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Using the Rule of Three for Learning

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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A young girl is standing at the front of a classroom holding a collage that represents the life cycle of a butterfly. She's presenting on it to her class.

In math, the Rule of Three is a method of finding a ratio. In English essay writing, the Rule of Three states that things are more interesting to read in triads. In presentations, the Rule of Three comes in handy to keep the audience engaged, and in entertainment, the idea of trebling makes jokes and gags funnier.

As it turns out, economists, chemists, aviators, and scuba divers use the Rule of Three (even Agatha Christie did when she wrote a series of plays entitled, The Rule of Three). Although it has not been labeled as the Rule of Three, great educators have used it in classrooms since Aristotle (ever heard of syllogisms?). So what is the Rule of Three for learning? Well it is as simple as one, two, three (not kidding). The Rule of Three for learning basically establishes the requirement that students be given the opportunity to learn something at least three times before they are expected to know it and apply it.

As Easy as One, Two, Three

Step One of Three

Students engage in a particular learning topic for the first time. The key is that the student must be engaged; an introductory lecture or a movie clip don't count because the students are learning passively -- just listening or observing. So after the introduction and modeling by the teacher, step one of the Rule of Three could be a vocabulary development exercise, a history inquiry activity about primary and secondary sources, or a mathematical patterns discovery excursion. The important thing is that students have their first roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-messy experience with the content they are supposed to acquire. Much of what the students learn in this step will still be in the knowledge and comprehension level.

Step Two of Three

In this step, students have their second opportunity to practice what they learned in step one. Since students have some basic knowledge of what the topic is, this is a wonderful time to use collaborative-learning strategies. Students can analyze the word compositions by categorizing them according to similarities. Students can assess the validity of the data acquired from primary sources versus secondary sources using tertiary sources. Students would be able to expand their knowledge, for example, of mathematical patterns by creating unique formulas that create visual patterns when graphed.

Step Three of Three

While three steps are the minimum, sometimes students require more than three opportunities to learn. This step should not be viewed as the final step. In step three, students get to do the really fun stuff through project-based learning, product-based learning -- with a lot of hands-on learning. All of these learning activities require problem-solving (analysis), critical thinking (evaluation), and creative thinking (synthesis).

Student learning could include creating a visual lexicon, a PowerPoint lesson for younger students, or an interactive HyperStudio presentation. History students, for example, can demonstrate varying perspectives of the different sources by creating a reader's theater, a quiz show, or a panel discussion. In studying mathematical patterns, students can create a photo tour of mathematical patterns that occur in nature or in architecture at the school or in the community.

The Rule of Three for learning helps us as teachers to design our lessons with not only multiple opportunities for the students to acquire the skills and knowledge, but it helps us to deliberately increase the level of complexity and difficulty with each iteration, which, as it turns out, helps the students to remember more because they are experiencing the learning rather than just observing it.

Teachers often expect students to know something after having only presented it once. Also, please do not assume that simply reminding the students three times, providing a pre-test or post-test, or teacher modeling are part of a learning series of the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three has to be the students trying to recall, understand, or apply what they have learned on their own.

The Rationale

Posted above my office door in my classroom is a poster that reads, "The Rule of Three." This serves as a reminder to me, but it also helps my students. I constantly refer students to look at this poster to remind them that they should be patient and forgiving of themselves. Learning is difficult, and students need to hear things more than once before they can expect themselves to be able to remember it, use it, and apply it. So, before you give your students any sort of evaluation, ask yourself, "What three learning opportunities have I given my students so they can be successful here?"

Math, science, aviation, and computer programming all have one thing in common: the Rule of Three. In those fields, it's an easy way to remember a list of three things that must be done. It is the same with the Rule of Three for learning. It is supremely easy to remember, and it identifies what must be done to learn effectively.

The Rule of Three equally applies to how students should study at home, as well as to how teachers should design their learning activities at school. How do you use the Rule of Three in your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Shiva's picture
Professional Trainer at Ace Web Academy

As Russ Ewell said, complexity is always an obstacle in learning new things, but if we plan them in different way of learning, then we can easily overcome it. this article says the best ways to learn.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Great to read this about the 'Rule of Three' - first encountered at a Workshop on facilitating the learning in engineering, itself facilitated by Emeritus Professor Richard Felder of North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent. While it was something I always shared and encouraged my students to use, I firmly believed then as I do now that too many students (one or more, usually more sadly) maybe reached three when they saw it on an assessment.

If I were in the classroom today, I'd have them maintain an e-portfolio tracking / documenting their learning, how they know their progress, and what they are going to do about it. Of course, there would likely be a few students not doing or doing a poor performance on this - BUT they'd be more routinely aware of their lack of effort and get things rolling - maybe..., maybe not...

David Boevers's picture

As a pre-service teacher I am very interested in this concept. Do you have any additional materials or reference articles?

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I can point you to my book, Teaching Students to Dig Deeper, that talks about this idea in much more detail. I wish that I had these sorts of resources as a preservice teacher, but even more, I wish that I was as in-tuned as you are to what students really need from their teachers when I was a pre-service teacher. Edutopia is a great resource.

Ben Johnson
Tyler, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You are absolutely right. We have to keep it simple. As teachers there are so many requirement that we have to keep track of, it is nice to be able to just count to three in terms of providing learning opportunities for our students. Thanks for your comment and keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
Tyler, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


When I did a simple internet search for the rule of three, I was surprised at how many disciplines use a rule of three. Engineering was one of the disciplines that seemed to use it most. Thanks for reading this post.

Ben Johnson
Tyler, Texas

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I love this! I'd used the rule of 3 in my classes on comedy, improv, and public speaking but hadn't seen it explored in such depth or breadth. A lot to think about here!

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Hi Shawn,

Here are a couple of references that you may find interesting:

Supporting coherence formation in learning from multiple representations

UDL Guidelines - Version 2.0: Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation

The general idea is that people learn best when they can access information in different ways. Check out this Mindshift article:
"All learners benefit when information is put forth in diverse ways that engage a multitude of the senses."

Hope this helps!

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