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How to assess learning needs

When starting to plan a learning initiative, you need to confirm that learning is an appropriate solution to address the identified capacity issue. Indeed, not all capacity problems are related to insufficient individual knowledge, skills or competencies. A capacity assessment can help scope the nature of the capacity issues and identify whether learning can contribute to addressing the situation.

Once the need for learning support has been established, a learning needs assessment must be conducted. This should include an analysis of the work setting or the organizational context in which individuals operate. This is fundamental to assess the extent to which learners will be able to implement the results of the learning in their workplace. It also helps to guide learning managers on possible complementary activities, other than learning, that might be required to achieve more effective and sustainable results.  

What is an assessment of learning needs?

A  learning needs assessment is useful for:

  • Analysing the specific learning needs of individuals identified and the context in which they operate;
  • Understanding possible follow-up actions that could help to maximize the implementation of learning  and its transfer to the organizational context; and
  • Understanding additional/complementary activities (other than learning) required to address the capacity needs sustainably.

Why is it important to assess the organizational context together with learning needs?

Individuals participating in a learning initiative are always part of larger organizational context: for example, a rural association, a community-based organization, a ministry, a network of organizations. Once back in their context after having completed the activity, they will be faced with having to apply their new learning in their work setting. 

Paying attention to the organizational context as part of a learning needs assessment helps to gear the contents of the initiative to the participant and to organizational needs. This is important to ensure that the newly acquired learning will be translated into practice and “transferred” sustainably to the workplace, with positive impact on overall organizational capacity.

The organizational context strongly influences the extent to which participants in a learning activity will be able to learn and transfer their learning to the workplace. It does so in different ways:

  • Sometimes the physical aspects of the work setting may not allow the learning to be used, such as when the proper equipment or resources are lacking. 
  • The social aspects of the work setting may be inadequate, such as when there is a lack of support from the community, managers, colleagues or organizational culture.
  • Learners might be left alone after the learning initiative without follow-up, or they might find that the policies and organizational structures in their work settings make it impossible to apply what they have learned.
  • Learners may not have sufficient motivation or incentive to use the learning in their work, perhaps because it was not relevant to their work needs or because there is no reward for improved performance.

How to conduct a learning needs assessment

A learning needs assessment can be conducted in several ways, depending on the time frame, the budget and the size of the learning initiative. Questionnaires, key informant interviews, focus groups and online surveys are some of the main methods.  The following four main areas of interest should be assessed:

  • Organizational goals and context: questions are aimed to explore the goals and/or desired changes of the organization, understand the role of individuals within the organization and identify complementary activities required to achieve more effective and sustainable results
  • Participant profile and existing knowledge/skills: questions are aimed to identify existing skill and knowledge assets that can help achieve organizational goals or bring about the desired changes
  • Current job tasks and knowledge/skill gaps: questions are aimed to identify key performance issues/gaps and define learning content that can help address those gaps
  • Follow-up requirements: questions are aimed to identify opportunities and challenges for learners to apply learning and determine possible follow-up requirements.

Commonly used tools

Learning needs assessment

Relevant questions from the proposed tool might be integrated, after appropriate adaptation, in a learning needs assessment exercise, irrespective of its format (online survey, questionnaires, key informant interviews, focus groups, etc).

Tips for conducting a learning needs assessment

Involve input from prospective participants: Learning needs assessments can be carried out effectively even when time and budget are limited. What is important is to involve the prospective participants. Designing a learning initiative only on the basis of what “is already known” through earlier missions and reports is not sufficient.

An assessment must involve direct input from prospective participants. This is for two reasons:

  • It is necessary to have an in-depth understanding of the objectives and existing capacities of prospective participants and their organizations, and the context in which they operate.
  • The process of conducting a learning needs assessment is important to build internal support for the goals of the learning activity and to ensure greater “ownership” of the capacity development process.

More resources on organizational context and learning needs assessment are found in FAO Learning Module 3 on Capacity Development - Good Learning Practices.

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