Suggested Readings

Chapter 2, Assessing Needs to Identify Instructional Goal(s), from Dick, Carey and Carey.


If you recall, the first step in the instructional design process is to determine what it is you want the learners to do when they finish with the instruction. Generally you do this by performing a Needs Assessment. The Needs Assessment is undertaken to identify the goals for an instructional project. In doing so you are trying to identify the gap between the desired goals and the current status of your learners. This gap is referred to as a need (hence the term "Needs" Assessment). Assessing your needs and identifying goal(s) is the first step in the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model (see below).

Determining Goals

During the Needs Assessment the designer attempts to identify the problem, then the causes of the problem, and then identifies an array of solutions that could be implemented to solve the problem. The result of this process is one or more well-defined goals. Goals are usually stated in terms of new skills, knowledge, or attitudes that you want the learners to acquire. This includes what will learners be able to do when they complete the instruction, and the real-world context in which they will have to use these new skills. The result of Needs Assessment is a clear description of a problem, evidence of the causes of the problem, and the nature of any suggested solutions. These solutions may or may not involve the development of new instruction.

Determining your goal is an important step because it will determine what you are going to teach and what the learners are going to learn. Goals statements are usually general statements that can be broken down into more specific statements (which you will do in a later step). The goals will direct all subsequent design decisions. Think of it as the top of a great pyramid. After you determine your goals, everything else must fit under it and support it.

When determining a goal, the description of what the learners will be able to do is not complete without a description of who the learners are, the context in which the learners will use the skills (performance context), and the tools that will be available to the learners. In the end a complete goal statement should describe the following:

  • The learners

  • What the learners will be able to do in the performance context.

  • The performance context in which the skills will be applied.

  • The tools that will be available to the learners in the performance context.

Let's look closer at each of these items:

The learners

The learners are the people you want to have learn whatever it is you're trying to teach. For example, 10th grade Driver's Education students.

What the learners will be able to do

This is simply the skills, knowledge, or attitudes you want them to possess when they are finished with your instruction. For example, you might want the learners to be able to change a flat tire on a car.

The performance context inwhich the skills will be applied.

The performance context is the real-world context in which student will eventually be expected to demonstrate the desired skills. For example, the skill of changing a flat tire might be performed while stranded on the side of the road with a car that has a flat tire. This does not mean the context in which students will learn the skills (e.g., the classroom).

The tools that will be available to learners in the performance context

This refers to the tools that will be available to the learners as they attempt to perform the goal in a real-world environment. For example, they might need a fully-inflated spare tire, a tire jack, and a lug wrench. You should not include tools used during the instructional process that aren't integral to performing the goal.
For example, if you have a goal such as this:

"Third-grade math students will draw a right triangle using a ruler, compass, and pencil."

The "tools" would be the ruler, compass, and pencil. The tools would NOT include the bulletin board you use to demonstrate the procedure, or a handout that you give them with an example of a right triangle on it, or any kind of physical model of a triangle. Those things would not be used by students who were attempting to perform the goal in a real-world environment.

Fuzzy Goals

At times you may encounter a goal that is not clear enough. Robert Mager has developed a procedure to help designers clarify goals that are "fuzzy", or too vague. Mager's process involves the following steps:

  1. Write the goal down.

  2. Identify the behaviors that learners would demonstrate to reflect their achievement of the goal. Write everything down to start.

  3. Sort through the list of behaviors and select those that best represent what is meant by the unclear goal.

  4. Incorporate each of the behaviors into a statement that describes what the learner will be able to do.

  5. Examine the goal statement and ask yourself this: If learners achieved or demonstrated each of the performances, would you agree that they had achieved the goal? If the answer is yes, then you have clarified the goal.

Is Instruction the Answer?

Because of the improvements that instruction can make in the performance of students or employees, it is often chosen as a remedy for almost any problem that a teacher or trainer might be having. Any time expectations are not being met, someone may offer additional instruction as a solution. While instruction is an appropriate solution in some cases, other factors such as lack of motivation, lack of practice, or obstacles to success may be the cause of the poor performance. In these cases it is unlikely that additional instruction will result in improvements in performance. This is where the Needs Assessment can help out. If it turns out after the Needs Assessment that the performance problem is caused by a lack of skills, knowledge, or attitudes among the students or employees, then instruction can be developed to address these needs. If the problem stems from other factors, then additional instruction would not be the solution.

Robert Mager and Peter Pipe (1997) have described a procedure for analyzing and identifying the nature and cause of human performance problems. In their book, Analyzing Performance Problems or You Really Oughta Wanna, they provide a systematic approach to use while analyzing a problem, and provide a flowchart to demonstrate their approach. It involves a series of questions to ask yourself when faced with a performance problem. As they state in their Preface, "Solutions to problems are like keys in locks; they don't work if they don't fit. And if solutions aren't the right ones, the problem doesn't get solved." Often what people think is "the problem" isn't the problem at all. Sometimes, there are other solutions that may not initially be apparent. That is where the Mager and Pipe procedure comes in. This is a real easy-to-follow procedure and would be worthwhile for you to review. We have provided their flowchart and a quick-reference checklist that outlines each step in the chart. They are available as a PDF file for you to download and review. Take some time to look them over. If you are interested in learning more about their process, we urge you to check out their book. This simple checklist will get you started, but it cannot adequately cover all the details of the process.

Link to FlMagerowchart and Checklist