Pre-work! – Is it work or isn’t it?

Pre-work! Argh! There’s no such thing. 

Pre-work! – what exactly do we mean by this? Work is either work or it’s not.  And if it’s not ‘work’ what is it?  Is it reading?  If so, reading is something you do therefore it’s work!  Is it watching (a video)?  If so, it’s still doing – ergo – work.  There’s nothing ‘pre’ about it.  Are you getting the drift?

Of course, to make any sort of sense, it’s got to stand for ‘pre-course work’ but even that’s equally confusing.  Let’s explore.

The reason for this little rant is that my pet-hate of a phrase (as if you haven’t yet guessed) has been rearing its ugly head quite a lot lately.  I’ve read a few blog posts, articles and had conversations with people where these terms are being handed out without any thought about their implications.  

It’s always baffled me when people use this term.  I mean… really!  Even when traditional classroom training was the default delivery, we were very often given ‘pre-course work’ to do.  The term indicates that it some sort of activity (usually reading) that needs to be done before attending the course.  Students are usually provided with details of this as part of their joining instructions or booking confirmation.  And what do they do?  Well, the don’t do they?  This ‘pre-course work’ is often (to be fair not always) forgotten.  

Usually, it’s down to their perception that this pre-course work is optional.  After all, if it was necessary, it would be actually part of the course… wouldn’t it? It’s often provided with no clear guidelines about what they should do with it or how it’s going to be used when they arrive at the classroom.  There’s no real deadline apart from the date of the classroom course and more often than not there’s no tutor support or facilitation.

This all tells the student that if the tutors/facilitators can’t be bothered to put that effort in then why should they?  OK, I might be being a little unfair but it gets my point across.

Now us learning designers know that isn’t the case.  We’ve toiled for hours carefully creating this material and determining its importance in the course design.  I too have thrown my hands up in the air, looked skywards and silently screamed when set work hasn’t been carried out.  So why, if we have determined that this work is a necessary part of the course do we insist on calling it ‘pre-course’?  We’re not helping ourselves here.

In today’s multi-media rich world has opened the opportunities of the course to be more than classroom.  There is a wider adoption of blended solutions where different elements of the course are delivered via a range of different media channels.  Some don’t have a classroom element at all.  Strangely enough, those blended solutions where all elements are delivered remotely using a variety of media options are less likely to have ‘pre-course’ work included as it is easier to see it as part of that (likely) online delivery.

But where we do see these blended solutions having a significant classroom delivery element, any set activities outside of the classroom element are still being referred to as ‘pre-course’ or ‘post-course’.  Is it any wonder then, that we still hear concerns from learning solution designers that their learners are unlikely to carry that work out?  Using the phrase ‘pre-course’ perpetuates the misconception that the classroom is still the only place where the real learning happens.  Anything else is less important.  And, sadly, there are designers, trainers and facilitators who still think that themselves.

Over the past 5 years I tried to do my bit to persuade people to think differently about using the term ‘pre-course’ work and to consider using terms such as ‘part 1, part 2 or stage 1, stage 2.  It will also help when we no long consider the bulk of the learning/training to take place in the classroom and concentrate on the course being the content not the classroom.

So, come on folks, no more ‘pre-course work’ – please!

You Might Also Like


  • Craig Taylor

    March 5, 2012

    Hi Laura,

    This is another one of these posts that I wish I’d written myself, well done.

    I completely agree with your sentiments although I have to say that it’s only been in the past 12 months or so that I’ve come to this conclusion. I suspect that this is down to the popularity of the ‘flipped classroom’ term and approach.

    Unfortunately since this approach became popular I have been ‘out of’ the facilitation role, so you’ll understand how excited I am to have been asked to speak at a forthcoming UCISA event

    on the subject of using YouTube for training. As you can guess I’ll be making maximum use of the media to deliver content in advance of the f2f event, but will take great care to ensure that it is not labelled ‘pre work’

    • Laura Layton-James

      April 11, 2012

      Best wishes for your up and coming talk Craig. I like your use of YouTube videos as part of your blend. I’ll be keeping a keen eye on your reports.

      Thanks Glenn for joining the cause to ;o)

      It’s good to see that Clive Shepherd is also picking up arms against the dreaded ‘per-work’ banner. Here he has today posted his own great tips. I can vouch for these myself and have heard from past delegates that similar tips shared during our conversations have proven fruitful.

  • Glenn Hansen

    March 15, 2012

    Spot on (again) buddy. I’ve only seen the phrase associated with coursework that has a live component, whether traditional class room or synchronous web. I have to admit, I’ve used the words myself a number of times. And you’re right about the impression it gives participants, especially when the work is not directly addressed in the ‘real’ part of the course or when we take the time in that ‘real’ component to catch up those who didn’t do it.

    I’m going to join your ban on the term today. From now on, the course work is all, well, course work. No pre-this or post-that.

  • Nicola

    March 16, 2012

    Hi Laura, Thanks for a great post. We have created an open, non-profit calendar blog called One Change A Day which will feature 365 blog posts from around education and mooc worlds. This blog will also tell a story of how new ways of connecting with each other online are irreversibly changing education. It will also be published as a shared artifact of everyone’s experiences in print and digital calendar format at the end of the year.
    We would love to include your post, with your kind permission. The calendar blog is using the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License licence. Would this cause any conflicts with your current publishing permissions?

    • Laura Layton-James

      April 11, 2012

      Hi Nicola,

      I’m happy for you to include a link to my post and even quote excerpts to expand upon. However, I cannot allow you to use the entire text on your blog. The reason being is that it causes duplicate content which affects Google search results (Google can’t recognise which is the original content). It’s referred to as ‘scraping’.

      Thank you for reading my blog and for asking permission to use the text but I hope you understand my withholding permission.

      • Nicola

        April 14, 2012

        Thanks Laura, that’s great and very useful to know re your explanation too,


Leave a Reply