If you’ve read our blog before, you may be familiar with some of our ideas: that learning is important for individuals and businesses, that we need to keep learning constantly to progress in our careers, and that any workplace learning effort needs a learning culture to support it.
We think managers have a duty to ensure that their people are constantly learning so that they stay engaged with their work and can pursue their career development goals.
If you agree (and we have a feeling you do, since you’re here 😉) you’ll probably also agree that it’s important to supply your people with learning resources that meet their needs. To do this, you need to know what each of your people’s learning needs are.
But how do you identify your people’s learning needs?
There are a number of steps you can take to evaluate your people’s learning needs so you can choose the most effective learning materials for them.
In this article, we explain more about what learning needs are and why pinpointing them is so important. We also guide you through the process of identifying your people’s learning needs so that you can choose the resources that best meet them.
What Are Learning Needs?
Learning needs can be understood as the specific qualities people need in their learning materials in order to learn effectively from these materials.
These qualities encompass both the content of the learning material and its method of learning delivery.
Content refers to what a learning material teaches: what knowledge and skills it equips its users with and what questions it answers. It can also refer to what “level” of learning it offers: whether it meets novices where they are or challenges advanced learners.
Method of delivery refers to how the material teaches people. This includes what medium the material uses (for example writing, audio, or video), what speed it teaches at, and how accessible it is to the user.
Why Is This Important?
You need to know people’s learning needs to help you choose the best learning materials for them. Choosing the right learning materials helps you support learning that is accessible, engaging, effective, useful, and memorable.
Choosing learning materials based on people’s learning needs means choosing learning materials that they can most easily use.
Learning resources must cater to people’s physical and mental accessibility needs, which differ from person to person. For example, while textbooks are accessible, they would be inaccessible to a blind or print-disabled colleague unless they were printed in braille or available in audio form.
We also need to take language into account. People usually find it easier to learn in their primary language, which might be different from the language they speak or write at work.
The most engaging learning materials are those that are relevant to us and cater to our interests and goals.
In other words, learning is more engaging when we get to learn about things we are interested in and which are relevant to us. We can also get motivation to learn from the knowledge that the learning will help us achieve a goal.
Providing engaging learning materials for the workplace means choosing materials that can help people do the work they most enjoy, tackle their biggest pain points, or work towards a goal in their career development plan.
The most effective learning is delivered at the right level. A learning material that is too basic for someone can waste a lot of their time making them “learn” things they already know.
It might even bore them enough to make them lose focus and miss the few things it teaches that are new to them.
On the other hand, a learning material that is too advanced for someone is just as likely to be ineffective, as they could spend most of their learning time trying desperately to figure out what’s going on—or they could disengage out of sheer confusion.
The most time-effective learning resources are those that meet people at their level and help them build knowledge and skills at their optimal learning speed.
As we discussed above, learning materials are more engaging when they’re relevant to us, and what can be more relevant than the work we do every day?
For workplace learning to be useful to the organisation, it needs to apply as specifically as possible to the work someone does every day, or the work they want to do soon.
The most useful workplace learning resources in this sense are those that help people with what they strive and struggle to achieve at work every day, or those that help people to progress in their role within the organisation.
Of course, we’re more likely to remember learning that engages us. But there’s also something to be said about the memorability of the learning we use the most often.
In the late 19th century, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted memory research and developed the “forgetting curve”, which shows how our memory deteriorates exponentially over time—if we don’t refresh it.
This is why the learning we remember the best is the learning we use the most: because we refresh our memory of that learning every time we use it.
The most memorable learning resources are those that teach us knowledge and skills that we use often, instead of learning it once and forgetting most of it unless (or until) we have to learn it again in the future.
Identifying people’s learning needs is important because it helps us choose the learning resources that offer the most to people and the organisations they work with.
If we choose learning resources without basing these decisions on people’s needs, the learning is more likely to be forgettable, ineffective, disengaging, or even inaccessible. All of these qualities of learning resources can hinder or even halt people’s learning journeys.
How to Identify Your People’s Learning Needs
Identifying your people’s learning needs involves identifying what they need to learn and how they need to learn it.
What to Learn
Identifying what learning content would be most effective for your people means thinking about the skills needs of your organisation, your teams, and your people at an individual level.
First, pinpoint what goals your organisation is trying to achieve with its workplace learning. Express this as a goal and keep it in mind when choosing between different learning needs to prioritise.
Then have conversations with your teams in which you unpack their pain points, collectively choose key areas of improvement for the team that will help them meet these challenges, and set learning goals for the team as a whole.
Continue talking with your teams to evaluate how big the gaps are between what each team is achieving now and what it wants to achieve in the future. Identify the collective knowledge and skills the team will need to build in order to achieve its goals. Sometimes these gaps are better met by hiring someone who possesses the skills you are missing.
(For more guidance on identifying skills gaps on your teams, check out our blog post on upskilling.)
At this point, you may also want to meet with each of your team leaders to gather their input on their team’s skills gaps and what knowledge and skills would most benefit the team as a whole.
Once you’ve mapped out your organisational and team goals and gaps, it’s time to see how each individual’s learning journey fits into the process of filling these gaps.
Each individual should have a one-to-one meeting with their direct manager in which they discuss their personal learning needs and goals for learning.
If your organisation hasn’t done this already, now is a great time for your managers to sit down with each individual and draw up a career development plan. This will map out how the person wants to improve their current work through learning, and what goals they want to work towards by upskilling and gaining knowledge. It’s important to listen to where and what your people want to develop rather than assume or dictate skills development just to meet team needs.
You should also map out each individual’s existing skill set—not only what skills they have, but at what level they can perform each skill.
Once you have all of this information, you can collate it to establish the learning needs of your people, your teams, and your organisation, and see how these learning needs coincide to help you and your people choose learning materials that benefit them and the organisation as a whole.
How to Learn
To a certain extent you can decide on learning objectives—what people need to learn—at a team and even an organisational level.
However, people’s learning needs in terms of how the learning content is delivered must be considered at an individual level. This gives everyone an equitable opportunity to learn to their fullest potential.
When pinpointing learning needs at an individual level, you need to evaluate:
You need to establish how much time each person has available for learning each week. This will determine what kinds of learning resources are best for them.
For example, someone who has at least an hour of uninterrupted learning time each week will be able to absorb themselves in hour-long lessons, videos, or podcasts.
However, someone who only has small, intermittent chunks of time likely needs their learning content to be wrapped up into smaller “chunks”. Think of five-minute videos or textbooks with short chapters.
Another key learning need is each person’s learning style. This describes the unique way in which each person effectively receives and absorbs information, and what resources and exercises work best for them as a result.
There are many different theories about learning styles, but one simple and widely used framework is the VARK model, which broadly divides people’s learning into four styles: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinaesthetic.
Visual learning refers to learning through looking, and involves visual information like videos, images, graphs and models. Visual learners may also express themselves well through visual mediums like diagrams.
Auditory learning refers to learning through listening, and involves auditory media like podcasts. Auditory learners may also feel they can express themselves best verbally rather than in writing.
Reading/writing obviously refers to learning through reading and writing. People who naturally gravitate towards this learning style tend to do well in school, as our education systems have basically been built around reading and writing!
Kinaesthetic learning means learning through movement or learning by doing. Kinaesthetic learners tend to learn best “on the job”, through hands-on experience.
It is possible to fit into more than one learning style. For instance, I learn best through reading and writing but also find success in kinaesthetic learning especially when what I’m learning is more tactile than theory based.
Like me, most adults already have some idea of which learning style is most engaging and effective for them, but there are many tests—from quick and simple to lengthy and complex—which you can do with your people to get a better idea of what each person’s learning style is.
There are also lots of different ways to choose learning resources beyond the VARK model.
Lastly but most importantly, you should provide for each of your people’s learning needs in terms of accessibility.
Due to the stigma surrounding disabilities, many people with “invisible” disabilities—for example, a print disability like dyslexia—tend to hide them or not ask for help.
You can’t force people to communicate their accessibility needs to you if they don’t want to. What you can do is ask people if they have any specific accessibility needs and communicate that you want to meet these needs so that they can learn as much and as well as they can.
You should also be doing everything you can to build a workplace that is an equitable, inclusive and welcoming space for people with disabilities so that they can freely ask for and receive the accommodations they need.
A marketplace of quality controlled learning resources that cover all learning needs and which allows users to choose the modality of their resources prevents accessibility from being an issue. And yes, that is a subtle plug for Learnerbly… this is our blog afterall.
Learning needs refer to each individual’s specific needs regarding the resources they learn from. This covers the learning content and the level at which it is taught, as well as the medium in which it is delivered.
It’s important to know what people’s learning needs are so that you can choose and provide the learning resources best suited to each person. This will give each person a much better opportunity for learning that is accessible, engaging, effective, useful, and memorable.
When assessing your people’s learning needs, establish what needs to be learnt at an organisational and team level and what people want to learn at an individual level, then help people choose learning content that will satisfy each of these needs.
You should also establish what each person’s specific learning style is and what accessibility needs they have. This way you can provide them with learning material that is accessible and helps them learn to their full potential.