Establishing a Purpose

Imagine for a moment that you are in class or a workshop I am facilitating.  I show you a list of words (see below) and give you 30 seconds to count as many of the vowels as you can.  Go ahead; try it!

Dollar bill



Four leaf clover


Six pack



Cat lives

Bowling pins

Football team

Dozen eggs

Unlucky Friday

Valentine’s Day

Quarter hour

Now imagine that, after 30 seconds, I then ask you to write down as many words as you can remember without looking.  How many would you be able to write?  How would you feel about the bait-and-switch task?

In a typical class, students are usually able to remember 3-4 of the 15 words (about 20%).  The next task would be to allow the students 30 seconds to memorize as many words as they could from the list.  When asked to write the words they remember, students are generally able to remember half of them.  Then, students are told that these words are all strategically arranged in some way: they are listed according to number.  After giving students another 30 seconds to memorize the list and then record the words they remembered, most students could remember 12 or more (80%+) of the words.

It is important to realize that the students did not get any smarter between the first attempt (20%) and the third (80%); they were simply more aware of the learning task and the structure of the assignment (and maybe the benefit of the three practices, but I’m sure you would get similar results if you changed the list of words).

I was given the handout describing this activity at a conference, but it contained no source information.  It is designed to teach students metacognitive skills, but I have used it in training sessions to illustrate the importance of setting a purpose for learning tasks when teaching.  If we ask students to view/listen to a lecture, read a chapter, or watch a video and then ask questions about the content, they are likely to remember about 20% of the content.  However, if we ask them to view a lecture, read a chapter or watch a video and look for/identify the 3 key points, the definition of key words, etc. then we can expect them to remember 50-80% of that material depending on if we also teach them how the materials are structured.  In teaching, this is called establishing a purpose.  It doesn’t take long to do, but it can greatly improve results.

What do you think?  How do you establish a purpose for your learning tasks?



  1. This is a simple but excellent point—thank you for highlighting it!

    It’s making me realize that during museum field trips, while I’m pretty good at giving students cues as to what to expect and what topics we’ll cover, I don’t really express a purpose as such. I’ll have to think about that. (The implied purpose is “see how awesome museums & history are!” 🙂 ) Granted, a 4th grade field trip is not the same as a college class assignment, but still, this is a really important thing to consider in any education setting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree! While we always have those underlying goals of “how awesome is…(our subject area),” it’s also important that they know what they are supposed to be doing/looking for, etc.

      I’m glad you found this useful!


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