May 6th, 2013

The Little Assignment with the Big Impact: Reading, Writing, Critical Reflection, and Meaningful Discussion



Several years ago, I came across the Purposeful Reading Assignment that was reported to encourage students to read, reflect, and write about readings assigned for class. Research (Roberts and Roberts, 2008) and experience tell us that supporting students’ reading, writing, and reflective practices is one of the most challenging aspects of learning and teaching. Although this assignment appeared to be simple, it has proven to be an influential tool for learning and has increased engagement and participation among my students.

The basic assignment, also called the 3-2-1, has three requirements:

  • Requirement 1: Students read what is assigned, then choose and describe the three most important aspects (concepts, issues, factual information, etc.) of the reading, justifying their choices.
  • Requirement 2: Students identify two aspects of the reading they don’t understand, and briefly discuss why these confusing aspects interfered with their general understanding of the reading. Although students may identify more than two confusing elements, they must put them in priority order and limit themselves to the two most important ones. Students seldom understand everything in a reading and, knowing that they must complete this part of the assignment, will reflect on their level of understanding of all the reading’s content.
  • Requirement 3: Students pose a question to the text’s author, the answer to which should go beyond the reading content and does not reflect the areas of confusion in requirement 2. The question reflects students’ curiosity about the topic and reveals what they think are the implications or applications of the reading content. This last requirement lets you know how well students understood the article’s intention.

The completed assignment is submitted on an electronic template before the class when the reading will be discussed. I grade and return the assignment electronically before the class, as well, although this is not critical if you find yourself short on time to complete the grading. With larger numbers of students, I review the assignments before class to identify the areas of difficulty and misunderstanding, and grade later. The grading process is minimal; three marks for part 1, two for part 2 and one for part 3, all based on a simple rubric, also provided to students.

Using my graduate course on teaching and learning as a ‘test bed’ for this assignment, I was amazed at the impact of this seemingly ‘little’ assignment on students’ engagement and empowerment. Their responses were thoughtful and reflected full engagement in the reading. In class, discussions were sophisticated and more in-depth than formerly. Students made meaningful comments and debated the most significant aspects of the readings, all with substantially less input from me. The benefit to teaching was that I could clearly identify areas where students were experiencing difficulty and those that they handled well. Requirement 3 gave me a sense of the connections they were making. I was able to be much more specific in the ways I helped students to fully understand the concepts. This process is similar to “just-in-time-teaching” (Novak, 2011).

After using the 3-2-1 several times in this course, we discussed its use as a tool for learning. Students were unanimous in their agreement that the three questions made them think deeply and critically about the readings. They reported greater confidence in their capability to discuss the reading and to achieve this they had to read the article for general understanding and then again to enable them to complete the report.

Following on that experience, I have used this assignment in other graduate and undergraduate courses. I have discovered I need to be judicious, particularly in first and second year courses, about the number of 3-2-1 reports assigned, as they are challenging. A 3-2-1 should only be assigned when the reading is difficult; otherwise, it may be perceived as ‘busy work’.

Since the first graduate class in which I used the 3-2-1, I have analyzed the mid- and end-of-term course feedback to the question, “What aspects of the course were of greatest benefit to your learning?” The purposeful, 3-2-1 reading report is the most frequently cited in all courses (mid-term =72% of all students, n= 549, end of term = 65% of students, n= 513). A typical response is revealing: I hate to admit it because they required quite a bit of effort, but the 3-2-1 reports were really helpful. Students appreciate their effectiveness, but don’t particularly enjoy doing them; therefore, it is important to assign a grade to the report that is consistent with the effort required and to ensure that the reading discussion draws on the content of their reports.

I encourage you to try this powerful but simple assignment as it has both an intellectual benefit for student learning and a practical benefit to the instructor. At the very least, it means never having to say I hope you are ready to discuss the reading for today.

An extended version of this assignment is available here »

Novak, G. M. (2011), Just-in-time teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2011: 63–73. doi: 10.1002/tl.469.

Roberts, J. C. and. Roberts, K. S. (2008). Deep reading, cost/benefit, and the construction of meaning: Enhancing reading comprehension and deep learning in sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology 36(2):125-4.

Author’s note: Until recently, I had been referencing the Purposeful Reading Assignment as one that John Bean of Seattle University had suggested on a visit to our campus. In a conversation with him, in preparation for this article, he told me that it didn’t come from him. Despite significant effort, I can’t find the original source of this assignment. If you can help me to find the originator of this writing assignment, I would be grateful so that I can acknowledge her or him.

Dr. Geraldine Van Gyn is a professor in the School of Exercise Science at the University of Victoria.

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26 comments on “The Little Assignment with the Big Impact: Reading, Writing, Critical Reflection, and Meaningful Discussion

  1. Would you be willing to share the grading rubric as well? This is a great assignment for critical thinking and engagement at all levels for many different courses.

  2. Great concept, but this assumes that students will be reading before they come to class–and this is the real challenge. Any ideas that don't require that I purchase something?

  3. I too would be interested in seeing a grading rubric for this assignment. I am excited about putting it in practice right away.

  4. I would be interested in the rubric as well, for large classes, (say 80+) how is the time best managed?

  5. Seems like an excellent requirement to get students reading actively. It's much better than issuing a few dreary reading quiz questions to verify whether students actually perform readings.
    I'm looking at creation of a SurveyMonkey form that might help automate the collection of responses. I'd simply paste a link to the form into an online assignment description. I could copy the same basic form for each reading assignment.

  6. I will put this into practice tomorrow! Access to the grading rubric would be wonderful. Thank you for sharing!

  7. This format has worked very well in graduate and undergraduate courses. I have asked students to write their THREE most important concepts on post-its. Using the post-its in small groups has worked very well (no one has ever used tiny post-its) as a way to summarize and synthesize the students' thinking. We have also sorted out all of the post-its into categories first in groups of 3 or 4, then expanding to larger groups, then to the whole class. I have also used an ask pair/share approach with their 2 questions. It is a great way to get them up and walking around the room – seeking information from the other students. Because the graduate and undergraduate courses I teach are mostly literacy/reading development courses, I usually have them respond by writing ONE way the reading will influence their teaching in the future.

  8. I do something similar whenever I teach an undergrad seminar class where I want students to engage in discussion. Without a structure like this, they usually don't take the time (nor, perhaps, know how on their own) to collect their thoughts. It makes a tremendous difference. I award points for both the written evidence of their work and for the quality of their contributions to class. That way they are compelled to do both.

  9. Thanks for your comments. The extended process that is included as a PDF with the online article is my favorite and gets such good student involvement.
    I am away from my office until May 20 but will post the general grading rubric on my return. If you wish to contact me directly, please email me at

    • Geri: I look forward to your sharing the grading rubric. Interested to know, from your experience, in a 100-or 200- level course (12 weeks) do you think 6 of these assignments is too much?

      • Six seems reasonable –I have assigned 7 in a second year course. Again, the students respond well to these if the readings are challenging and connected to the intent of the course. I find when I use the extended version of the this assignment (see PDF link below the article) it is so effective.

  10. I also would like to use this in the coming term. I look forward to your grading rubric. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Thank you for this post and also for the upcoming rubric. I teach an in-person class, but I do companion work on our web portal at school, too. I am going to try to use this for an online activity to generate discussion. If anyone has any tips, I'd love them!

    • I don't feel that I could advise on the efficacy in this particular population–However, with a good prep activity so that they are very clear on what the 3 questions ask and follow-up discussion with the whole class, I can't see why it would not be an engaging activity.

  12. My apologies as I have the marking criteria in a PDF ready for posting but not sure how to do it on this forum. I have been in touch with Mary Bart (editor) to advise me, so stay tuned. Alternatively you could email me and I will reply with this document and others.

  13. We now have this figured out. Mary has posted PDFs of the criteria, the original assignment sheet that I use and an alternative assignment (the 4-3-2-1). Thanks Mary!

    Here are the links and the first one is the grading criteria descriptions.

    Criteria for Purposeful Reading Report

    4-3-2-1 Report

    Purposeful Reading Report


  14. Thank you for sharing these materials, Geri. I will use this strategy in the winter/spring term (Australia). Just a note, the link for the alternative 4-3-2-1 Report is broken and indicates page not found. Looking forward to viewing that as well. Cheers, Mary

  15. Hello Geri,

    Thank you for generously sharing your experience as well as the handouts and rubrics with us!

    One question: how do you schedule the deadline so you have enough time to read through responses and grade/or read through and form your responses on lectures? 24 hours? 48?



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