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Tools for assessing educational needs

We have considered some of the approaches to assessing learning needs in earlier sections and the links with the way in which learners learn through experiential means (e.g. Kolb, 1984), as well as through a variety of teaching and learning methods. Learners also have different learning styles and strategies (Honey and Mumford, 1982; Felder and Silverman, 2002) and varied experiences and backgrounds, which means they react and respond to different situations or teaching methods in individual ways.

This section summarises some of the most commonly used tools to assess learning or educational needs (Garcarz et al., 2003). Many of the tools described were developed in different contexts; however, they can all be used and adapted to fit a range of situations involving undergraduate students, practitioners in training or qualified practitioners.

In the clinical environment, the generic tools and techniques described above are supplemented and focused towards developing clinical competence and confidence in a range of contexts.  A number of formative (developmental) workplace-based assessment tools can be used to help identify and clarify learning needs. Here is a list of some of the most widely-used by health professions teachers and programmes:


  • confidence and competence rating scales
  • case analysis
  • clinical audit
  • peer observation of practice
  • professional conversation
  • feedback from patients, staff and other health professionals (e.g. 360º appraisals)
  • consultation analysis
  • joint consultations, clinics or surgeries
  • log books, diaries and journals
  • personal/professional development plans
  • portfolios
  • significant or critical incident/event analysis.


Many of these methods may also be used in summative assessment and, of course, any summative assessment can be used as a means of assessing learning needs. What is important is that the purpose and intended future use of any assessment tool is clear to both learner and assessor from the outset.

The Workplace Based Assessment module describes a number of specific structured tools for defining learning needs. In this module we take four examples from the list above and consider them in more depth: professional conversations, significant event analysis, personal/professional development plans and portfolios.

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