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.