Agricultural Communications, Purdue University
An electronic newsletter with communication tips and information

July 1998

ID: Part II--Needs Assessments & Assessing Learner Characteristics

Here's the second in a four-part series on instructional design (ID). Last month, I gave you an overview of the whole process, and this month, I'm covering two important "front-end" steps.

Doing a needs assessment is an extremely important part of the instructional design process. It can be very complex, or it can be flexible enough to allow you to get just the information you need. It's the tool you use to identify "the gap" between what your students already know and what you want them to know. Filling that gap with instruction that meets the needs of your learners is what ID is all about.

To perform a needs assessment, you can use questionnaires, surveys, interviews, observation, or any sort of tool to collect data about your learners. Questions can be open-ended and broad, or they can be specific, asking the learner to rate something. You then use the data you collect to assist you in the rest of the ID process.

Assessing learner characteristics is another important "front-end" part of the ID process that can go hand-in-hand with the needs assessment. This part helps you assess who your learners are and where they are on the knowledge spectrum in the specific area of instruction. You don't want to teach over the heads of beginners or bore advanced students with information aimed at novices.

Assessing learner characteristics also tells you the participants' preferred method of learning and the best delivery method to suit that style. As with the needs assessment, you can use questionnaires, surveys, interviews, or other information-gathering techniques.

The data collection methods should help you discover the learners' preferences for learning, whether through hands-on, team-oriented activities or through self-paced individual learning assignments. You also could discover what base-line knowledge the learners need to bring to the educational program. With any educational program, you have to have a starting-off point, and learners are best prepared when they know that level.

Preparing and delivering an educational program is like any other communication activity. The first step is to know your audience. Performing a needs assessment and assessing learner characteristics can tell you what you need to know in order to meet the needs of your participants. The road to ID success starts with knowing your audience, but it doesn't end there. Next month, I'll talk about content analysis and instructional goals.

Oh, Say, Can You See? (An NETC Nugget)

More important, can your audience see? Here's a rule of thumb to make sure text size on a PowerPoint or a Web-based presentation is large enough to be read by most audiences.

The next time you prepare your message for a PowerPoint or Web-based presentation, take a hike--about eight feet from your computer, that is. If you can read the text on a full-screen version of your presentation at least eight feet from your desk-top or lap-top computer, then it should project well and your audience will be able to read it, too.

This useful tip comes courtesy of Tom Mucciolo, president of MediaNet, Inc., who gave an excellent presentation at this year's National Extension Technology Conference (NETC) in St. Louis.

NOTE: We accept no responsibility for accidents suffered by those who collide with office walls less than eight feet from their computers.

In upcoming issues, I'll be sharing more "nuggets" gleaned from NETC.

Super Newsletters: Resources

(This resource list comes from "Creating Super Newsletters: A Training Curriculum for Cooperative Extension Staff," Modules 3 and 4, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, June 1997.)

"The Communicator's Handbook: Techniques and Technology,"
Agricultural Communicators in Education, Maupin House Publishers, Gainesville, FL, Third Edition, 1996.

An excellent resource for Extension staff, this handbook includes chapters on writing; publications; newsletters; graphic design; exhibit design; posters; photography; slide-tape production; radio; video and television; interactive technology; computer graphics; desktop publishing; teleconferencing; communications; public speaking; marketing; publicity; direct mail; crisis management and communications planning.

"Desktop Design: Fundamentals of Design for Desktop Publishing,"
Promotional Perspectives, Ann Arbor, MI, 1989.

A three-ring binder with sections on type, layout, graphics and output, plus a glossary and resource list. Also includes a fact sheet titled, "14 Ways to Avoid Telltale Gray."

"Editing Your Newsletter: How to Product an Effective Publication
Using Traditional Tools and Computers," Third Edition, M. Beach, Coast to Coast Books, Portland, OR, 1988.

This book includes very thorough information on planning, editing, writing, formatting, typography, graphics, photography, design and layout, camera-ready copy, printing and distribution.

"Editing by Design: A Guide to Effective Word-and-Picture
Communication for Editors and Designers," Second Edition, J. White, R. R. Bowker Co., N.Y., N.Y., 1982.

A complete reference on design concepts with lots of illustrations; good information on typography, photographs, illustration and color.

"Great Pages: A Common Sense Approach to Effective Desktop Design,"
J. White, Serif Publishing, El Segundo, CA, 1990.

A fun book that answers questions on graphic design, using words and pictures, typography, color and grids, among other things. Entertaining illustrations.

"Graphic Idea Notebook," (Revised Edition), J. White,
Rockport Publishers, Inc., Rockport, MA, 1991.

Truly a "notebook" with lots of examples, illustrations and handwritten notes, this book includes chapters on getting attention; the editorial eye; combining and joining; direction, motion, change; mugshots; boxes; alphabets, numbering; breaking up text; charts; and maps.

"Graphic Design for the Electronic Age: The Manual for
Traditional and Desktop Publishing," J. White, Watson-Guptill Publications, N.Y., N.Y., 1988.

More than you ever wanted to know about typography, page layout and the construction of a publication.

"Great Graphics for the In-House Pro," In House Graphics, a
subsidiary of United Communications Group, Rockville, MD, 1991.

A short booklet with popular reprints of articles that appeared in "In House Graphics," a newsletter. Some titles are: "What's in It for Me? A Guide to Newsletter Design" and "Desktop Publishing: 32 Dead Giveaways."

"On Graphics: Tips for Editors," J. White, Lawrence Ragan
Communications, Inc. Chicago, IL, 1993.

A short booklet with ideas on graphics, type, rules and other elements. Includes a section on producing newsletters via a typewriter/word processor.

"Newsletters: Designing and Producing Them," C. Schuh,
University of Wisconsin Extension, Division of Program and Staff Development, 1978.

Easy-to-follow examples of basic design principles with examplesof actual Extension newsletters.

If you have questions about other sources, please call me (765-494-6946), or email me at the address below.

Grammar Trap: Diffuse vs. Defuse

Several months ago, Karl Brandt, Academic Programs, suggested I tackle these two words. I thanked him (politely) but told him the topic was too obscure to make a good "Grammar Trap." Well, since then, I've seen the words misused around here twice. Brandt was right. I wasn't. Here goes.

"Diffuse" is most commonly an adjective. It means widely spread, scattered, or dispersed.


"Defuse" is a verb, and it means to lessen tension or make something less dangerous. Think defusing a bomb, and you'll get it.


If there's a grammar or usage trap you'd like me to discuss or if you have a tip that will help the rest of us avoid one, please let me know.

We want to hear from you. Do you have a communication question? Do you have a comment on this issue of "On Target"? If so, please e-mail any of our writers or On Target's managing editor, Kevin Smith.

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