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Reading With Purpose, or Purposes

More great advice for college students.

My university (not that I own it or anything, but I’m proud to work here at CU Denver) hired a PR firm a number of years ago to help sell us to students and parents. The major slogan they came up with was “Learn with Purpose.” I was cynical at first—cynicism is an occupational hazard for senior faculty. However, the slogan turns out to be a pretty good principle!

I want to tell you about a wonderful article I came across recently that addresses the importance, and purposes, of reading as a major set of skills. The article is called “An Open Letter to High School Students about Reading.” The author, Patrick Sullivan, is an English professor at Manchester Community College in Connecticut. I’ve written my own letter to beginning college students, so I was really interested to see what Sullivan had to say. I found his comments very insightful and useful—in other words, I agree with him.

Sullivan’s thesis is that “’deep’ reading and reading for pleasure may be the most important things you can do to prepare for college.” He recommends that students “start to find a way right now to enjoy reading and … make it an important part of your life.”

In other words, read with purpose—or purposes. Sullivan says that reading for different purposes takes different strategies and skills. Reading for pleasure can be quick and focused on emotions. Deep reading for academic purposes may also include reading “more carefully, more slowly, and more deliberately.” Deep reading also means reading more than 140 characters at a time….

Mitch Handelsman
Source: Mitch Handelsman

I have told my students for a long time that thinking and writing are essentially the same thing—or at least parts of the same process. Sullivan’s letter inspires me to add reading to that equation. He cites numerous studies (in fact, he’s working on a book) that show the connections between reading and cognition. Reading changes our brains, increases or vocabulary, and “can literally help determine the way we are able to think.”

Here is one way I’ve tried to provide enhanced purpose for my students’ reading, and to connect reading to thinking and writing: In my first-year course, “How to Think Like a Psychologist, I require students to write a short POT (Proof-of-Thinking) Paper about virtually every reading assignment they have. Thus, students read while thinking something like, “What am I going to write about to prove that I can think critically about what I’m reading?” rather than, “How many pages left?” As Sullivan says, I want students to understand their readings rather than simply finish them.

To enhance the connections among reading, thinking, and writing, I have students submit their POT Papers on the day the readings are due. By doing this, I don’t have to wait until a test to (a) assess and help students understand their level of learning, and (b) provide reinforcement—incentive, value, purpose, grades, whatever—for students’ efforts. After all, in real life (which I hear about from students and friends), bosses don’t usually tell an employee, “I want you to read this report tonight, because you’ll need to know about it in four weeks!”

I’d be interested to know what you’ve all experienced, as teachers and students, regarding the purposes for which you read or assigned reading while in high school and/or college.


Mitch Handelsman is professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012). But here’s what he’s most proud of: He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.

© 2016 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved