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Assess learner

Assess Learner’s Needs

1. Identify a group, or a selection of individuals

I currently teach a module on "Advanced Relational Databases" as part of a two year Edexcel AVCE course. The AVCE qualification is offered as a more vocational alternative for students who do not wish to take the traditional academic route of ‘A’ level. I teach two two-hour sessions to two groups each week, for a total of eight hours of teaching.

Each class has a maximum of about thirty students, but it is very rare for all the students to be present at once. Most of the students are in the 17-19-age range and have come to college straight from school, but a few students have more life experience. The students have already attended other modules of this course, and are fairly familiar with the available teaching methods and the expected level of work required.

During the semester before I joined the teaching team, six of the original 30 students had withdrawn from the course, leaving 24. Three others withdrew during the semester in which I taught them, leaving 21 students by the end of the unit.

The modal student is male, white and 17. The teaching group includes six females, two black students, and two students are over 20. One student has mild Asperger’s Syndrome. One student uses college childcare facilities and is often late for the start of a lesson. Most students live locally, but a few travel from far enough away to be subject to public transport schedules and stoppages.

2. Describe the initial assessment required to ascertain their previous learning and experience

The majority of the initial assessment of this student group took place before I joined the team. At the time of application for the course, students are offered the opportunity to visit the college for a "taster day" in the July before the start of the course in September. At this event, students are introduced to activities typical of the course teaching, and talk informally to teaching staff about prior learning, educational needs, and other support issues. Students who wish to enrol on the course then attend an "induction day" which is a more formal introduction to the course, the college, and the teaching staff.

Before the course starts, each student takes a computer-tested assessment of basic "key skills" including literacy and application of number. This assessment is often combined with the "induction day", but takes place in some form even if the student does not attend the induction. Students may also choose to be assessed for dyslexia and other special learning needs at this point, both using computer assessment and personal interview by the college dyslexia and learning needs team.

When a student applies for the course, he or she also presents evidence of any previous qualifications and formal learning. On this course, this is usually evidence of GCSE grades, but for an older student educated before the introduction of GCSE, or a student from another country with a different education system, other qualifications will also be considered.

After I joined the teaching team, my own initial assessment was mainly built around informal techniques based on chatting with the students individually or in small groups (Minton 1997, p107), gauging their responses to a variety of teaching activities, and generally "getting to know" them. I also spent some time talking to other teachers already familiar with the students I would be teaching, to try and make use of their insights. I also sat in on the moderation activity for the assessed work from a previous module, so that I could get another view of the levels of effort, attitudes and preferred learning styles (Reece and Walker 2000, p140) of the student group.

3. Discuss ways of using the results to inform the learning programme.

Initial assessment is a formative, rather than summative, form of assessment (Reece and Walker 2000, p410). The intention of the assessment is to discover as much as possible about how best to create a teaching situation where each student will be able to learn. "Students must have attainable goals to work towards, be given immediate feedback on their performance, and be rewarded for success" (Armitage et. al 1999, p55). Often this is aided by grouping students into categories, using tools such as Honey and Mumford’s "learning styles" (Reece and Walker 2000, p140), Kolb’s "learning cycle" (Reece and Walker 2000, p532), or Houle’s "orientation of learning" (Armitage et. al 1999, p55).

The student groups I teach have been divided into three classes, based roughly on the results of the application of number section of the initial key skills assessment. Experience of other teachers within the curriculum centre indicates that this is also a useful and workable way of grouping students where the teaching has a large logical/numerical content.

As well as assessment directly related to learning, it is also important for teaching staff to learn about other student needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Armitage et. al. 1999, p54, Reece and Walker 2000, p101) implies that for a student to achieve "self-actualisation" and learn effectively, other needs must first be satisfied. Often students have needs which can be complex, less tangible and even unknown to the student (Minton 1997, p105). All students have needs, and many are shy or reticent, so part of initial assessment is to encourage students to articulate their needs (Minton 1997, p105).

Gagné wrote "the role of the teacher is to identify the motives of students and channel them into activities that accomplish educational goals" (quoted in Armitage et. al. 1999, p54). Understanding and directing student motivation is important in overcoming barriers to learning, especially self-imposed barriers (Minton 1997, p175). Students can come to the teaching with a history of painful learning experience (Minton 1997, p82), and with external responsibilities and pressures (Armitage et. al. 1999, p50). Particularly for the students I teach, it is often the case that education is largely an alternative to unemployment (Armitage et. al. 1999, p53, 54) or a way to avoid the need to move out of the family home and look for work.

In order to adapt teaching to specific learners, a teacher needs to be sensitive to what individuals bring to the class (Minton 1997, p107). Students have individual differences (Reece and Walker 2000, p179, Armitage et. al 1999, p49). There are differences between boys and girls (Armitage et. al 1999, p55) and between those with recent leaning experience and those who have not studied for a while (Armitage et. al 1999, p50). Abilities and motivation differ with age, culture and family background (Armitage et. al 1999, p50).

In adult learning, it is widely recognised that learners need to be consulted and agree the learning goals to engage with the teaching (Minton 1997, p105). It is the policy of Suffolk College that students complete and endorse a "learning agreement", which sets out the rights and responsibilities of the college, the teaching staff, and the student. The college is also open to accreditation of prior learning achievement (Minton 1997, p107). In the case of the course on which I teach, students may gain an exemption from the basic key skills units if they hold a GCSE at ‘C’ grade or equivalent in an appropriate subject.


  • To identify and analyse previous learning experiences and achievements of learners.
  • To develop and understanding of initial assessment processes and procedures.


  1. Demonstrate the understanding of the value and possible sources of previous learning and achievement and methods of applying them.
  2. Carry out an initial assessment of potential learners’ needs and evaluate the results.
  3. Produce a plan to meet the needs of potential learners against the outcomes of an initial assessment in line with organisational policy.
  4. Provide feedback to potential learners about the outcomes of initial assessment with recommendations for future action.


  • Armitage et. al. (1999) Teaching and Training in Post-Compulsory Education. Open University Press
  • Minton, D. (1997) Teaching Skills in Further and Adult Education. 2nd Ed. City & Guilds.
  • Reece, I and Walker, S. (2000) Teaching, Training and Learning; a practical guide. 4th Ed. Business Education Publishers.

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