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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Needs Analysis: A Valuable Tool for Designing and Maintaining Effective ESP Curriculum

I - Introduction:

With the advent of the communicative approach, views on language teaching started to incorporate communicative features into syllabus design. Accordingly, a central question has been raised: what does the learner need/want to do with the target language? Rather than, what are the linguistic elements the learner needs to master? This movement has led in part to the development of English for Specific Purpose. Thus, the focus has no more been only on language function but also on experiential content.

In order to cater for the learners’ specific purpose, it has become urgent to collect information about the learners: their needs and wants. For so doing, relevant techniques as well as procedures have been developed by needs analysts. These techniques have been borrowed and adopted from other areas of training, particularly, those associated with industry and technology.

In this respect, the present paper attempts to shed light on the field of needs analysis as a method of not only analyzing the needs of given individuals (learners) or communities; but also as a tool that can help in predicting future decisions about a targeted population. And before indulging in the “hows” and “whats” of needs assessment, a clear and well-rounded definition of the concept has to be provided.

The word "assess" comes from the Latin term "assidere," which means to "sit beside." Process-minded and participatory-oriented adult educators "sit beside" learners to learn about their proficiencies and backgrounds, educational goals, and expected outcomes, immersing themselves in the lives and views of their students (Auerbach, 1994).
The needs assessment process can be used as the basis for developing curricula and classroom practice that are responsive to these needs.

The research to date has considered the concept through various perspectives and proposed various interpretations accordingly. In this regard, the concept of needs is viewed as ‘irrevocably value laden’ and felt and prescribed needs are considered within this concept. Learner needs assessment encompasses both what learners know and can do (learner proficiencies) and what they want to learn and be able to do. Richterich (1983: 2) notes the difficulty of reaching an agreed on definition of needs analysis is in that ‘The very concept of “language needs” has never been clearly defined and remains at best ambiguous’. Berwick (1989: 52) offers a simplified conventional definition of need as the ‘discrepancy between a current state of affairs and a desired future state’. If this controversy is meant to reveal anything, it should be the ambiguity loaded within the phrase “needs assessment”.

III - Types of needs
Berwick (1989: 55) views perceived “needs” as those that the educators make judgments about in other people’s experience, while ‘felt needs’ are viewed as the ones that the learners have. Brookfield (1988: 221) defines “felt needs” as wants, desires and wishes of the learner. Brindley (1989) and Robinson (1991) consider all factual information about the learner (language proficiency, language difficulties, use of language in real life) – as means to collect data about objective needs; whereas cognitive and affective needs of the learner in language learning (such as confidence, attitudes, expectations) are considered as data about subjective needs. Hutchinson and Waters (1993: 54) define “target needs” as the ones the learner needs to do in the target situation’, these are necessities, lacks, and wants. ‘What the learner needs to do in order to learn’ is referred to “learning needs.” Peck (1991) categorizes the concept in terms of academic, social, and emotional needs.
Richterich and Chancerel (1987: 3) ague that experience shows that in general the learner is little aware of his needs and, in particular, he is unable to express them except in very vague terms’. Kopp (1986) and Pennington (1980) (quoted in Knox, 1997: 56) maintain that adults may be unaware of some of their educational needs, which may be implicit in their attitudes and choices, and may be aware of other educational needs, which they can state explicitly in response to some questions. Accordingly, it would be helpful to use needs assessment procedures to confirm and discover both implicit and explicit needs important to adult learners.

Richterich and Chancerel (1987) point out that due to the fact that needs vary too much from person to person, the system should be continually adapted. Porcer (1983: 129) emphasizes the fact that “speaking of a need (language or other) is not the same as speaking in general of what is lacking. A need does not exist prior to a project; it is always constructed’. The researcher also believes that the process of learning is obviously affected by the attitude of the learner towards the teaching itself. Therefore, the relationship between the learner and the content of learning should be considered as a prerequisite in specifying and analyzing the needs of a learner.

IV – The importance of implementing a needs analysis
Learners and teachers may have different needs. This why needs analysts should be cautious in collecting information from various sources due to the multiplicity and diversity of the views on prerequisites for an ESP. Hutchinson and Waters (1993) hold that the relationship between necessities as perceived by a sponsor or an ESP teacher, and what learners want or feel can be at extreme poles. They suggest that learners’ perceived wants and wishes should be considered carefully, and due to objective and subjective reality of needs, each learning situation should be considered uniquely and systematically.
Bearing in mind a wide range of needs due to the influence of different social and cultural factors on student’s learning (Peck, 1991), a needs analysis is considered as a prerequisite in any course design (Richterich and Chancerel, 1987). According to Knox (1997: 56), needs assessment enables researchers to justify their assumptions as to whether or not potential educational needs are sound, to design a program in terms of topics, materials so as to be responsive to the needs of participants. "The curriculum content and learning experiences should be negotiated between learners, teacher, and coordinator at the beginning of the project and renegotiated regularly during the project" (p. 20). At the beginning of the program, needs assessment might be used to determine types of appropriate program and course content. During the program, it assures that learner and program goals are being met, and allows for necessary program changes. At the end of the program, it can be used for assessing progress and planning future directions for learners and the program. This can maximize the likelihood of students' participation. Finally such focus on satisfying learners’ needs will help the learners to insist on learning and applying what has been learnt.

Richards (1990) deals with this issue from the point of curriculum development, and he thinks that the data to be collected from learners, teachers, administrators, and employers in the planning process will help to identify general and specific language needs and content of a language program. Besides, it will provide data to review and evaluate the existing program.
Yet, it is recommended that needs analysis should be carried out during the life of each course (Richterich and Chancerel, 1987), because ‘as students become more involved with the course, their attitudes and approach may change’ (Robinson, 1991: 15). Therefore, identification and analysis of needs should be a continuous process (Richterich and Chancerel, 1987; Knox, 1987). This can help both administrators and teachers to adapt necessary changes.

IV.1. A needs assessment serves a number of purposes:
• It aids administrators, teachers, and tutors with learner placement, developing materials, curricula, skills assessments, teaching approaches, and teacher training. It assures a flexible, responsive curriculum rather than a fixed and linear curriculum determined ahead of time by instructors.
• It provides information to the instructor about what the learner brings to the course (if done at the beginning), what has been accomplished (if done during the course), and what the learner wants and needs to know next. When learners know that educators understand and want to address specific needs and interests, the former are motivated to continue learning.
V – Steps in implementing a Needs Assessment
To undertake a needs assessment study, one must plan one’s strategy. The four steps to the needs assessment process require that one should determine who will conduct the study, what kind of information needs to be collected, how the information will be collected, and how the information will be used.

V.1. Who Will Conduct the Study?
The first step in performing a needs assessment is to decide who will conduct the study. A needs assessment study can be carried out by needs analysts, outside consultants, practitioners, or educational members, such as teachers. Needless to say that available resources, time frame, and comfort level with performing research may influence decisions.

V.2. What Kind of Information Needs to Be Collected?
The second step in performing a needs assessment is to decide what you hope to learn about your community and what kind of information you plan to collect. For example, do you hope to perform a broad-based study or one that is focused on a particular area? A needs assessment for use with adult learners of English is a tool that examines, from the perspective of the learner, what kinds of English, native language, and literacy skills the learner already believes he or she has; the literacy contexts in which the learner lives and works; what the learner wants and needs to know to function in those contexts; what the learner expects to gain from the instructional program; and what might need to be done in the native language or with the aid of an interpreter. The categories of information one might be interested in collecting include: Demographic Data, Social, Cultural, Educational and Recreational Organizations.

V.3. How Will the Information Be Collected?
After deciding on the types of information the institution wants to collect about its community, it needs to determine how to collect that information. Data can be collected by: 1) interviewing key informants (also known as "gatekeepers"): these are people who hold socially responsible positions, such as educators, 2) holding a community forum, 3) researching social indicators, 4) consulting demographic information from public records and reports, 5) and performing field surveys. It is best if the needs analysts can use more than one of these data collection methods in combination.

V.4. Interpretation of Findings
In order to make use of the information collected, the results have to be interpreted. To interpret the data, some statistical analyses are often applied to identify the most important needs for the majority of the informants. An important feature of the results should be a reflection of whether or not the current goals of the given institution do meet (and will continue to meet) the needs of the community. Crucial to be covered in the finding also is the question as to whether the institution has collected information about the present or the past needs of the community. When the data analysis is completed, it should be possible to produce a rank-ordered list of the most important changes identified by the community. This ranking can be used to set budget priorities. At the end of this process, it is a good idea to share the findings with the community in some way: holding a group meeting, creating displays at the institution, or writing articles to appear online or in the local newspapers, or through teachers seminaries.

VI - Approaches to Needs Analysis
A careful needs analysis should involve “Present Situation Analysis” (PSA) and “Target Situation Analysis” (TSA). PSA aims at finding out the students’ English proficiency level and their existing language requirements at the beginning of a language program, whereas learners’ language requirements regarding the target situation are identified through TSA (Robinson, 1991: 8-9). Bloor (1984) defines the former type of analysis as a learner-centered needs analysis, and the latter one as a target-centered analysis. Bloor emphasizes that operation of both analyses during a term is certainly desirable. Robinson (1991) also holds that TSA and PSA are complementary and form an efficient form of needs analysis.
Jordan (1997) proposes a “tri-chotomy” of needs analysis which comprises: 1) deficiency analysis, 2) strategy analysis, 3) and means analysis. Deficiency analysis is concerned with the necessities that the learner lacks; strategy analysis seeks to establish the learners preferences in terms of learning styles and strategies, or teaching methods; means analysis examines the ‘constraints’ - local situation - to find out the ways of implementation of a language course.

Furthermore, various analyses and approaches to needs assessment were put forward: analytic view of needs analysis which examines expert opinion, and diagnostic approach which examines the learner’s needs to be used in social services (Berwick, 1989); discrepancy analysis which attempts to examine what people know and what they ought to know, and democratic approach which is based on learner points of view (Stufflebeam et al, 1985, quoted in Berwick, 1989).

VII - Components of Needs Analyses
Many needs assessment tests are available for use in different employment contexts. Sources that can help you determine which needs analysis is appropriate for your situation are described below.
• Context Analysis. The important questions being answered by this analysis are who decide that a given training should be conducted, why a training program is seen as the recommended solution to a business problem, what the history of the organization has been with regard to employee training and other management interventions.
• User Analysis. Analysis dealing with potential participants and instructors involved in the process. The important questions being answered by this analysis are who will receive the training and their level of existing knowledge on the subject, as well as what is their learning style, and who will conduct the training?
• Work analysis. Analysis of the tasks being performed. This is an analysis of the job and the requirements for performing the work. Also known as a task analysis or job analysis, this analysis seeks to specify the main duties and skill level required. This helps ensure that the training that is developed will include relevant links to the content of the job.
• Content Analysis. Analysis of documents, laws, procedures used in the job. This analysis answers questions about what knowledge or information is used on this job; and the sources of the information ( does it come from manuals, documents, or regulations.) It is important that the content of the training does not conflict or contradict job requirements. An experienced worker can assist (as a subject matter expert) in determining the appropriate content.
• Training Suitability Analysis. Analysis of whether a training is the desired solution. Training is one of several solutions to employment problems. However, it may not always be the best solution. It is important to determine if training will be effective in its usage.
• Cost-Benefit Analysis. Analysis of the return on investment (ROI) of training. Effective training is expected to result in a return of value to the organization that is greater than the initial investment to produce or administer the training.

VIII - Techniques used in needs analysis
Several basic Needs Assessment techniques include:
• Direct observation
• Questionnaires
• Consultation with persons in key positions, and/or with specific knowledge
• Review of relevant literature
• Interviews
• Focus groups
• Tests
• Class discussions
• Records & report studies
• Work samples
1. Surveys
Surveys are usually in the form of a questionnaire. A comprehensive survey of the information needs of your institution would seek information on the types of information users (physician, nurse, administrator, etc.), the types of information sought (factual, reviews, in-depth, clinical, research, administrative), the frequency of the need (daily, monthly, annually), and where the information is currently found (hospital library, other library, personal library, consultation with colleague, not found, et c.).
Other surveys may be on a more narrow aspect of service. Recent surveys at Dartmouth have assessed 1) satisfaction with the current awareness service, 2) the desirability of a change in Sunday hours, 3) and satisfaction with the Learning Resources Center. Satisfaction with and the need for additional educational workshops are regularly assessed after each workshop.
2. Interviews
Interviews may be formal or informal. Formally, you may visit department chairs, administrators, and/or managers annually to ask if the library, for example, is currently meeting their needs and how things could be better. Informal interviews are often done as you greet people entering the library or check materials out, and ask them if they have found what was needed. If you take it a step further, making a note of the conversation and any action taken in response. This way, you've already initiated done a needs assessment.
3. Analysis of statistics, records
Libraries have always been faithful record keepers, gathering statistics on every aspect of their operations - circulation, reference, acquisitions, interlibrary loan, etc. Analyze these records regularly to see what they tell you about the needs of your institution. You probably already analyze interlibrary loan requests to determine titles to which you should subscribe.
5. Suggestion box
A suggestion box is a very basic needs assessment tool. Complaints - whether received through a suggestion box or not - can fall into this category of needs assessment tool.
6. Meetings, Reports, Newsletters
Attending meetings, reading newsletter, and getting on as many distribution lists as possible are all useful ways to find out about the level of efficacy of new programs and services, and the new direction is heading to.
Any of the aforementioned tools may be used in the continuous quality improvement process to uncover areas in need of improvement and to measure progress toward improvement. With all of the above needs assessment tools, it is important to document how you measure need for knowledge-based information and how you respond to the measured needs.

IX - Conclusion
An ongoing needs analysis should be a prerequisite for any program/course design in order to achieve effective instructional outcomes. Besides this, it can help educators and administrators to gain awareness of the ‘context variable’ (Chaudron, 1990) and program designers - to provide appropriate instructional input to foster effective learning. Needs of administrators /educators and students generally vary across time, instructional contexts, the requirement of an ongoing needs assessment for any educational institution becomes crucial in order to promote effective teaching and learning environments.

Weddel, Kathleen Santopietro - Van Duzer, Carol Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
Van House, Nancy A. and Thomas A. Childers (1993). The Public Library Effectiveness Study: The Complete Report, Chicago: American Library Association.
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