Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA4

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Influences on Program Planning


Jan Scholl
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
College of Agriculture
Penn State University-University Park

Somewhere, right now, a major Extension program is being planned. A group of community leaders are meeting to make recommendations. Someone is tabulating evaluations to improve their efforts. New resources in the community are being sought to alleviate an old problem.

Knowing how programs come about and studying types of needs assessment options are important as more emphasis is placed on issues affecting people today. This article describes a study of the variety of resources used by Extension home economists in their planning.

Study Design

The purpose of my study was to see what factors and resources affect how Extension home economists plan programs, in particular, to quantify their use of advisory committees and other methods of determining needs. Data were collected in 1985 by mailed questionnaires from a sample of Extension home economists in seven midwestern states: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Fifty percent of the home economists in each state were randomly cluster-sampled using a table of random numbers. An 85% response resulted.

The questionnaire asked for three types of information. First, background information was secured from each home economist. Second, each respondent listed three major adult-oriented programs they planned to conduct during 20 or more workdays. In the third section, respondents were asked which of 32 planning options (Table 1) influenced their planning the three programs. Based on the work of Nowlen,1 and validated by a group of Extension and adult education experts, this list and the questionnaire were pretested by a group of Extension home economists not in the study.


Extension home economists were found to use an average of five different needs assessment methods to determine each major program. Advisory committee recommendations, requests, questions from individual clients, results of other formal needs assessment procedures, and program spinoffs (ideas gleaned from programs previously held in the community) were the most cited methods.

The home economists' personal interest also ranked high, indicating that Extension professionals may need to be sold on the program idea. The least selected method was a "diagnosis by an expert."

Advisory Committee as a Planning Resource

Advisory committees are a popular needs assessment tool. Committees identify critical problems, involve people in the planning process as a leadership and learning experience, and secure public support for Extension efforts.

In my study, respondents did use advisory committees as their major source of information. However, advisory committee recommendations were a factor in only 48% of the programs cited by the home economists. Six percent of the home economists didn't use advisory committees or other formal needs methods, such as questionnaires, observation, pretest, or organizational data, to plan any of their programs.

These findings, supported by other studies, indicate that an advisory committee as the sole needs assessment tool may pose problems. For example, in Idaho, Pletcher2 found that committees didn't predict accurately enough to warrant basing all program decisions on this single source of information. Beal, Bohlen, and Raudabaugh3 noted that groups can be as guilty as individuals of not seeking relevant information before making a decision. Kempfer4 found no relationship between any one needs assessment method used and whether an Extension program was started, if it continued, or the number of participants in attendance if a program did take place.

Table 1. Possible influences in program planning.

1. Result of a test or pretest given to an individual or group.
2. Study of organizational and census data: enrollment trends.
3. Availability of an outstanding speaker, specialist, faculty
member, resource person, laboratory (legislative session),
other equipment, or facility.
4. Adopted after examining successful programs of others.
5. Ideas gained through travel or a new experience, perhaps a
visit or talk by someone outside the community; a training
meeting, state or national conference.
6. Careful reflection or study of the traditions and purpose of
the Extension Service.
7. The program has been important in our area for some time
and there is a general feeling that it should be continued.
8. Gleaned from current research in a topic area.
9. A spinoff from a program or the result of any part of the
program planning process; perhaps because of an evaluation
at the end of a meeting.
10. Collaboration with practitioners from other agencies who
have special expertise.
11. Requests or questions of individual clients and client
12. Recommended by a program coordinator or supervisor.
13. Scanning the media for ideas: tv, newspapers, magazines,
radio call-in programs, etc.
14. Survey of resources and resource people in the community.
15. My own philosophy, personal or professional interest, or
something I thought would be of interest or solve a problem.
16. My own philosophy of what Extension should be doing.
17. Recommended by an influential or legitimizer in the
18. Influenced by some aspect of the home economics profession;
a past course, a reknown professional; philosophies related to
home economics.
19. Recommendations from an advisory committee.
20. Analysis of a particular life stage or a special needs
21. Result of a needs assessment procedure, interest inventory,
questionnaire, telephone survey, delphi technique, interview,
22. Legislative mandates or guidelines of the state or federal
23. Recognition of political, economic, or social trends in the
community or nation.
24. Availability of a prepared instructional packet, newsletter,
brochure, film, correspondence course, or computer software.
25. Availability of a grant or scholarship; suggestions by a
funding source.
26. Evaluation of previous program efforts.
27. From a subject-matter or a curriculum orientation.
28. A diagnosis by experts.
29. Based on a history of interagency cooperation.
30. Collaboration with co-workers or home economists in a
nearby county.
31. Based on a philosophy of education or Extension.
32. Result of an informal discussion and/or an observed
incidence in the community.
33. Other (specify):

Variations in Planning Approach

In my study, home economists working full-time and independently in an Extension setting, employed more formal ways of determining needs than those working on a part-time basis or with another Extension home economist. Those in the sparsely populated, more western states of South Dakota and Nebraska reported using formal needs assessment methods less often than home economists in other states. (This was significant at the .01 level.)

Educational background of the Extension home economist also seemed to have some bearing on the way programs were planned. For example, home economists with degrees in human development used their knowledge of community resources and people more often than formal methods of determining needs. Those with degrees in housing, interiors, or household equipment gleaned more ideas from previous programs and informal contacts with clients. Home economists with expertise in the food, nutrition, and consumer areas relied on personal and professional philosophy more than those with other backgrounds. Respondents with clothing and textiles degrees and those indicating a general home economics background selected more formal needs assessment methods.

Interpretations and Implications

The results indicate that Extension home economists use a variety of needs assessment techniques and information resources in planning programs. There are strengths and weaknesses in any single approach. Using multiple approaches reduces the weaknesses of any single resource or needs assessment technique, while building on diverse strengths.

These findings agree with previous research studies of successful planners in a variety of professions. These studies indicate that informal needs assessment is often employed in addition to more formal methods. My study also showed that personal philosophy, educational background, and job location had an impact on planning.

The list in Table 1 should help Extension staff monitor the basis on which program decisions are made. To do this, follow the design of the study and jot down a number of recently planned programs. Review the list of influences and indicate those that were most important in determining each program. Look for patterns in the influences identified and consider these four questions:

  1. Are a variety of influences and options being used?
  2. Are some options selected more than others or for certain types of programs?
  3. Which options are continually found to be the most important?
  4. What influences and options haven't yet been considered?

By being aware of the variety of ways needs are determined, Extension staff can begin to analyze their own planning approaches. Rather than choosing just one way of determining needs, comparing various options and results may be more rewarding. Multiple planning methods and information resources may also ensure a more comprehensive grasp of community needs.


1. P. Nowlen, "Program Origins," in Developing, Administering, and Evaluating Adult Education (Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass, 1980).

2. P. Pletcher, "Perceptions of Idaho Adults Concerning Services to Meet Educational Needs in Home Economics" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Idaho, Moscow, 1979).

3. G. Beal, J. Bohlen, and J. Raudabaugh, Leadership and Dynamic Group Action (Ames: Iowa State Press, 1962).

4. H. Kempfer, "Identifying Educational Needs of Adults" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, Office of Education, Circular No. 330, 1951).