The Rule of Three

By Edward DeRoche

In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.  Tom Bodett

Have you heard or read about The Rule of 3?  I didn’t until last month when I was reading Bill Murphy, Jr.’s article about The Rule of 3 (

The Rule of 3 has to do with the way we process information and that three is the smallest number of elements we can use to create a pattern.  It seems “that any ideas, thoughts, events, characters or sentences that are presented in threes are more effective and memorable.”

Murphy noted that it works for at least three reasons:   

First, because people respond to patterns, and three is the minimum number of things required to create a pattern.

Second, if you articulate three things, you create an imbalance.  Either all three things go together, or two go together, while the third represents an exception.

Finally, because three is the maximum number of things people can remember quickly without effort. 

The Rule of 3 influences how we think, what we hear, what we remember, and how we process information on a daily basis.  Here are a few examples.

  • US Declaration of Independence:  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
  • From President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
  • Faith, Hope, and Charity
  • Stop, Look, and Listen
  • Blood, Sweat, and Tears  
  • See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
  • Location, location, location
  • The Three Wise Men 
  • The Three Musketeers
  • The Three Little Pigs 
  • Three Blind Mice
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears

I found information describing how The Rule of 3 fits the classic joke structure of set-up, anticipation, and punchline. 

Several writers noted that the Rule of 3 is a “powerful guide when one is writing or speaking.”

In his blog,  “How to Use the Rule of Three to Create Engaging Content,” Brian Clark asks: “What’s so magical about the number three?”  His answer:  

“It all comes down to the way we humans process information.  We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity. The number three is pervasive throughout some of our greatest stories, fairy tales, and myths. Information presented in groups of three sticks in our heads better than other clusters of items. I truly do believe writing bullet points as a set of three is the most effective use of the format.” 

A journalist suggested that The Rule of 3 for “character education is the golden rule, basic manners, and the difference between right and wrong.” 

I wondered—is there any information about using The Rule of 3 in school?  There is! 

In an article titled, “The Only 3 Classroom Rules You’ll Ever Need,” the authors suggest three rules that must be taught and practiced by students. 

  • Respect people is the #1 rule.
  • Respect property: Personal property, school supplies, wastefulness, and cleaning up after oneself. 
  • Respect learning: Students need to first understand that all people learn differently and express their learning differently and that they must be actively involved in their own learning. 

In his article, “Using the Rule of Three for Learning,” Ben Johnson writes:

“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.  

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.”

The VIA Institute on Character offers this take on The Rule of 3 under the title “Three Good Things”:

  1. REFLECT: Think back on today and reflect on the good moments that occurred. 
  2. RECORD: Write three things that went well and why they went well.
  3. REVIEW: Use THE VIA Classification to look for the strengths that you and others used.  (Note – there are 24.)

Here is an idea–The Rule of 3 Character Education Framework for Schools.

The Rule of 3 for Purpose

  1. Attitude
  2. Aspiration (Ambition)
  3. Assessment

The Rule of 3 for Oneself

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self -Discipline
  3. Self-Management  

The Rule of 3 for Motivation

  1. Inspire
  2. Involve
  3. Invest

The Rule of 3 for Service

  1. Empathy
  2. Gratitude
  3. Kindness

The Rule of 3 for Communication 

  1. Collaboration
  2. Courage
  3. Civility

The Rule of 3 for Teaching a Character Trait

  1. Highlight the trait and discuss its value and meaning
  2. Provide opportunities for students to practice the trait
  3. Offer effective and constant feedback

The Rule of 3 for each of the Above

  1. Repeat-Repeat-Repeat
  2. Practice-Practice-Practice
  3. Apply-Apply-Apply

What Rules of 3 would you add to this Framework?

Edward DeRoche, Ph.D.
Director, Character Education Resource Center
Department of Learning and Teaching
School of Leadership and Education Sciences
University of San Diego
February 2022 Blog

Please share the University of San Diego’s Character Education Resource Center with your colleagues.  If you are interested in USD’s Character Education Development Certificate program – 4 courses for a total of 8 graduate level extension unit– click here for more information.

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