In this article, Ed Pegg talks about how to improve the information that teachers can get from a needs analysis.

Photo of  business professionals at their desks.

Source: simpson33, Getty Images


I’m unsatisfied with the information I get from a needs analysis. How can I improve it?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a massive amount of standardisation between the needs analysis techniques of the different organisations I’ve worked for, even though they all claim to offer tailor-made language courses.

These techniques allow for the speedy assessment of learner requirements and do give a veneer of focus on learners’ individual needs, but I’ve found that they don’t provide a lot of useful information to me, the trainer. In order to really provide lessons that meet my learners’ needs, I have to do a lot of work myself.

If you feel you’d like more information from your needs analyses too, here’re some tips on how you can get really useful information from your learners.

So, what’s the problem?

When I see a standard needs analysis form, it always seems to have the same questions. These generally revolve around the question forms ‘do you…?’ or ‘how often do you…?’ While not bad questions in themselves, how helpful is it for a trainer to know that his learners have meetings every week or make a presentation every month? (What is the meeting about, and what’s their role in it? Why are they making the presentation? Who is the audience?)

Furthermore, all of this information is about the external environment. Have you ever seen a standard needs analysis form that assesses a learner’s confidence or belief in their ability to do their job in English? Would that information be useful? If so, how do you get it?

What essential information do you need?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very useful to know what learners do in English and how frequently they do it but, personally, I feel most needs analysis techniques stop before they really get started. Here’s what I think is essential information for a needs analysis:

  1. What do learners do in English (chair meetings, participate in meetings, make presentations, etc)?
  2. How often they do it?
  3. What objectives do they have when using English (improve client relationships, deal with problems, make decisions)?
  4. Who they speak to (type of job, nationality, etc)?
  5. How capable do they feel about using English at work?
  6. What area of language is holding them back?
  7. What do they feel they need to improve to do their job better?

How can you get this information?

The problem with needs analysis questionnaires is not necessarily the questions that are asked but the format in which they’re asked. Answering a questionnaire tends to focus the mind on answering the question, thereby limiting the information provided to that which is required to answer the question.

Getting away from a questionnaire format changes the dynamic dramatically and can radically change the amount and type of information you receive from your learners.

Personally, I take more a narrative approach. I start by asking the learner about their job and company and then ask them about their duties in their current role. So far, fairly standard. Then, I give learners a worksheet with the following questions:

Think of a time you had problems using English at work, and write notes on:

1. What you were doing, and what the objective was.

2. What result you were hoping for.

3. What problems you had.

4. The reasons you think you experienced these problems.

5. How better English would help you in this situation.

In one-to-one classes I just discuss the questions with the learner, and in group courses I run it as a pair or group discussion. When you have more open questions, based on the learner’s personal experience, it’s amazing what information you get. The most common answer, in my experience, is actually that the learner was able to achieve their objective satisfactorily but felt that they were less fluent or expressive than their counterparts. In this case, their lack of confidence is the main reason for seeking English instruction.

Other times, difficulty in expressing themselves due to lack of grammatical or vocabulary range is stated as the key problem, or there were problems understanding the accent or rapid speech of their counterpart. Surprisingly often, learners list non-language-related issues as the key factors in failing to achieve what they wanted. It’s very common for learners to complain to me that they feel less assertive or persuasive in English than they do in their native language and that, in the situation we were discussing, this inhibited their ability to get the results they sought.

Furthermore, this is a great way to start the lesson and diagnose any language problems your learners have. It’s not a routine task, so it encourages them to speak about less familiar topics, and it also provides a great activity to find out where their language is at the moment.

How can you use this information?

Well, a lot of it is quite obvious. If they complain about a lack of grammar or vocabulary, then that’s what you need to work on. If they mention a particular accent, listening to and pronunciation of that accent is required. Or maybe you just need to focus on listening to rapid speech. However, if more nuanced problems come up, what can you do? If learners complain that people don’t listen to them or they’re not as persuasive as they’d like, looking at assertive language, active listening or push and pull communication strategies would be very helpful. If they complain that they’re never sure they’ve really understood what the other person has said, work on checking and clarifying language.

You’ll be amazed how much information you get and how rich and useful your lessons become when you break the questionnaire structure and seek learners’ narrative.