Words of Wisdom
Normally, in anything I do, I'm fairly miserable. I do it, and I get grumpy because there is a huge, vast gulf, this aching disparity, between the platonic ideal of the project that was living in my head, and the small, sad, wizened, shaking, squeaking thing that I actually produce.
Mini essays, also called microthemes, a form of low-stakes writing, are very short essays, sometimes as short as a paragraph. Students can use them to practice and refine writing skills or to reflect on course content.
Feedback on mini essays need not be in the form of a grade or even teacher comments. In most cases, you can have students read and comment on each other's work during class time or for homework. When mini essays are returned, do a quick read-through to get a sense of the most typical strengths and weaknesses. Use a few typical samples as a basis for class discussion. There is no need to mask students' identity during these discussions if you are tactful. Generally, it's more effective to use positive reinforcement mixed with gentle critique, reminding students that critiques are part of the writing process. However, be sure not to use students' names if you are being highly critical. You can also ask students to read their themes aloud or to briefly summarize their ideas.
Ideas for Mini-Essay Assignments
Ask students to use note cards to write out questions that arise from lectures or readings, and respond to those in class. Provide sample questions so that students realize they may have to quote directly or paraphrase from the text (i.e., provide some context) and so that they understand the level of questioning you expect. To provide more writing opportunities, have students answer each other's questions in writing before you collect them. Use them as a basis for class discussion.
Pose questions during class or lecture, and ask students to answer at least one of them during class or for homework. Ask them to write at least 75 words. This exercise can also increase class participation.
Begin introducing a topic by asking students to write what they already know about it. If the topic is controversial, ask them to pick a side and write down why they support it (with supporting evidence) and how they might defend it against detractors. Give them a limit of about 75-150 words. They can do this in class or through email. Both exercises help students focus on a topic and can stimulate their interest, often increasing class participation.
Begin a lecture with a question designed to engage students' interest or attention. For example, in a philosophy class, ask them to discuss the ethics of a current event. Have them spend five minutes answering the question in writing, then have a few read their answers aloud. Or have them wait until the end of the class when they can write for another five minutes, perhaps altering their answer. Alternately, have them read their responses from the beginning of class and discuss as a group how the lecture confirmed or changed their responses.
Construct a short assignment that tests knowledge (i.e., gives students the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned from your course) and provides an opportunity to write a 300-400 word essay. For example, ask them to explain or describe a process. You might allow them to use visuals (such as a diagram or graph) in their essay, but ask them to properly integrate the text and the visuals.
Bean, John, Dean Drenk, and F. D. Lee. "Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills" in New Directions for Teaching and Learning in All Disciplines
12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.
University of Richmond
, an excellent site on microthemes, the types and uses.