Needs Assessment: How to plan the first step to making change

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Needs Assessment: How to plan the first step to making change

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Author :
Courtney Bryant and Tatiana Bustos
Needs Assessment: How to plan the first step to making change

CB Contact profile image
Author :
Courtney Bryant and Tatiana Bustos

Graduate school is hard. It can be even harder when there are very few people in your program that look like you or come from a similar background as you. Studies show that not only does the diversity of a program contribute to student experiences, but feelings of inclusion and belonging play an equally important role. In fact, a study of MSU graduate students showed that students who did not feel supported or included due to gender, race, sexual identity, culture, or religion were significantly less satisfied with their graduate school programs. This research and our personal experiences suggested that an important project for us as Fellows of the Graduate School would be to focus on improving the experience of underrepresented minority graduate students in our college. Together we built a framework of a multi-tier support system that would provide resources at different levels (student, faculty, and college level). However, in brainstorming possible resources, we discovered that we had very different ideas of what would benefit students.


The experts in change management would suggest that you should first conduct a needs assessment before attempting to provide a solution, particularly in a big system. After already establishing that satisfaction with one’s graduate program depends on underrepresented minority graduate students feeling included, we next should figure out what they need to feel included and like they belong. This article is a step by step description of our journey planning a needs assessment to discover how we might best serve underrepresented graduate students.


Step 1: Do your research

As PhD students, research comes second nature! We dug into the academic literature to find studies or theories that offered solutions for improving feelings of belonging, engagement, happiness, success, or retention of underrepresented students in graduate school. The literature also provided a bonus: tips for how to successfully implement the solutions. The list of possibilities was further narrowed when we considered what could be done within the bounds of our college with the resources and time we had.


Next, we did some benchmarking studies where we looked at what other campuses implemented to address the same issue. Many were far past our ability to implement (giving fellowships for example), but we were really inspired by the student led efforts we found. A few more solutions were added to our list.


Step 2: Construct tools to capture voices

A needs assessment suggests that you must ASSESS NEEDS! It is extremely important to not just use your own experiences or examples of what others did to “create a solution”. Instead, the crux of creating sustainable change is to find out what the recipients of the solution need and think through how you might address those needs.


We began by creating an open-ended survey that allows underrepresented minority students to freely tell us if they are satisfied with their experiences in graduate school and their suggestions on how to improve their experiences. The second part of the survey asks for feedback and opinions on the list of solutions that we came up with.


Next, we made a plan to conduct focus groups. We thought through recruitment, locations, the questions we would ask, and how to merge this information with our survey results. The two methods would allow us to capture the voices of underrepresented students and build our multi-tier support system from their needs and suggestions.


Step 3: Identify and engage with administrators

Institutional support is an essential part of creating sustainable change. Getting partners within administration to lead the change also increases the chance that you implement lasting change. To begin this process, we reached out to introduce ourselves and our role to the Dean and Assistant Dean of our college. After establishing a friendly connection, we identified the Assistant Dean as a person who could help champion this work and who had a personal interest in the topic.


We set up a meeting and prepared for it by outlining our project (including future steps), summarizing the benefits to the MSU community, and preparing a list of “asks”. The meeting went over successfully with the Assistant Dean agreeing to support and help with the project. She also recommended other administrators that we could consult with. We went about the same process for engaging those administrators.


Step 4: Execute Your Plan!

The next step in completing a needs assessment is to do it! Unfortunately, a global pandemic prevented us from being able to conduct our activities, but we can share our plan.


Our survey was to be administered from the Dean’s office directly to underrepresented minority students. We concurrently would begin to recruit and conduct focus groups.


The information would be consolidated, and we would make a decision about what type of changes, resources, solutions, etc. to provide in order to enhance the experience of underrepresented minority graduate students. Once we created a proposal, we would begin to engage the necessary stakeholders to make it come to life. For example, one of the solutions on our list was to create a page on the college website that featured all of the available resources for underrepresented students. We would have to compile a list of these resources, request permission to do so by administration, get assistance from the website owners, and establish an updating protocol so that the page stays current.



The best advice that we can offer when conducting a needs assessment is to stay flexible and stay encouraged. You have to be flexible enough to realize that what you thought people needed may not be exactly what they think they need or what can be provided. You will need to be innovative so that your solution satisfies the needs of your audience. Change leadership projects can also be very involved and take a long time. You must bring your patience and enjoy the ride! Stay encouraged throughout the journey and persevere to you goal.

Posted by:
Courtney Monique Bryant #iteachmsu
#change leadership #adminstration #needs assessment