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Universal Challenge Programming

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Universal Challenge Programming & Needs Assessment

What is a needs assessment?

In many areas of education, the learning process begins with the assessment of an individual. Within the realm of experiential education and challenge courses, a group or individual may be assessed for appropriate programming. An individual assessment gathers data to survey the person as a whole. This could include a participant’s cognitive‚ social‚ physical‚ spiritual‚ psychological‚ leisure history and future goals. This can be used to determine a participant’s strengths and areas to target for development (Carter‚ Van Andel‚ & Robb‚ 1995). A group assessment is used to determine where the group is as a whole and what types of programming would be appropriate for the group to meet their goals.

Why are needs assessments important?

Assessments allow the facilitator an opportunity to gather necessary information that will be needed in the planning phase of an activity. The assessment focuses on the participants’ abilities‚ rather than what they are unable to do (Rohnk‚ Wall‚ Tait‚ & Rogers‚ 2003). Assessments are not used to categorize a participant; rather‚ it is used to help the participant gain from the services a program has to offer (Austin‚ 1999). This information will allow the facilitator to enable the individual to participate in individual and or group activities to the best of their ability.

How do you conduct a needs assessment?

According to Don Rogers‚ assessment may be done using one or more methods‚ though a multi-method approach will probably provide the most useful and reliable information. These methods may include assessment forms, interviews, and behavioral observations. For example, observing a group involved in activities that involve physical and social dynamics prior to their participation in your program will provide insights into their individual abilities related to mobility, level and methods of communication, level of cognitive functioning‚ social interaction skills‚ and use of adaptive equipment (200‚ p.130).

The facility that houses the challenge course program may have an “in-house” needs assessment that they send to all potential challenge participants. These can vary from facility to facility and are largely based on the preference of the facility or even the facilitator and the precise information they need to facilitate a program successfully.

Participants may self-report using a written form or by responding to questions. Observation techniques can be used as well‚ either in conjunction with self–reporting or as an alternative. Getting information from care providers can help identify specific needs/concerns of individuals who are unable to reliably self–report. When adequate pre-program assessment is not available‚ plan on taking time at the start of the program to ask questions and observe a couple of activities in order to responsibly proceed with the program.

What do you do after a needs assessment?

Information from an assessment is used to adequately plan for the participants with whom the facilitator will be working. This participant information will assist the facilitator in devising appropriate goals and objectives for the program‚ determining a range of complementary activities and any adaptations that need to be made‚ as well as developing a debriefing strategy.

How often do you conduct a needs assessment?

Assessment/evaluation is an ongoing process. Once the program is designed‚ it is necessary to continually observe participant behavior and solicit feedback in order to facilitate a process that adjusts to their often changing needs. See the Therapeutic Recreation process below. Some programs may evaluate participants after their experience. This could happen immediately afterwards‚ or days or weeks later. If the facilitator will work with an individual or a group more than once over a period of time‚ assessment and evaluation are still done‚ but now they have to take into account the previous experiences and growth of the participants.

Cyclical diagram of the therapeutical recreation process. Top to clockwise: Assessing, Planning, Implementing, Evaluating.

Depending on how your program is structured, the group might be formed prior to their arrival at your program and other times it may be an individual’s first time with the group. In both instances an assessment of individuals should be taken to meet the needs of each participant.

What are some common questions in an individual needs assessment?

  • Perfect Good FairPoorBad

  • Perfect Good FairPoorBad

  • Yes No

  • Yes No

  • Yes No

Individual needs assessments tend to be much more personal than group assessment forms. Some programs will request a group assessment and then have each participant fill out individual forms as well.

What are some common questions in a group needs assessment?

General knowledge:

  • How long has the group been together?
  • In what prior team building activities has the group participated?
  • Is participation in this experience mandatory or voluntary?


  • What is the purpose for your group participating in this process
  • How does this fit into where your group is heading? What is the group’s purpose?
  • What are the group’s expectations?
  • What are the group’s specific objectives?


  • Please describe your group’s ability to follow directions regarding safety expectations.
  • What are some possible barriers to gaining full benefit from this process?


  • What is the overall feeling of the group?
  • If there are staff present, what is the relationship between the participants and the staff?


  • How is the group acting? Are they resistive, disruptive, or agreeable?


  • Are there any concerns regarding participants’ physical ability?
  • How do the participants see themselves?


  • At what developmental stage would you assess that your group is functioning?
    • Forming: Are they just coming together for the first time?
    • Storming: Are members arguing a lot and many are trying to be the leader?
    • Norming: Have the group’s participants found roles to know who does what in the group in order to be successful?
    • Performing: What has a group done when it has accomplished a goal, or run out of time? The group can either start again with a new agenda or disengage.

Overall, you as a programmer will know your activities and challenge courses prior to a group arriving. Ask questions that will give the participants and the group an experience that will meet their personal and group goals.

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