Using a Needs Assessment to Build Relevance

After posting Motivation in Adult Education yesterday, I got an email from a reader who pointed out that it’s important to provide information that the learners need, and that’s not always easy when they’re sent to a required class by a supervisor. And I have to say that I fully agree. This is part of what I mean when I talk about relevance.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone has had the experience of being in a class of some sort and wondering what the use of being there is. Sometimes, especially in high school or colleges, the answer is that the course is a requirement or that you need to take it in order to understand the next course. But those are really just ways to dodge the real question. Whether a learner is in my class because they choose to be or because they’re sent there by a manager, the issue of how I offer them something that they find relevant is at the core of my teaching practices.

One easy way to build relevance is to survey the learners. Ideally, I can do this before I plan the session, but that’s not always possible and even when it is, it can be hard to get people to respond. So one of the first things I do when I start a class is ask the participants what they want to get out of it.

There are a few different ways I do that, depending on the topic and the class size. Sometimes, I’ll have each person speak up, although that works best with a smaller group. For some classes, I’ll have them pair up and talk with each other, followed by asking a few people to report back. There are times that I’ll list a few common areas or topics ask for a show of hands to see how many people are interested in that, especially if the group is large. And I usually write their responses down on a flip chart to make sure I don’t forget it.

Once I’ve collected this information, the trick is figuring out how to use it. Most of the time, I don’t have much difficulty since many people have the same needs or questions and I’ve already planned for them. But sometimes, questions come up that I haven’t planned for. In those situations, I’ll either modify my presentation to include them or I’ll explain that it’s off-topic and ask that person to speak with me afterward. Either way, I’ve made sure that my class is relevant for these particular learners.

Some topics are so broad that it can be hard to decide which information to include. Conducting a needs assessment at the beginning lets me figure out what topics are the most important for these specific people. Rather than trying to cover every possible subject, I improvise and choose which portions to include. This means that I have to know much more material than I have time for, but that’s ok. One of the most important skills a teacher can develop is the ability to let go of wanting to say everything on a given subject.

Another way that I use the information I collect in a needs assessment is to figure out how to frame my presentation. Some groups need me to adopt a more colloquial style, while others need me to keep things very academic or professional in tone. Some people do better if I keep the information basic and others are looking for more advanced topics. I decide how to shift my presentation style based on the information I gather and my interactions with the learners. In my experience, that’s much more effective than expecting them to fit within my preferred teaching style.

The more you know about what your learners want, the more you can shift your presentation based on that information. That helps you to create more relevance and when you do that, you’ll discover that your learners become more motivated because they see a clear relationship between their needs and your teaching. And that is essential if you hope to be a successful teacher.

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