The Role of Needs Assessments in Professional Learning


There are many examples of professional development that have minimally worked for me, and they all share the following characteristics: They were short, took place only one time, the presentation was informational, it did not connect the information t my specific content area or needs, and the presenters did not inquiere how successful the new information was when applied. There have also been professional developments that have significantly improved my practice. The ones that have had more impact have been self-selected and relevant to my practice. This makes me ask, What does the literature and research say about effective professional development?

ISTE Standard for Coaches 4.5a indicates the need to “design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs.” As I prepare to take the role of a learning coach and participate in the development and implementation of professional learning for other educators, I would like to investigate further What elements need to be considered and included in the development of needs assessments necessary for designing professional development in K-12 schools?

Addressing the needs of adult learners

Considering that professional development in schools address the needs of adult learners, the research and literature on adult education must be considered. In Teachers as Adult Learner’s A New Perspective, Patricia Lawler (2003) presents the following six adult learning principles:

  • Create a climate of respect
  • Encourage active participation
  • Build on experience
  • Employ collaborative inquiry
  • Learn for action
  • Empower the participants

Lawler further presents a model for Faculty development that is compatible with adult learning. This model includes four stages: pre-planning, planning, delivery, and follow up. Lawler emphasizes the need for the professional developers to ask if “the activities and proposed learning objectives are compatible with the adult learning principles” (p. 19).  In the pre-planning stage of this model, professional developers find and define the purpose, relevance, mission and goals of the organization, and the resources available. This is the stage where the needs assessment is planned, designed, and implemented. While creating the needs assessment, it is important to design questions that consider and incorporate the six principles of adult learning. This is important because the information revealed by the needs assessment will guide the planning phase.

Creating Needs Assessments – Elements, Phases and Cycle

The Assessment Guidebook from State Support Network (2018) presents the reasons behind conducting Needs Assessments, as well as the elements, phases, and cycle of Needs Assessment implementation. This guide defines Needs Assessment as “a systematic examination of the gap that exists between the current state and desired state of an organization and the factors that can be attributed to this gap.” (pg. 4). According to this guidebook, the goal of Needs Assessment is “to help educators identify, understand, and prioritize the needs that districts and schools must address to improve performance.” According to ESEA (Every Student Succeeds Act), states and districts must complete a needs assessment in several areas.

This article provides the following graph depicting essential elements for successful needs assessment. (pg. 8)

Graph depicting essential elements for successful needs assessment
Graph depicting essential elements for successful needs assessment

This article presents the following five phases of Needs Assessment Implementation:

  • Plan
  • Collect & Organize Data
  • Interpret Information
  • Determine Priorities
  • Connect to Implementation

This guide also encourages those planning and implementing needs assessments to use guiding questions such as

  • Why are we engaging in the needs assessments?
  • What are we hoping the impact will be at the classroom, building, and system levels?
  • What is the framework of needs, such as instruction, assessment, achievement, climate, etc.
  • Who are the stakeholders who need to be engaged and at what points in the process?

Digital Promise also addresses the importance of needs assessments in their article Conducting a Needs Assessment for Digital Learning, “This is a crucial step in forming your understanding of what motivates your learners, their wants and needs, and how to address potential biases or preconceived notions you may have.”

This article presents the following essential components needed in the creation of Needs Assessments:

  • Provide context for why this information is being collected.
  • Information is collected anonymously to ensure it is bias-free and secure learner privacy.
  • Questions are learner centered to focus on needs and familiarity with technology

The article further explains that once the data is collected, it needs to be analyzed and interpreted, the following questions help analyze and interpret the data. These are questions that can guide this process:

  • Is the data quantitative or qualitative?
  • How will the data be filtered or organized?
  • What historical data are available to compare new data against?
Program evaluation example

The article Know the ISTE Standards for Coaches: PD and program evaluation describes and evaluates three different ways to conduct a program evaluation that determines the needs of staff at school.

Example 1: “To determine the needs of teachers, the technology coach writes a list of what he or she thinks they need at the time. The technology coach then provides that training to the staff.”

This first example presented does not meet the indicators for ISTE standard because it lacks a proper needs assessment and evaluation of the learning program.

Example 2: “Using the ISTE Standards for Teachers, the technology coach conducts one lesson observation with each teacher. He or she also sends out a survey to ask the staff what professional development they think they need. Using the observation notes and survey data, the coach chooses one of the PD options, then prepares and implements it.

This second example presents a thorough method of conducting needs assessment that leads to a suitable and personalized professional development. However, this scenario did not address the evaluation of the professional development to learn and measure if and how it met the teacher’s needs and that it produced improved teaching and student learning.

Example 3: “Using the ISTE Standards for Teachers, the technology coach conducts short lesson observations with all teachers twice a year. In addition, he or she administers a bi-yearly survey asking the staff what professional development they think they need. Using the observation notes and survey data, the coach prepares and implements all needed professional development for that year. Theis system continues throughout the following years.

This final example, goes beyond the one-time needs assessment and training. The needs assessment is by-yearly providing data of growth and reveal future needs.

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When needs assessment is ongoing, one can learn if the needs stated are the same or if they have changed. It not only provides the information necessary to prepare future development sessions, but it also reveals if the needs expressed are re-occurring. It is important to revise the surveys as to exclude, include or modify needs based on observation and feedback.

Needs Assessment – Survey Instrument

The Professional Development Needs Assessment – Survey Instrument. (2020) from Hanover Research serves as an example that coaches can use to guide their own needs assessments. This survey instrument includes the essential components that were recommended in the articles addressed earlier.

The welcome page provides:

  • context for the needs and goals for the survey
  • expressed reassurance about the confidentiality of the information
  • a statement that the survey “will only take about 10 minutes to complete”
  • a respectful introduction and a thank you.

This survey includes 33 questions, using a combination of multiple choice and free response that allow more personalization. This survey focuses on the needs of the learner as most multiple-choice questions include “Other (please specify): which invites participants to add their own specific answer.

Conclusion and follow up question

Needs assessments are valuable and necessary for designing professional development in education. After learning the elements and best practices for conducting needs assessments, I would now like to research digital tools that facilitate this process. Digital tools can greatly facilitate the creation, dissemination and analysis of the data gathered in the needs assessments. I would like to investigate further: What digital tool provides the participants a reassurance that the information is indeed anonymous and it is easy to use, while helping the user organize, analyze, and present the data collected?


Conducting a Needs Assessment for Digital Learning. Digital Promise.

Crompton, H. (2015). Know the ISTE Standards for Coaches: PD and program evaluation. ISTE

Cuiccio, C., & Husby-Slater M. (2018). Needs Assessment Guidebook, State Support Network. Retrieved from:

Know the ISTE Standards for coaches: PD and program evaluation, Crompton, H., (August 7, 2015)

Lawler, P. A., (2003). Teachers as adult learners: A new perspective. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 98, 15-21. Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Professional Development Needs Assessment – Survey Instrument. (2020). Hanover Research. Retrieved from



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