The Use of Microthemes
By Melinda Kreth
As in other disciplines, accountancy educators and practitioners know that students need effective communication skills to succeed professionally; consequently, many accountancy programs now incorporate writing activities into their curriculum, which has, in turn, left many instructors worried about how to manage the increased paper load.
A recent article in The Journal of Education for Business focuses on one such writing activity, as well as a quick method to assess it. In his article, "An Efficient Approach to Writing Across the Curriculum: Microthemes in Accounting Classes" (March/April 1994), R. Michael Garner, a professor of accountancy at Salisbury State University, describes his weekly use of "microthemes" in both upper and lower-level courses. Microthemes are short pieces of writing (150-200 words) in response to specific questions or scenarios. Garner cautions that questions and scenarios should be phrased so that "students must take or synthesize controversial options that cannot be defended in simple numerical or 'yes or no' answers. Thus, passive memorization comes to a screeching halt, and active, critical thinking comes to the fore" (213).
In his accounting courses, Garner uses
four kinds of microtheme prompts, which he calls summary writing,
support, data provided, and quandary posing (213). Figure
1 presents a brief description of each kind of microtheme prompt, followed
by one of Garner's examples.
While the level of detail in his scenarios is admirable, Garner seems to assume that students know how to summarize, persuade, explain, or discuss. Some students may not know how to do these things. Or rather, some students' understanding of these activities may be very different from the instructor's; therefore, instructors should always explain what they mean by summarizing, persuading, explaining, etc.
To evaluate microthemes, Garner uses
a holistic method so he can give students prompt feedback. He quickly
reads through the themes, without marking them, and places each in a pile
assigned a number on a scale of 5 to 1, with 5 as the highest score. Then
he rereads them "to verify that the initial impression was correct" (214).
The second reading sometimes leads him to move a theme to a higher or lower
pile, or to add a plus or minus to marginal themes. Finally, he marks each
theme with a number score.
On the one hand, Garner's scoring criteria expose a potential pitfall in holistic scoring, one that he doesn't address but that can be avoided nonetheless: ambiguity. Figure 2 gives Garner's explanation of his holistic scoring criteria. Garner's criteria may seem clear to most instructors and probably also to students routinely receiving 5's or 4's on their microthemes. But the criteria may seem extremely vague to students receiving lower scores. These students need more explicit explanations about what is "wrong" with the theme. Telling a student that her writing is "fuzzy" is not very helpful; such a description really refers to how the instructor feels in response to the writing. As Joseph P. Williams notes in his book, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace (3rd edition, Chicago Press, 1989), teachers need to "connect those feelings to what is on the page [or not on the page] that explains why we feel as we do" (8). Consequently, instructors should provide additional feedback to low-scoring students in the form of in-class discussions, attached sets of explanatory comments, or student-teacher conferences.
On the other hand, holistic scoring is a relatively fast evaluation method. "The end result of the 'five-stack evaluation,' " says Garner, "is a little under 1 hour's effort for around 30 microthemes. Microthemes are not prepared every week for every class; however, 8 to 10 microthemes per class per semester add up to 2 ½ to 3 hours of evaluation time per week" (215). Of course, additional time will be required to adequately evaluate and respond to low-score themes.
Garner offers three additional reasons
based on his personal experience for using microthemes and holistic scoring:
The quality of students' writing improves over the semester.
Students actually like writing microthemes.
His student evaluation scores improved after he began using microthemes--an added, if idiosyncratic, bonus to be sure.
Microthemes and holistic scoring can
be used effectively in almost any discipline, not just accountancy. Instructors
in all disciplines should let their educational goals guide decisions about
what kinds of microtheme prompts to use and when to use them. Microthemes
are not intended to replace other kinds of writing tasks
(e.g., research papers, lab reports, proposals, journals, etc.); rather,
they are offered here as an additional, effective option for enhancing
students' critical thinking skills through writing.
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