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Teaching and learning tricky topics
Teaching and learning tricky topics

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2.2 Preparing a needs analysis

To conduct a needs analysis with students there are several key points that need to be considered. For a detailed description of how to collect students’ needs and understanding it would be good to read Adams and Cox (2008): ‘Questionnaires, in-depth interviews and focus groups’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

This paper details key tips on how to capture accurate information when talking to students. They are in reference to both face to face and digital interactions which could be applied when interviewing an individual or a group. The tips below have been restructured from this paper to focus specifically on students of all ages. Tips for accurately capturing students’ misunderstandings:

  • Focus on the students as learners, not on you as teacher, so they should do most of the talking. You should talk at most for 5–15 per cent of the time.
  • Keep students focused, not allowing them to drift off topic (more likely in a focus group than with an individual).
  • Be flexible about their responses to questions. Don’t restrict them to answering questions in the order they have been asked. This is more important for younger students or for those students with less confidence.
  • Ensure all students speak equally in a focus group by not allowing a dominant personality to steal the limelight by giving you all the answers.

As a teacher you ask questions all the time, but asking students ‘needs analysis’ questions is particularly difficult. You are not assessing the students, merely finding out about their understanding or more importantly, their misunderstanding. The guidance below has been provided by experienced teachers in order to alleviate some of the issues that have been identified as problematic in conducting needs analyses:

  • Ask open questions which allow students to talk in their own words. So, don’t ask leading questions which contain hints or closed questions which can receive simple yes/no responses. Allowing them to talk freely in their own words frequently reveals their depth of understanding without mimicking what they think they should say. This is especially true for younger or less experienced students who can feel less confident in using their own words in a subject they feel the teacher ‘owns’.
  • Ask questions that probe without prompting for a response. If a student gives a vague response ask them to qualify it (e.g. ‘What do you mean by that?’), but don’t give them a response to agree to (e.g. ‘Do you mean this…?’). Once again this is especially true for younger or less confident students who may say yes to fulfil what they think is the ‘right’ answer from a teacher.
  • Ask students to clarify what they mean when they use jargon as they may be using it without understanding its true meaning.
  • Remember that there are no right or wrong answers in a ‘needs analysis’ as it is only the students’ understanding you want to hear (however far that is from the correct meaning).
  • Be careful not to give the student your view on the topic as this can lead towards a teaching session and will not elicit the students’ own ideas on the topic. This may be the hardest thing to remember as a teacher but the teaching must be left to a later point in time so that the students feel free to give you their ‘real’ understanding (or misunderstanding). However, open debate among students in a focus group who disagree on a topic can be enlightening (if managed well).

The next section provides some guidance on methods for collecting data from your needs analysis.