in Instructional Design. Instructional System Design: The ADDIE Model: A Handbook for Learning Designers. http://knowledgejump.com/hrd/isd/assessment.html

Franklin, D. (n.d.). NEEDS ASSESSMENT Materials based on Smith & Ragan (2007), Instructional Analysis: Analyzing the Learning Context. [Presentation slides]. https://slideplayer.com/slide/7342491/  (pay attention to slides 38-71)

hr-guide.com. (2015). Needs Analysis: How to determine training needs. https://hr-guide.com/data/G510.htm

Maynard, D. (2013, October 4). Employee Training – Needs Assessment. https://youtu.be/CLr0Z8v4qOc

Rieber, L. (2016, September 17). Introduction to Instructional Design: Needs Assessment (Remastered). https://youtu.be/X93BVC-1oew

Valenti, D. (2014, October 29). 3 Types of Training Needs Assessments (and when to use them). [Web blog post]. Instructional Design Ninja.  http://www.instructionaldesignninja.com/3-types-training-needs-assessments/


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