First-Year Preceptorial


A small amount of writing preceded by a large amount of thinking

Microthemes* are short written assignments that require students to think through ideas and apply concepts and then demonstrate that thinking through highly focused writing.  They are ideal critical thinking and problem-solving assignments.  The limited scope of the assignment forces students to be direct and precise.  It also, of course, limits what the instructor has to read.    

Microthemes are usually no more than a page or two (typed, double-spaced), usually on a fairly specific assigned topic.  They can be used as in-class activities to clarify or critique concepts, as quizzes, or as homework assignments.  They can be graded on a scale from 1 (failing) to 5 (outstanding) or with standard grades. 

Constructing a Microtheme

Select a point central to the course, something critical for students to know or think about.  Figure out a way to make this point relevant/interesting to students.  Set boundaries for the expected response.  The limits could be as short as 150 words or as long as 500, depending on the task.  When constructing a prompt, identify what you expect to be included and what will determine success. 

Possibilities for Microthemes

  • Define a key concept, term or practice
  • Argue and present a rationale for a position
  • Provide and explain a central example
  • Display selected information visually (e.g., a graph, diagram, chart) with title and caption
  • Compare and/or contrast selected positions, characteristics, or features
  • Explain cause and effect
  • Synthesize the critical points
  • Pose a relevant quandary and a possible solution
  • Order information in a logical pattern (e.g., most to least important, effective, cost-efficient)
  • Reflect about new knowledge

Examples of topic choices for microthemes (from Brad Lewis):

  1. According to Glazer, many whistleblowers are isolated within their organizations or shunned by their colleagues.  Can you imagine any circumstances under which this behavior by their organizations and colleagues might be justified?
  2. Admiral Stansfield Turner argues that many whistleblowers have failed to use available channels for taking corrective action through their organizations.  When do you think a whistleblower has an obligation to attempt corrective action through his or her organization first?  Defend your answer.
  3. Pick the whistleblower you believe was most justified, and the one you believe was least justified, in “blowing the whistle.”  Explain your choice.
  4. If you saw a classmate or a group violate Union College rules or commit an illegal act on campus, would you feel obligated to “blow the whistle” on that classmate or group?  What would you think of a classmate who did “blow the whistle” on this behavior?  Is your view in this regard consistent with your view on whistleblowers in industry or government? 

*Microthemes are described in detail in John Bean’s book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.