February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Tools of the Trade // 1TOT1

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Needs Assessment: A Handbook

Needs assessment is a concern of all Extension educators, and a new handbook is now available to help agents and other Extension workers on how to conduct such assessments. After background discussion of the program planning process, the author describes a variety of needs assessment techniques in concise, yet complete, summaries. Agents will be able to compare needs assessment techniques and choose the best technique for their purposes.

Arlen Etling
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet address: arlen_etling@agcs.cas.psu.edu

After four years of conducting county needs assessments of 4-H youth, Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension has published the handbook, "Needs Assessment for Extension Agents and Other Nonformal Educators." The purposes of this concise, practical handbook are:

  1. to introduce Extension workers to needs assessment theory and techniques useful in their work, and

  2. to provide a shelf reference for planning and implementing county level needs assessments of youth.

The handbook begins with a brief discussion of program planning, of which needs assessment is one step. Needs assessment is defined as "the systematic process for documenting relevant needs." It depends on one three-part question: who, needs what, according to whom? Most of the handbook describes techniques for answering this key question.

Office techniques are those that an agent can perform without leaving the office. They include:

  1. the needs sheet (or wall chart) for recording ideas and observations,

  2. resource inventory forms,

  3. review of file records,

  4. the futures wheel for projecting needs, and

  5. reflective listening (for office or telephone interviews).

Social indicators are demographic data that are available from public agencies such as census offices and school districts. A list of federal, state, and local offices located in Pennsylvania tells where data can be found. This list can help agents in other states identify local sources of social indicators.

Guidelines for constructing and conducting written and telephone surveys are given. Sample surveys used by Extension agents are included.

Group techniques for needs assessment are effective and efficient. The handbook briefly describes the nominal group process, the county forum, the focus group interview, and brainstorming. Each technique is defined, guidelines for formulating questions are given, and steps and rules for implementing the technique are summarized. Sample instruments are included for easy use.

Other techniques which can be used to do a needs assessment are listed to help agents understand the range of available alternatives. These techniques are not as effective or popular with Extension agents, so they are not described. They include radio call in, delphi questionnaires, group discussion, force field analysis, simulation games, and teleconferencing.

Program evaluation is also an excellent technique for needs assessment. Evaluation, like the other techniques, has its limitations when used for needs assessment. To address any limitations, evaluation should be used in combination with other needs assessment techniques.

To help agents who are planning a needs assessment, the handbook discusses common mistakes in using the different techniques, lists practical references for Extension educators, and recommends a strategy for planning needs assessments over a four year period (using a complementary combination of techniques changing each year to minimize error and bias).

The handbook also summarizes four years of findings from county level needs assessments in Pennsylvania (which needs assessment techniques were preferred, needs of youth that were identified, involvement of county advisory committees in the assessments, and reasons for not conducting a needs assessment).

In Pennsylvania the most popular needs assessment techniques were group discussion with advisory committees, written survey, brainstorming, county forum, and nominal group process. Needs of youth that were identified were job opportunities, help with substance abuse, lack of recreational facilities and activities, stronger families, dealing with self-esteem, and leadership training. Involvement of advisory committees in the needs assessments increased each year. The main reasons for not doing needs assessments were lack of time and lack of staff.

Although this handbook was developed for 4-H agents, the techniques are equally relevant to agents and specialists with other responsibilities. The publication is available in limited quantities (one per person and one per request) from the author at 323 Agricultural Administration Building, University Park, PA, 16802. Send a self-addressed 9" X 12" envelop with $1.90 of postage stamps included.