Needs Assessments in Instructional Design


St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, located in Seattle, Washington, has a circular, 40-foot labyrinth. Visitors walk the path for its centuries-old spiritual and healing properties that are steeped in tradition and symbolism. The contemplative nature of the labyrinth is said to bring inner peace by helping one to center on the spiritual nature of things, rather than the clutter of the world.

Labyrinths have been used as meditative tools as far back as the 13th century. But nowadays, walking labyrinths has evolved beyond the church, as hospitals, retreat centers, prisons, and schools are offering similar labyrinth walks to help calm people's minds by absorbing them in where they are going, while at the same time, making them aware that they do not really know where they are.

Learning Needs Assessments (LNA) or Training Needs Assessments (TNA) share several similarities with the labyrinth. Just as a labyrinth has a path to follow, the LNA has a “gap” that must be found and bridged. This gap is what is between what is currently in place and what is needed, both now and in the future. While some labyrinths have one path that must strictly be followed, others have a multitude of ways to reach the end or exit. The Performance Need Assessment is like this second group, as there is normally more that one way to bridge the gap.

While following the path of a labyrinth brings one inner-peace, building the bridge across a performance gap allows designers to have inner-peace by knowing that they can visualize an appropriate learning and performance structure.


A Training Needs Assessment is the study done in order to design and develop appropriate instructional and informational programs and material (Rossett, 1987; Rossett, Sheldon, 2001). However, it works better if you think of it as a Learning Needs Assessment so that you consider both formal and informal learning needs. That is, what do they need to learn and how can you best support their informal learning needs?

In the Backwards Planning model shown below, the first step in the Analysis phase, Business Outcome, identified the Business Need, the second step, Performance Analysis, identified the performance that is needed to obtain that objective, while this step identifies the various Learning and Training Needs and the activities and experiences they need to learn the required skills:

Backwards Planning Model

In addition to helping you identify the various learning needs required to obtain the desired performance, this step also allows the customer to understand the learning/training activity and its purpose. Customers often view outside activities as meddlers who interrupt their daily flow of work. These clients are often on the defensive and hide their true feelings and facts. During this initial analysis you must bring the customers in on the learning design activities and make them part of the solution. It is universally advised that the clients or customers of a proposed initiative be extensively involved in the construction of any new project (Bowsher, 1998, pp.64-88; Trolley, 2006; Wick, Pollock, Jefferson, Flanagan, 2006).

Besides introducing the customers and the training activity to each other, other benefits include that the customers will accept and benefit from a system that they themselves helped to define. In addition, nobody knows the system's learning requirements better than the people who own and work in it... often with the help of your guidance.

Exemplary Performer, Subject Matter Experts, Expert Performers, and Those Affected

There is a simple indicator that will help to identify the complexity of the problem you are facing — the source of your information. First, there are four types of experts from who you can obtain information:

These definitions of the various experts that learning and instructional designers call upon are the keys for identifying the complexity of the design environment:

Using Experts to identify complexity

Correctly identifying your source of information helps to identify the analysis and design approach.

The experts who are sent to help you with the learning project are often the ones who have developed band-aids that keep the system running. This is not a put down, but rather a compliment. For without them the entire system would have collapsed into absolute chaos.

These people often become frustrated with the pace of the analysis process, not understanding why development of the project cannot begin immediately. They often jump ahead to design and development far too soon. Ensure you capture their suggestions in the form of design notes attached to the analysis documents for later consideration. This allows team members to feel their inputs are considered important and will not be forgotten.

Hints for Discovering Training and Learning Needs

When looking for learning and training needs, or when problems arise, there are several instruments that may be used to locate the actual symptoms:

Some questions that might be asked to determine training needs are:

Regardless of which method you choose and what questions you ask, the data gathered must accurately reflect the specific tasks now being performed. The information gathered will be used as the basis to select the tasks that need to be trained.

The beginning of performance is knowing what constitutes great performance. The key word is “great.” If we ask for mediocre performance, then that is what we will get . . . and you cannot pounce on the competition with something mediocre and expect to win.

Proactive or Reactive?

There are two main methods to discover learning needs. The first method takes the proactive approach. This is when a training or learning analyst studies the system or process and searches for problems, potential problems, and ways to improve it.

The goal is to make the system more effective and efficient and to prevent future problems from occurring. When a new employee is needed, the required Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes (KSA) of the candidate are known, and the KSAs the candidate must learn are also known.

The second method is when a manager comes to the Learning Department for help in fixing a problem (Reactive). These problems are usually caused by new hires, promotions, transfers, appraisals, rapid expansion, or changes, such as the introduction of new technologies. Learning departments must act rapidly when problems arise that might require a training solution. The lifeblood of the business could depend on it. First, investigate the problem. A training need exists when an employee lacks the knowledge or skill to perform an assigned task satisfactorily. It arises when there is a variation between what the employee is expected to do on the job and what the actual job performance is.

Next Steps

Go to the next section: Compile Job and Task Inventory

Return to the Table of Contents

Analysis Templates (contains several analysis templates)

Pages in the Analysis Phase:


Bowsher, J. (1998). Revolutionizing Workforce Performance: A System Approach to Mastery. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Laird, D. (1985). Approaches To Training And Development (2nd ed). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Rittel, H. (1972). On the planning crisis: systems analysis of the “first and second generation.” Bedriftsokonomen. No. 8, pp.390-396.

Rossett, A. (1987). Training Needs Assessment. Englewoods Cliff, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Rossett, A., Sheldon, K. (2001). Beyond the Podium: Delivering Training and Performance to a Digital World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, p.67.

Trolley, E. (2006). Lies About Learning. Israelite, L. (ed). Baltimore, Maryland: ASTD.

Wick, C., Pollock, R., Jefferson, A., Flanagan, R., (2006). The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development Into Business Results. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.