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Critique — critical discussion of a piece of art — is essential to an education in the arts. For most people who have attended art school, the image "critique" conjures up is one of a teacher and a group of students discussing a piece of work that one of the students has done.

Upon closer examination, however, there is a tremendous amount of variation in critiques. A critique in an introductory level class might not even address each piece individually, but rather groups of pieces. Another teacher might have students work in small groups and critique each other’s work. In a midpoint review, the student is asked to leave the room while the committee discusses the work in private.

What the critique looks like depends on the specific goals of the critique and the type of environment the teacher wants to foster in his or her classroom. Critique questions should be drafted to reflect those goals. And finally, it is crucial to plan out the format — the timing, the groupings, who speaks first, what the non-presenting students are doing — so that the maximum number of students reach the goals you set out.

Key questions to ask when planning a critique

What are the goals of the critique?

Critiques can accomplish many goals in a classroom. Prioritizing specific goals helps a teacher draft questions and plan critiquing activities that effectively help students master the key concepts. Consider these questions:

  • What should the students be able to do as a result of the critique?
  • What do you, the teacher need from the critique?
  • What kind of environment do you want to create?

As you think through your goals for a critique, consider the stage of the students' work, the skill, confidence, and academic level of your students, the specific learning outcomes for the course you teach, and the culture of your industry.

Possible goals for students

As a result of participating in critique, students will be able to:

  • Talk about their work using key concepts and vocabulary relevant to the assignment.
  • Recognize how their work compares to everyone else’s work.
  • Identify in a sensitive, constructive way, successful and unsuccessful elements in their own and in their peers' work.
  • State how a concept someone else has done well or failed to do well applies to their work.
  • Propose solutions to complex art and design problems.
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of work in progress.
  • Present their work professionally.
  • State specifically how they will incorporate the day's feedback into their next phase of work on a project.
  • Restate main strengths and points for improvement identified in the critique.

Possible goals for the teacher

As a result of the critique, the teacher will:

  • Have a clear sense of each student's understanding of the key concepts relevant to the assignment.
  • Be able to assign each student a grade for that assignment.

Possible goals for the environment

The critique environment should:

  • Foster a sense of community and team-building.
  • Foster healthy competition.
  • Be professional, where deadlines and procedures are followed and communication is always professional.
  • Celebrate creative solutions to problems.
  • Foster attitudes of honesty and openness to learning from mistakes.
What questions will focus the critique around these goals?

Well-phrased, thought-out critique questions guide students’ thinking and lead their eyes and minds to the connections that you want them to make. Craft specific questions that reflect the learning outcomes and key concepts you have identified for your critique. Ask yourself:

  • What questions will guide students to address the key concepts and vocabulary of the assignment?
  • What questions will elicit the kinds of comments you would like to hear?
  • What kinds of questions will elicit what the students need to hear?

Basic Question Types

Closed-ended questions
  • Does it work?
  • Do you like it?

These questions, when taken literally, require only yes/ no or one-word answers. These questions do not rely on key concepts. These questions provide no support for students who need to hear instructors model the correct use of new vocabulary and key concepts. 

Open-ended, broadly-worded questions
  • What do you think?
  • What about the color?
  • What can you say about the object?
  • Any comments?
  • What works?

Although broadly worded questions may contain a key concept [color], they don’t signal how to think about or use the concept correctly. These may be useful for inviting students into a discussion about art, but as critique questions they are broad, and will likely only elicit useful comments from students who have already mastered the material. 

Focused questions about key concepts
  • Which areas use saturated colors? 
  • What types of lines are used? 
  • Can you describe the creases? 
  • What words describe the gesture?

These questions direct students to look for key concepts within the work. These questions are especially helpful for ESL students because they model the correct use of key concepts. These questions also prompt students to use key concepts in their answers. 

Questions that probe the relationship among concepts
  • How does the color reinforce the intended narrative? 
  • How does the object address the audience’s potential needs or expectations? 
  • How does crispness—or lack of crispness—of the folds relate to the “gesture of the creature?

These questions will encourage the most complex responses. These questions model the correct use of key concepts and require that student articulate the relationship among those concepts.

Socratic Questioning

Named for Socrates (ca. 470-399 B. C.), the early Greek philosopher and teacher, a Socratic approach to questioning encourages students to be more autonomous and conscientious thinkers.

Socratic Questions can be used to address unproductive responses during critiques. Instead of rushing to provide your knowledge or opinions, prompt students to elaborate on their responses. Ask Socratic Questions to direct energy away from the teacher and back to the students themselves. Below are examples of generic questions in five of the Socratic Questioning categories.

Questions of Clarification
  • What do you mean by _______? 
  • Could you put that another way? 
  • What is your main point? 
  • How does your point relate to _______ ? 
  • What do you think is the main issue here? 
  • How does this relate to our discussion/problem/key concept? 
  • What do you think [another student] meant by her remark? 
  • Summarize in your own words what [another student] has said? 
  • Could you give me another example of ________? 
  • Could you explain that further? Would you say more about that?

Questions that Probe Assumptions
  • What are you assuming? 
  • What is [another student] assuming? 
  • What are some other possible assumptions? 
  • What experiences have influenced your response? 
  • What cultural values have informed your response? 
  • Why have you based your response on _________ rather than __________? 
  • Why do you think your experiences or values are relevant?

Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence
  • What would be another example of the same thing? 
  • What do you see that prompted that response? 
  • Could you explain your reasoning to us? 
  • Can someone else give evidence to support that response? 
  • What is the evidence for your response?

Questions About Viewpoints or Perspectives
  • You seem to be approaching this issue from ___________ perspective. 
  • Why have you chosen this perspective rather than another one? 
  • How would other groups/types of people respond? Why? 
  • How could you answer someone who objected to your perspective? 
  • What would someone who disagrees say? 
  • What is an alternative?

Questions that Probe Implications and Consequences
  • What effect would that have? 
  • How does your response relate to the assignment, concept, story or audience? 
  • Why do you value that response? 
  • What would alter your response?
What is the format of the critique?

A critique should be a dynamic, interactive learning experience for the entire class. But as with any classroom activity, it can become routine. If you are finding that critiques are becoming routine, your students probably are, too. How will you divide the time among students? Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Will the critique occur in a large group, small group, pairs?
  • Or will you conduct critiques one-on-one at each student’s desk?
  • Will it be teacher-fronted or student-centered?
  • How will you elicit input from the students?

Learn more: Efficient & Effective Critiques

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