Debra Gordon, Expert on Needs Assessments

Needs Assessment Must-Haves for eLearning

Debra Gordon, Expert on Needs Assessments

Scitent speaks with guest blogger Debra Gordon, MS, an award-winning medical writer with 25 years of experience. In the past five years, she has written more than 100 continuing medical education (CME) needs assessments.

According to Debra, before you begin building an eLearning course, you should conduct a needs assessment, which establishes requirements for an educational program and ensures an eLearning course fulfills a pressing need, or closes a gap. Needs assessments can also form the basis for writing applications for funding grants.

To develop high-quality programming, you have to identify what learners need to know; that’s an essential component of adult learning principles. “Learners only take an educational program if it’s relevant to what they do,” Debra says. “There has to be a personal professional reason, either receiving credit to renew licensing, for example, or if the topic directly affects their job (like new regulations).”

According to Debra, the worst thing you can do is develop a needs assessment based on your own thoughts and conjecture or on what the organization thinks it wants to do, without taking a critical look at the realities in the industry or clinical specialty.


1. Do your research.

Search for the latest trends and developments in your field. To aid in this search, Debra starts with a keyword search online and on PubMed, consulting high-quality, peer-reviewed journals, as well as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and reports from medical meetings.

Debra strongly recommends interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs), who are thought leaders and prominent experts in the field.

“I cannot overstate how important expert interviews are when developing a needs assessment,” she says. “It saves time and provides direction so I’m not stumbling blindly. Interviews don’t have to be time-consuming. If properly prepared, you should be able to interview an expert in 15 to 20 minutes.”

You can find SMEs among leading researchers, authors of papers, and conference presenters. And, consider your own board members, who are often thought leaders in their field.

2. Ask the right questions.

In preparing the interview, do your homework.

“When you ask SMEs in the healthcare industry what the problems are, they can tell you what is needed to improve care,” Debra says. “They often mention things like improved coordination, better knowledge of evidence-based guidelines, greater understanding of treatments available and how to use them, and an awareness of how current market conditions affect the delivery of health care.”

3. Consult with the end user – the learner.

Surveys and/or focus groups are another excellent source of information. These can be conducted via email, as a post-learning survey, or in a small focus group.

4. Write a compelling, persuasive document.

Tell a story. Apply the basic guidelines of storytelling by identifying:

  • The current state: “What is.”
  • The desired state: “What should be.”
  • The barriers: What is preventing your learners from getting to the desired state? This is the gap.
  • The resolution: What education should you provide to close that gap? This is the educational need from which the learning objective is developed.

Use a persuasive writing style. A needs assessment is not an objective review. You need to demonstrate the need for this education – backed by the facts.

Be specific. Don’t just list a series of scientific studies, but summarize, analyze and interpret those results.

Teach the reader something new. These are highly educated readers, but you’ll catch their attention if you provide new or unique information.

Use pull-out quotes. Select exceptionally strong, relevant quotes from your SME interviews or utilize research that “says it better than you could possibly say it yourself,” Debra emphasizes. “This adds flavor and seasoning to your portrayal of the need for the research, program or educational initiative.”

And finally, above all, make your needs assessment enjoyable to read!

More information about Debra Gordon, MS, and her webinar on writing needs assessments can be found here.