Educational Design Part 2: Needs Assessment

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the framework I use to systematically design a curriculum. While the framework is iterative (and theoretically, but not practically, endless with a program always seeking ongoing refinement), a good educational design begins with a needs assessment.  The needs assessment, in turn, directs the objectives, instructional methods, assessement and evaluation components of the curriculum. From the Educational Design book, “The term learning need has been defined as “a deficiency that can be filled by a learning activity AND a gap between current and expected ability,”1knowledge or skill. Learning needs are identified by means of an NA, defined as “a systematic process to collect and analyze information on what a target group needs to learn2 and “the systematic process of collecting data in order to define the educational needs [of a target group].3

Classically, there are four types of learning needs:

  1. Perceived needs = gaps identified by the learner
  2. Observed needs = gaps identified by experts (or via assessments of learning)
  3. Institutional needs = gaps identified by an invested organization
  4. Societal needs = gaps identified via the perspective of the population served

Of course, the scope of a needs assessment in addressing all of these learning needs will be in proportion to the scope of a curriculum.  Failure to address societal needs when designing a residency training program would be an error.  Addressing societal needs when designing a technical skills simulation curriculum might be overkill.

A survey of tools to use in conducting a needs assessment are listed here: Selected tools for needs assessment4

There is a “two-tailed” error that needs assessments are prone to develop.  One side of this error occurs when a CE assumes that their (personal) perspective reflects both a general observed need and the perceived needs of the learners.  Thus, they design a curriculum without a broader sampling of learning gaps, leading to a program that is non-representative and doesn’t meet a “need.” On the other side, a comprehensive and detailed needs assessment that overshadows the scope of the actual curriculum results in CE burnout and a waste of resources.  The sweet spot is often somewhere in the middle.



1. Jean P, Des Marchais J, Delorme P. Needs assessment. In: On becoming an educator in the health professions: a systematic approach. Ottawa: University of Ottawa; 1994.

2. Ratnapalan S, Hilliard R. Needs assessment in postgraduate medical education: a review. Med Educ Online. 2002;7(7):1–8.

3. Amin Z, Eng KH. Basics in medical education. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company; 2005.

4. Sherbino J,  Lockyer J. Mind the gap: educational needs assessment. In: Educational Design: a CanMEDS guide for the health professions, edited by Sherbino, J, Frank JR.  Ottawa: Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons; 2011.

Image courtesy of Educational Design: a CanMEDS guide for the health professions