Tool 3: Identifying the Need for Your Material and Defining Your Audience

Which came first - the chicken or the egg? One could ask a similar question in the realm of curriculum development. Can you know the need for potential material without identifying the audience? Or might knowing more about a particular audience clarify the need? The answer is both. By definition, need is something required for an individual’s or group’s well-being. Chances are that a group does exist from which - or about which - a need arises. You might read about a particular need in the youth development or content literature, or you might hear about the need directly from program participants, volunteers or staff members. Two important curriculum development steps are needed to move ahead with this information. First, it’s critical to develop a process for clearly identifying a group’s curriculum needs. What is it they need to know, learn and experience? Second, as you’re moving ahead to clarify what the needs are, it’s important to ensure that the people you’re asking for information from truly represent all the users of the potential curriculum.

What Does the Research Indicate?

To more clearly identify what kind of curriculum materials may be needed, begin by locating how the need is defined in research related to your content area. For example, if your topic is youth leadership, you may want to consult literature from the areas of leadership development, youth development, citizenship development and workforce preparation. Think about how you can use these sources to succinctly state the need from the current field of research. Refer to Reflecting the Research Base for additional information on this part of the curriculum development process.

Thinking About Potential Audiences to Query

Get a clear picture in your mind of potential audiences and their learning settings so you know who to get feedback from when assessing the need for new curriculum. One way to think about this is to consider the different kinds of educational settings:

  • Nonformal learning settings: There are a variety of nonformal learning settings, including educational series programs, ongoing 4-H clubs, afterschool programs, camps, and short-term events. In these settings, learning is intentional, but it typically involves flexibility and choices - instruction is learner-centered and learners are more in control. The person serving as the "teacher" often perceives himself or herself as a facilitator, guide or leader. Recognition and achievement can be measured in a multitude of ways and learners’ reflections on their experience can be a valid gauge for success. If you want to use your potential curriculum in these settings, you would want needs assessment feedback from the people involved, from the staff or volunteers helping to facilitate learning, and from those who provide support to the setting.
  • Formal learning settings: Formal learning settings typically refer to traditional elementary and secondary classrooms. Here learning is intentional and highly structured, and a teacher is usually in control of what goes on. If you want to use your potential curriculum in these settings, you would want needs assessment feedback from teachers, curriculum specialists and others who have responsibility for what’s taught in the formal setting.
  • Informal learning settings: In an informal learning setting, the learning is less intentional, more casual and unstructured than in formal or nonformal learning settings. Examples include the learning that can take place in museums or on field trips or tours. If you want to use your potential curriculum in nonformal learning settings, you would want needs assessment feedback from people such as curators or trip coordinators, as well as from the youth and adults who participate in these settings.

Once you have a clearer idea of the potential settings for your curriculum, it’s time to get to know more about the audiences involved in these settings:

  • Youth: If you’re interested in designing materials for use by or with young people, what more do you need to know? Is there a particular age group to target (for example, kids aged 9 to 11)? What do they already know about your content area? What kinds of life skills are critical for their current stage of development? What kind of motivation for learning is present? Are you designing learning experiences for youth who have a lot of enthusiasm for the content area, or will you need to consider ways to build enthusiasm and motivation for learning? Are the young people you’re seeking to reach involved in long-term or short-term learning experiences, and what do you know about the setting in which they’re learning? Will you want to create materials that will be used directly by the young people (such as member guides, fact sheets or videotapes), or will you want to develop materials that can be used by adult and youth volunteers who are helping to guide these learning experiences?
  • Adult participants and youth volunteers: The same kinds of questions relate to curriculum materials designed to enhance the learning of adult participants and youth volunteers involved with MSUE (and other organizations). What’s their current level of knowledge and their motivation for involvement? What kinds of time do they have to devote to this learning experience?
  • Educators: If you’re designing educational curricula for paid educators, you might assume that getting involved with your material is part of their job. While this might be true, it’s still extremely important to consider the needs and characteristics of this audience as well. Again, what’s their current level of knowledge and their motivation for involvement? How much time do you expect they’ll devote to this learning experience? What other expectations might be present?

Additional information to help you think about the best ways to define your audience is found in Addressing Learner Needs and Interests.

Gathering Information on Needs

To move ahead with assessing the need for your curriculum, you need to:

  • Determine who will conduct the assessment. Identify who will plan the method of assessment, who will supervise the process, who will be responsible for data input and who will be responsible for analyzing the data.
  • Establish goals and objectives for the needs assessment. Clarify what questions you want the needs assessment to answer. These questions should form the focus for the data collection instrument.
  • Identify the best audiences to provide assessment feedback. As stated above, it’s critical to get feedback from people representative of the learning settings in which a curriculum might be used. As you do this, be sure to consider the vast diversity across settings. Participants, youth, or volunteers in one community might be vastly different from clubs in other communities. Be sure to identify sample audiences that will reflect a wide base of diversity.
  • Review other needs assessments. If other needs assessments related to your content were conducted in the past, review them for the manner in which they were conducted, as well as for the results.
  • Know your budget. Since methods for collecting data can vary significantly in cost, be sure to know how much budget support is needed for the method you choose.
  • Know your timeframe. Data collection methods can also affect a project’s timeline, so be clear about the length of time it will (or should) take to gather the information you need.
  • Select the best method for information collection. Several techniques exist for data gathering. They may be used alone or in combination. Deciding which is best will depend on factors such as your group’s size, geographical location and knowledge level, the funds and length of time available to conduct the assessment, and the kind of information you want to collect. Regardless of which method you choose, it is crucial that the questions used are chosen and articulated carefully. Data-gathering techniques for this kind of project can include:
    • Surveys. Surveys can be an efficient way to collect and quantify information from a large number of participants. However, they are more impersonal than other methods and the response rate can be low. Surveys, most often in the form of a questionnaire, use either closed- or open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions give participants only one possible response, while open-ended questions allow the respondent to share more information. Open-ended questions are harder to quantify and interpret, but they may be useful in the early stages of a project when you are trying to identify general, rather than specific, needs. Of course, any survey can be designed to include both kinds of questions. An example of a needs assessment survey that was developed for use with Michigan 4-H horse programming can be found at Sample Needs Assessment (Adobe Acrobat file format.)
    • Interviews. Unlike surveys, interviews (one-on-one, question-and-answer sessions) are a good way to build rapport with participants. However, they take more time, and a skilled interviewer is critical to obtaining good results. Like surveys, they use open- and closed-ended questions with the same advantages and disadvantages discussed above. In addition, the presence of the interviewer can alter the results, as can the interviewer’s biases.
    • Focus groups. A focus group is essentially an interview conducted with a number of participants, rather than just one. Sessions normally last one or two hours and can be driven by a formal set of questions or "facilitated" in a less formal manner around a topic area. A focus group can save time and money (depending on how many are conducted); however, a skilled leader is needed to facilitate the group.
  • Create your instruments. Once your methods and audiences have been identified, create the instruments needed. It may be helpful to test your instrument or interview questions on a small sample of audience members.
  • Collect your data, analyze the feedback, and summarize and share the results. Using the technique(s) selected, collect the information from your sample and analyze the findings. Use this information to determine whether new curricula is needed, to clarify the goals and objectives of new curricula, to more clearly define your audience, and to answer other questions related to the curriculum development process. Your findings should be reflected on the ANR Communications Project Request Form.


  • Budd, M. (1995, December 5). Guide for conducting a multi-level needs assessment. (Training work group presentation for the Defense Civilian Personnel Management Service).
  • Caffarella, R. S. (1982). Identifying client needs. Journal of Extension, 20(July-August), 5-11.
  • Office of Human Resources (1995, December-1996, January). Needs assessment. Tips & Techniques. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.
  • Sleeth, P. (1994). Needs assessment tools. New England Sounding Line, 4:3.
  • Tanner, D. & Tanner, L. (1995). Curriculum development: Theory into practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Last Updated: July 29, 2009; Last Reviewed: April, 2009
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