Research to practice: How do we get students to complete pre-class work?

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The biggest question, by a wide margin, I hear from faculty when we talk about flipped learning is: How do I make sure students do the pre-class work? It’s a real concern. Flipped learning is predicated on the strategy of freeing up as much time as possible in students’ group context (i.e., their class meetings) and then focusing that time on tasks that engage students beyond the basics. In order to do this, in flipped learning environments students cover the basics themselves, prior to class. And there’s the potential issue: If students don’t do this pre-class work, then this entire plan goes straight down the tubes.

To repeat: This is only a potential issue, albeit a serious one. It’s not inevitable! There are strategies we instructors can employ to head this issue off, and in this article we’ll look at what research says about the underlying issues and then translate those into practices that will help our students come to class equipped and ready to work.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify: Nobody can “make sure” that students do the pre-class work in a flipped learning environment, whether it’s watching videos or reading or anything else. You and I cannot “make” students complete any kind of assignment if they, the students, don’t ultimately decide to do it. So the real question isn’t How can I make sure students do the pre-class work: It’s, How do I design pre-class work that students want to do? (That’s not a bad way to think about any assignment we give.)

What the research says

Two threads of research in psychology can shed some light on this issue: self-determination theory and cognitive load theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a theoretical framework from psychology that has to do with motivation. It was originated by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci in the 1980s and was primarily expressed in a paper they published in 2000 (1). You may have heard of the terms intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Deci and Ryan gave us these. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation to seek out challenges and improvements merely for their own sake. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is motivation that comes from an outside force. When we go to the gym purely because we enjoy exercise, then this is intrinsic motivation; when we do it because our doctor told us to, or because we’re being offered $100 to do so, this is extrinsic.

Deci and others determined that a person’s inclination to intrinsic motivation is based on three factors: competence, autonomy, and relatedness — respectively, a person’s perception of being good at the task, having choice and agency in the task, and being psychologically connected to others while doing the task. People tend to find more intrinsic motivation for a task when any of these three aspects are increased. For example, if my doctor told me I need to work out more and therefore I am extrinsically motivated to do so, I’ll feel more motivated to do it if I am part of an exercise class (relatedness), I get to choose which exercises I do (autonomy), or if my exercise instructor tells me I am doing a good job (competence).

These two kinds of motivation can interact and sometimes undo each other. Deci’s research (for example, (2)) found that when people were given tasks for which they were intrinsically motivated — in this case, solving a puzzle, with no rewards attached other than the fun of solving it — and then later given monetary rewards for solving it, the subjects’ intrinsic motivation for solving the puzzle decreased. We also know that outside inputs can alter the levels of a person’s motivation to complete a task. A study by Jang (3) took 136 college students and gave them a task that was inherently uninteresting — of course, it was a statistics exercise — and then, later, one group was provided with a rationale given in non-controlling language for why they were doing the exercise (“Today’s lesson will open the door for you to gain useful skills…”; see the original paper for the whole phrasing) while the other group received no rationale. The students with the rationale for their work showed greater interest, work ethic, and determination in completing the task than did students with no rationale given.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is another framework from psychology that deals with the “cognitive architecture” of a human being and the amount of mental effort that goes into working memory. CLT was developed originated with John Sweller, also in the 1980’s (see (4)) and distinguishes between three kinds of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Intrinsic load (not to be confused with intrinsic motivation) is the cognitive load that is irreducibly part of a task itself. Extraneous load is cognitive load which is not part of the task and does not actually lend itself to understanding or completing the task. Germane load is cognitive load that may not be inherent in the task itself but which is helpful for forming connections and schema for being able to work with similar or more advanced tasks later.

This illustration by Connie Malamed (source) is a good way to think about how these different kinds of cognitive load compare:

Let’s suppose you’re trying to bake a cake. There are certain cognitive parts to this that can’t be removed: Checking to see if you have the ingredients, knowing how to operate your kitchen tools, making decisions about whether the cake is done. These can be made less burdensome through practice, but they can’t be eliminated from the process because they are part of the process, i.e. intrinsic cognitive load. Extraneous load would be, for example, having to make a cake recipe where the units of measurement are in metric versus imperial units if you are in the USA, or vice versa everywhere else; unless you have kitchen tools that come in those units, you have to make room for the cognitive process of unit conversion which neither helps you make the cake or helps you build mental structures for later cake-baking. Finally, imagine that the recipe also includes some notes about the science behind the baking process; this is germane load because it’s not strictly necessary, but if you can understand the science, then it could help you make sense of why the recipe is ordered the way that it is, helping you form a schema for baking.

Translating into practice

So what does all this mean for instructors? How can self-determination theory and cognitive load theory help us create pre-class assignments (or any other kid of assignment) that students want to complete, especially when the entire flipped learning infrastructure is riding on that completion?

  1. Keep pre-class assignments minimal. When writing your pre-class activities, ask: What’s the smallest amount of knowledge students need, to be successful in the in-class activities I have designed? (Notice this means we design the in-class activity before the pre-class activity; see for more on that.) Decide on a list of “Basic” learning objectives and design the pre-class assignment around only that set — leave the rest of the learning objectives for class work. This practice focuses on eliminating extraneous cognitive load and emphasizing only intrinsic and germane load for student preparation. Also, ruthlessly eliminate any other extraneous load — for example, asking two questions on the pre-class activity that assess the same thing — and provide structure to help students manage the remaining load. Remember, we do not expect or need complete mastery before class, only essential fluency on the most basic ideas. Or as I tell my students, “Just Enough to Be Dangerous”.
  2. Promote intrinsic motivation by highlighting competency. This doesn’t mean “inflate students’ self-esteem by telling them they’re great for no reason” — it means, give students plenty of opportunities to have a real sense of what they have learned from their work through feedback. If you use video, consider embedding mutliple choice quizzes inside them using tools like EdPuzzle. Or set up an online quiz using a Google Form that students can take following reading or video, not to be graded but for students to get feedback. Giving compliments to students who do well or improve their performances goes a long way too.
  3. Promote intrinsic motivation by giving students autonomy. Remember the example about working out? If I can pick which exercise to do, I am more likely to exercise at all, than if I am restricted to a single exercise. Similarly, we can find ways to let students pick how they want to learn in pre-class work. Instead of providing a list of videos and telling students, “Watch these videos”, give students learning objectives instead and then providing a range of resources for learning — text and video and simulations and anything else you can find — and telling students: “Use whatever combination of the following resources works to help you gain fluency on the basic learning objectives”. Stop worrying about whether all students watch all your videos. Instead shift that narrative from “making sure students watch the videos” to “providing ways for students to learn that make sense for them” and then assessing their learning.
  4. Promote intrinsic motivation by giving students connectedness. Students sometimes complain that in flipped learning, they don’t have a way to ask questions while doing the pre-class work. In too many situations, this complaint is well justified: Connecting with other humans during pre-class work may be difficult, or even impossible or prohibited. SDT would tell us this is a bad thing, and that students will be more motivated if pre-class work has the promise of connectedness embedded in it. So, go ahead and let students work together on pre-class work. Give them robust systems for asking questions — Slack, discussion boards, study sessions, etc. Make it clear that it’s completely OK, even a good idea, to connect with others and ask questions when working on the assignment. Yes, some students may end up copying answers from others; I think we should consider this an acceptable risk, and explain to students the demerits of doing this and then trust them to do the right thing.
  5. Give a non-controlling rationale to students explaining “why”.. Remember the study in which learner’s motivations improved when they were simply given a friendly explanation of the learning task? The simplest way to improve motivation for pre-class work is just to tell students why they are doing the pre-class work in the first place, in non-controlling language — i.e., avoid tough-professor talk such as “You are doing this because you’ll be totally screwed during the in-class portion if you don’t”. Stick in a paragraph at the beginning explaining what they are about to learn, how it relates to what they already know, and why it’s important. (And why it’s important to learn it on their own.)
  6. Take it easy on the grading. As Deci’s 1971 study shows, far from the notion that “if it’s not graded they won’t do it”, extraneous rewards stunt the development of intrinsic motivation. So if you choose to grade pre-class work, do so lightly. I used to grade pre-class work on a 10-point scale and then give a 5-point entrance quiz over the material, because “accountability”. Then I realized my students hated doing the work because of all that “accountability”. So I started grading it Pass/Fail on the basis of completeness and effort only (i.e. not on correctness), and no start-of-class quizzes. And guess what: Students’ completion rates skyrocketed and they showed up to class more prepared. So perhaps Deci was onto something. If you’re feeling really radical, consider not grading pre-class work at all.
  7. Consider ditching video. Finally, keep in mind that pre-class work does not have to revolve around “delivering content” through video or text. Consider replacing video-watching or text-reading exercises with something more engaging, like a game, interactive demo (e.g. a Wolfram Demonstration), or even a physical, analog activity that gets students actively involved with exploring concepts in an open-ended way. A fascinating recent article from a pair of researchers at Stanford (5) suggests that having students interact with something tangible and then watching a video on a topic, is significantly more effective than watching the video first and then doing active work. I’ll have a lot more to say about this study in another post, but suffice to say that flipped learning does not require video or reading before class, or even direct instruction or “covering material” first, and such activities could be a lot more interesting and hence more likely to be completed.


This idea of pre-class work isn’t confined to flipped learning, of course. It can apply to any teaching method in which you want students to learn something before doing active work during class. We can’t make students do the pre-class assignments (unless we have an army of enforcer goons at our disposal), but we can make our assignments more interesting by leveraging what we know about motivation and cognitive load.

Do you have any tips for improving student success in doing pre-class work? Share them in the comments!


[1] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

[2] Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105.

[3] Jang, H. (2008). Supporting students’ motivation, engagement, and learning during an uninteresting activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 798.

[4] Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and instruction, 4(4), 295-312.

[5] Schneider, B., & Blikstein, P. (2016). Flipping the flipped classroom: A study of the effectiveness of video lectures versus constructivist exploration using tangible user interfaces. IEEE transactions on learning technologies, 9(1), 5-17.


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