The Pre-work Predicament

April 9, 2014 14:56 by Dana Peters

Trainers and meeting facilitators see tremendous value in getting a jump start to their virtual instructor-led training (VILT) classes or online meetings by assigning pre-work. Yet time and time again this effort results in only a portion of participants actually completing their assignments and arriving fully prepared for the online event.

Let’s take a closer look at this challenge.

Why is pre-work assigned?

Trainers and meeting facilitators say:

  • Time in the online classroom or meeting space is precious. Pre-work gets participants thinking about the topic beforehand, formulating new ideas, or learning some foundational information. Well planned pre-work leads to well-prepared participants, ready to hit the ground running in our sessions.
  • When submitted ahead of time, pre-work is a way to get to know participants; where they are at with the topic, what their capabilities are, and what their interests/motivations are. Pooled together, pre-work is a snap shot of the participant group as a whole, allowing us to customize the training or meeting objectives before we even get started.

Why is pre-work not done?

Participants say:

  • Sometimes there is no compelling reason to complete it. We don’t see the value or connection between doing the pre-work and our participation in the class or meeting.
  • It doesn’t seem important or required therefore we assume it’s optional.
  • “What pre-work?” I must have overlooked it amongst the hundreds of other emails I receive each day.
  • I forgot. I set it aside to complete later. Later never came. 
  • It’s boring. I started it but it was too painful to finish.

How do we change this?


The old “What’s In It For Me.” Simple, but often overlooked. We suggest your introduction to the pre-work include a clear and concise explain of why the pre-work is beneficial to the participant. If you are having trouble articulating the WIIFM from the participant’s perspective for the pre-work you have planned, then you should question if the pre-work you have designed is necessary.

Make this commitment: Any and all pre-work will be compelling and necessary.

Related to WIIFM, the connection between the pre-work and the goals and objectives of your meeting or training class need to be clear. If the participants sense that skipping the pre-work will result in being lost, out of the loop, and ill prepared in comparison to the rest of their peers, they will be more motivated to do the pre-work.

Set expectations.

  • Make it crystal clear to participants how their time on pre-work will contribute directly to the conversation, content, outcome, and their ability to participate.
  • Pre-work should be front and center at the beginning of the training or meeting, first up on the agenda. This will get the session off the ground quickly with energy.
  • Be clear about how much time it will take to complete the pre-work. If the time commitment is on the longer side, consider breaking it up into multiple steps. Provide a mini-checklist so that participants know how much they have done and how far they have to go.
  • Have a submission process. We find pre-work that results in something that is turned in or that you are able to document online as completed is more likely to get done.

Communicate well and often.

  • When explaining the pre-work requirement in the initial invitation, ask for acknowledgement and commitment to do the work.
  • Utilize a communication timeline for the whole pre-session process. We suggest automating these steps as much as possible.

Share accountability.

  • Hold up your end of the bargain with a promise of quality. 1) You will only design meaningful and interesting pre-work and 2) facilitate sessions that meet, if not exceed, the stated objectives and goals.
  • Be clear on how the objectives or goals of the event will be negatively impacted unless everyone has completed the pre-work going into the session; often peers will hold each other accountable. Sometimes the pressure of letting the group down is enough to make the pre-work a priority on everyone’s task list.
  • Accept the fact that your communication process needs to include multiple reminders and some hand-holding.

Make it easy, interesting, and flexible.

  • Invest the time necessary to make the pre-work interesting. It should be visually appealing and command attention. Consider options outside of “read this document before our meeting.” Could you use other mediums: video clips, podcasts, short learning modules, or other paper based activities?
  • Make it easy to get to and work on. If you are sending out reminders, include the pre-work information/links again so participants don’t have to dig around for it. Can your pre-work easily be worked on from the road (on commuter train or business trip)? Can it be completed in short sittings, perfect for fillers in-between meetings or during the wait at the doctor’s office?

How do we handle those non-compliers?

Following the same vein as being clear about pre-work expectations, we suggest that you are also clear about the consequences for not completing pre-work. This can be as direct as automatically withdrawing the participant from the event attendee list, after sending several reminders, to giving the participant “the out” by allowing them to withdraw from attending voluntarily.

These are some of our thoughts on how to handle pre-work challenges. What are some of yours?

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