Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
When Extension educators initiate a new program or expand an existing program it is imperative that they have a comprehensive understanding of the current conditions, economic factors, clientele behavior, and technology utilized. One of the effective tools that can be utilized by Extension educators in concert with the program change model is needs assessments.
Needs assessments enable the Extension educator to identify current production practices, technology utilized, eating habits, exercise regimes, current beliefs, and the current condition of learners. A “needs assessment is the systematic process of analyzing gaps between what learners (clientele) know and what they should know or can do” (Witkins, 1984). Needs assessments assists Extension educators improve planning, implementation, and evaluation of programs. Needs assessments also provides Extension educators with critical benchmark data against which later impact measures can be compared.
Etling and Maloney (1995) identified eight reasons why needs assessment is important (Table 1).
Needs assessment enhances the Extension Change Development Model by improving the accessibility of programs to a variety of people, providing information about present conditions and specific needs of people in a community, identifying opportunities to develop or expand existing programs, assessing public opinion about goals and priorities, and building stakeholder interest in programs or decisions (Seevers & Graham, 2012). Extension educators are trained to develop programs based on the current and immediate needs of individuals and communities (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Programming to address specific needs or issues is critical to the success of Extension programs primarily because participation in Extension is usually voluntary (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Therefore, these educational offerings are only successful to the extent to which they attract participants because they meet identified individual, family, community, or societal needs (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Because Extension programming inevitably utilizes valuable resources, the needs assessment process (Table 2) also allows Extension educators to make informed decisions about the use of or investment in resources needed to create, maintain, or expand programs (Garst & McCawley, 2015).
Clientele involvement in the needs assessment and prioritization process is critical because securing stakeholder support for and acceptance of Extension programs requires understanding local needs (Garst & McCawley, 2015). By involving people in needs assessment, Extension professionals can not only address problems or issues, but also mobilize support for current and future initiatives and overcome resistance to proposed programs (Seevers & Graham, 2012). Witkin and Altschuld (1995) suggested three levels of people who experience needs as follows:
According to this three-level interpretation, for a need assessment to be successful, information should be gathered in multiple stages and from several different individuals at all levels. Collecting information regarding stakeholder needs can be challenging when clientele are unaware of program and service options (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Royse et al. (2009) identified the following four factors that influence whether or not new programs are needed:
After needs are identified, the next needs assessment step is categorizing and prioritizing the needs to determine what comes next (Garst & McCawley, 2015). When needs are assessed, some needs may be identified as more important or more urgent to address with the resources available (Altschuld & Watkins, 2014).
Needs assessment is sometimes used synonymously with the terms situational analysis and environmental scanning, and although these processes are related, they are different (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Situational analysis can and is a component of a needs assessment (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Specifically, the results of a needs assessment enable the Extension educator to complete a situational analysis (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Situational analysis, the description of the setting and circumstances, informs the Extension educator about the environment for programs (Seevers, Graham, Gamon, & Conklin, 1997). Environmental scanning, a process of studying and analyzing the current and emerging forces that exist within an organization’s environment (Boone, Safrit, & Jones, 2002). Environmental scans have become an emergent approach to identify key issues and set program priorities (Caravella, 2006; Guion, 2010). Guion (2010) used a 10-step environmental scanning process to understand county issues for Extension programming in North Carolina (Garst & McCawley, 2015). The process included (Guion, 2010):
In the private sector, the similarity between needs assessment and market research is significant (Morse & Coyle, 2009; Rossett, 1987). The same basic goal is involved—determining consumer needs to provide information for the development of products and services (Garst & McCawley, 2015).
In many respects, needs assessments are the most important tool utilized by Extension educators in implementing Extension Program Change Model. Our ability to successfully identify clientele needs, and have the necessary information to design programs to meet those needs, will forever define the public’s perception of Extension’s value relative to other programs (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Extension’s ability to understand and access clienteles concerns and issues, while recognizing their inherent strengths and assets, may set us apart from most other program providers during the needs assessment process (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Methods to assess needs should be dynamic, incorporating a range of emerging technologies and advances in how data can be represented, visualized, and shared (Garst & McCawley, 2015). The future of needs assessment is rich and diverse, technology-driven, yet embedded in social interaction (Garst & McCawley, 2015). At the same time, needs assessment has become an important tool to engage clientele in the learning process and to increase their understanding and motivation to solve complex societal issues (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Needs assessment has provided a means for Extension educators to transform their own role into that of facilitator and partner in situations that require a more in-depth approach to problem solving (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Contemporary needs assessment represents the best of both worlds: a respect for traditional relationships that have existed between local Extension offices and the public they serve, and a recognition of the global, technological, and blended approaches that will continue to advance how we will collaborate to solve future problems and issues (Garst & McCawley, 2015).
Altschuld, J. W., & Watkins, R. (2014). A primer on needs assessment: More than 40 years of research and practice. In J. W. Altschuld & R. Watkins (Eds.), Needs assessment: Trends and a view toward the future (pp. 5-18), New Directions for Evaluation, 2014(144). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals. doi:10.1002/ev.20099
Boone, E. J., Safrit, R. D., & Jones, J. (2002). Developing programs in adult education: A conceptual programming model (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland
Caravella, J. (2006). A needs assessment method for Extension educators. Journal of Extension, 44(1), Article 1TOT2. Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/2006february/tt2.php
Etling, A. (1995). Needs assessment: A handbook. Journal of Extension, 33(1), Article 1TOT1. Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/1995february/tt1.php
Guion, L. A. (2010). A 10-step process for environmental scanning. Journal of Extension, 48(4), Article 4IAW2. Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/2010august/iw2.php
Morse, G., & Coyle, L. (2009). Regional support systems. In G. W. Morse, J. Markell, P. O’Brien, A. Ahmed, T. Klein, & L. Coyle. (Eds.), The Minnesota response: Cooperative Extension’s money and mission crisis (pp. 167-191). Bloomington, IN: iUniverse. Retrieved from http://www.apec.umn.edu/people/EmeritiFacultyDirectory/GeorgeMorse/index.htm
Rossett, A. (1987). Training needs assessment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Royse, D., Staton-Tindall, M., Badger, K., & Webster, J. M. (2009). Needs assessment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Seevers, B., & Graham, D. (2012). Education through Cooperative Extension. (3rd ed.). Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Bookstore.
Seevers, B., Graham, D., Gamon, J., & Conklin, N. (1997). Education through Cooperative Extension. New York, NY: Delmar Publishers.
Witkin, B. R. (1994). Needs assessment since 1981: The state of the practice. Evaluation Practice, 15(1), 17–27. doi:10.1177/109821409401500102
Witkin, B. R., & Altschuld, J. W. (1995). Planning and conducting needs assessments: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.