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Why is this important?

A critique should be a dynamic, interactive learning experience for the entire class. But as with any classroom activity, it can become routine. And it's easy to spend long segments of class time on critiques, during which students can become bored/disengaged. By using some simple strategies, you can make critiquing more efficient and more interesting for all involved.

The basic method of conducting critiques has three parts: it begins with a focused group critique and is followed by individualized critiques, which take place while the rest of the class is working on an assignment.

Critique basics

  • Take some time to make a plan for your critique — don't just wing it. Think through your goals for the critique and the sorts of questions or prompts that will help the class reach those outcomes. Learn more:  Planning a Critique
  • Before beginning a critique, take a few moments to review the assignment criteria. This practice reminds students of the expectations for the assignment and engages their critical faculties by focusing them on the essentials you will be discussing. This review also provides a clear focus and structure for the critique. Learn more:  Connecting Assignment Criteria to the Critique
  • It's also important to clearly explain the structure of a critique, so students know what to expect and can respond appropriately. Learn more: Setting Up a Critique
  • Think through the role you will play during critique. This can take many forms: parent, coach, boss, mentor, creative director, cheerleader and many others. Which role do you favor? The role we play during critiques can make a difference in how deeply our students internalize the skills they'll need to succeed in their professional lives. Some roles suit our teaching styles better than others. Some roles suit the needs of our students better. Other roles speak to the realities of the art and design world. The trick is finding the balance.

    The Nurturing Parent

    For example, if we play the role of Nurturing Parent, we might say, "Sweetheart, anything you do is wonderful so long as you’ve tried your best." The feedback from a Nurturing Parent may not be enough to help students meet the outcomes of critiquing, especially if we're already struggling with students who think anything they do is brilliant. Then again, feedback from a Nurturing Parent may be ideal for new students who lack confidence, or have trouble thinking creatively. A Nurturing Parent can also be very effective in the early stages of a project when the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible.

    Harsh Critic

    By contrast, if we assume the role of Harsh Critic, our feedback may be too subjective or negative for our students to assimilate effectively—again limiting the likelihood that they’ll meet the outcomes of critiques. On the other hand, Harsh Critics do exist in the real world, and we don’t want our students to crumble at their first encounter with one. If you decide to take on the role of Harsh Critic, offer your students advice on how to cope with such criticism including how to distill useful kernels from a "rant" against their work.

    Creative Director

    Some instructors may play the role of a Creative Director; after all, a Creative Director mirrors the real-life relationships of the workplace. But beware that if you're doing all the talking and your students are furiously writing in their notebooks, you may be dictating their next steps instead of teaching them to identify weaknesses and craft solutions on their own. If we always critique as heavy-handed Creative Directors, students won't gain experience identifying and solving design problems on their own. As the Creative Director, we may paradoxically be creating students who don’t think for themselves.

    Coach/Mentor

    If you seek out students' perspectives, encourage them to talk to each other and intervene when necessary, then you have assumed the role of Coach or Mentor. Coaches and Mentors don't fit as neatly into the roles of the workplace, but if we think of critiques at the Academy as the handrails students need until they are ready for the workplace, Coaches and Mentors are exactly what students need to meet the learning outcomes.
  • Critique notebooks are a tool that helps students get the greatest benefit from critiques. In their notebooks, students make notes to remind them of what they learned during critiques, whether of their own work or that of a classmate. Instructors can provide prompts to help students focus their notes. The critique notebook provides documentation of the student’s process and growth that the instructor can observe and evaluate if necessary. It reinforces the idea that information and feedback in the critique needs to be incorporated into subsequent revisions of a project or later assignments. Learn more:Using Critique Notebooks

Options for the group critique

Group critique #1: critiquing representative samples

In order to have a quick and engaging feedback session, select a few representative samples that show high, low, and mid-level work. Critique these few pieces in depth according to the criteria, rather than critiquing every student's work individually in the group setting. It is important to explain what the class, as a whole, tended to do effectively and what common areas for improvement are needed in the work. 

Procedure
What's the student doing?
What's the teacher doing?
Review criteria.ListeningTalking
Students and instructor look at all posted work.
Walking around, looking at work.
Taking stock of work presented; selecting three or more pieces (exemplifying high, low, and mid-level work) for in-depth critique.
Teacher discusses each selected piece in turn, reviewing it in relation to the assignment criteria. Invites students to share their feedback.
Listening, comparing own observations with teachers’ comments, thinking about how comments apply to own work.

Talking; soliciting comments from students.

Students write in critique notebooks: What changes will I make based on today’s critique? What did I learn?Writing
Benefits
  • By addressing the common strengths and weaknesses, you are providing an overview that reinforces the main concepts.
  • Critiquing these pieces will model the critique for the students. 
  • The weaker students can learn from the stronger pieces. 
  • Students can then use the feedback from those samples and apply it to their own work. 

Group critique #2: The Thematic critique  

Another option is for a general group critique is to focus the critique around the assignment criteria. Talk about each criterion in turn, pointing out more and less successful examples in various students' pieces. This thematic approach to critique can help students think more critically as they compare and contrast different students' work.  

ProcedureWhat’s the student doing?What’s the teacher doing?
Review criteria. (Optional: Highlight 2-3 that will be the focus of the critique.)ListeningTalking
Have students look at all posted work and choose a piece that successfully meets each criterion.Writing notesMentally grouping work into categories for critique (stronger/weaker examples of each criteria).
State first criterion and ask, “Which pieces are most successful?” Repeat for other criteria.Listening, talking, comparing their picks with classmates’ selections, thinking about how comments apply to own work.Soliciting more successful picks from students, noticing how accurate observations are.
Teacher comments on most successful pieces and how to improve those that were less successful. Repeat for other criteria.Listening and comparing their picks with teacher's selections, thinking about how comments apply to own work. Taking notes.Commenting.
Students write in critique notebooks: Were my observations accurate? What did I learn?WritingObserving what students write.

Benefits

  • Quicker than going through each piece one by one.
  • Minimizes repetition.
  • Helps novice students to focus their comments on specific criteria.

Drawbacks

  • Each piece doesn’t get thoroughly critiqued.

Appropriate for...

  • Courses that address basic skills.
  • Beginning of semester.
  • Large classes.

Considerations

  • One of the criteria should always be “overall success of the piece.”

Materials

Group critique #3: The Gallery Walk  

Procedure
What's the student doing?
What's the teacher doing?
Review criteria.ListeningTalking
Students fill in critique sheet and post it next to their work to gather feedback.Posting. Writing feedback.Analyzing pieces, identifying work that needs most attention.
Each student spends a few minutes looking at one piece and writing comments on the critique sheet next to it. Repeat steps as many times as you think is necessary. (Usually 5 to 10 times)Physically moving. Analyzing pieces.Noting accuracy of comments, writing comments.
Students return to their own pieces, read the feedback, and prepare to summarize it for the teacher who is circulating.
Reading and summarizing.Talking individually to students.
Quick write in critique notebooks (e.g., What changes am I going to incorporate?)Writing 

Download Guidelines

Benefits

  • Quicker than going through each piece one by one.
  • Minimizes repetition.
  • Helps novice students to focus their comments on specific criteria.
  • Involves all students.
  • Students get written feedback to refer to later.

Drawbacks

  • Each piece doesn’t get thoroughly critiqued.

Appropriate for

  • Courses that address basic skills.
  • Beginning of semester.
  • Large classes.

Considerations

  • One of the criteria should always be "overall success of the piece."

Materials

Group critique #4: Your Creative Director is Dropping By  

ProcedureWhat's the student doing?What's the teacher doing?
Review criteriaListeningTalking
Assign students to groups of 3-5Physically moving. 
Set the scene for students by telling them their Creative Director is paying a surprise visit to see how their projects are going. Have students prepare a 1-minute presentation on each piece for the Creative Director. Choose (a) two strengths to point out and (b) tell him how you are going to fix the things that aren’t working. Students need to show the Creative Director that they understand exactly what he wants even though they haven't completed their projects yet.Listening 
Students prepare presentations in groups. Each student should present someone else’s work.Discussing with peers, analyzing, predicting what the Creative Director will say. Writing feedback in critique notebooks in preparation for presentation.

Circulating and coaching groups on presentations.

Make presentations to the Creative Director.Role-playing presenting work to the Creative Director.Role-playing as the Creative Director.


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Benefits

  • All students participate.
  • Encourages students to look to each other for ideas.

Drawbacks

  • Teacher relinquishes some direct control and becomes more of a manager.

Appropriate for...

  • Later in the semester.
  • Intermediate and advanced classes.

Considerations

  • Keep an eye on comments from students who are not as strong.
  • Consider grading students’ comments.
  • Basic critique can follow group work — it will go much faster with this preparation.

Materials

  • Students: Critique notebooks.

Group critique #5: Cold Turkey Critique  


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Overview

This activity is intended to gently introduce students to the realities they will encounter as advanced students at AAU and as professional artists in the real world. Through this activity you can prepare students who are not accustomed to having their art critiqued for the sometimes-difficult times ahead in art school.

Use this activity early in the first couple of days much as you would an icebreaker. However, unlike most icebreakers that attempt to put everyone at ease right away, this activity is intended to raise the tension level in the class. Once the tension level has been raised, the instructor takes an active role in leading the class to recognize and discuss the source of the tension. Then, the instructor relates the experience to what he or she encounters as an artist/designer in the professional world.

Time Needed

30-45 minutes depending on how long the discussion lasts.

Setting Up the Task

Walk students through the following series of tasks. (It is important that you don't tell students about the activity beyond this first step. They shouldn't know what to expect; you want to raise the tension a little.)

Take out a piece of unlined paper and something to draw with. Sit somewhere where you cannot see anyone else's work. Don't let your eyes wander. Focus only on your own work. Follow these steps:

  • Draw a triangle (2 minutes)
  • Draw a circle (2 minutes)
  • Draw a square (2 minutes)
  • Draw a tree (3 minutes)
  • Draw a person (3 minutes)

The Critique

Ask students to come back together in a circle and pass their artwork around the circle. They should collect their work once it makes its way all the way around the circle. Next, ask students to pass their artwork three people to the right. Finally, ask two or three students to critique what they now have in front of them.

The Debrief

The 'heart' of this activity: Now allow plenty of time for students to talk about how they felt during the activity. Students probably felt nervous and afraid their work wasn’t going to be good enough. They may have felt the activity was unfair because they didn’t have time to prepare and were unsure about the expectations. They probably felt vulnerable.

Let the students know that all these feelings are normal. As the instructor, it’s crucial that you validate all of these feelings. You might say, "All of these things you’ve talked about are things I’ve felt in the past week in my studio."

Toward the end of the discussion, it's especially important to assure first-year students that throughout the semester you will do your best to give them more clear expectations for their assignment, but that uncertainty and vulnerability are part of being an art student. Students need to get used to these feelings; they are going into uncharted territory. Above all, they need to remember that they aren't alone and to look to each other for support.

Note

This activity can be adapted to a senior-level class if the teacher orchestrates a harsh and uncompromising environment. Even at the senior level, the role of the instructor during the debriefing process is crucial. Lead students to recognize that tension is a normal aspect of presenting one's work, no matter how much experience you have.

Other suggestions for group critiques

Think of new ways to keep the whole class active during the entire group critique, not just while their own work is being discussed. For example: 
  • Assign some students as note-takers. The student whose work is being discussed can engage in discussion, while the main points are captured by someone else.
  • Have small groups of students offer feedback to each other while you are working with one group at a time.
Incorporate "learning snapshots" into your critique — techniques that give you a window on the students' process.
  • Have all students write one thing they have learned on a yellow 3x5 card and one question on a blue 3x5 card halfway through the critique (before the break).  Address the general trends after break.
  • Ask students to tell you or write down what changes they plan to make to their project before the next class as a result of the day's critique.
  • Have students keep a critique notebook.

Learn more: Learning Snapshots Using Critique Notebooks

Individualized critiques

Follow up your group feedback with individualized critiques.

  • One option is to check in with each student one-on-one. If you take this approach, set a time limit for each conference — and use a timer to help you keep on track. This approach will help you prioritize the feedback you give, and it will ensure that your time is divided equitably among all your students.  
  • A similar approach is to do two rounds of one-on-one critiques. The first round of critiques is just a quick, general check-in (1-2 minutes per student) focusing on specific criteria. The second round of critiques targets students who need additional support, so you can spend more time per student if needed. Here are a few tips to make this strategy successful: 
    • Identify the three most important criteria that you need to focus on and review them with the whole class before doing the critiques .
    • Bring a notebook with you and, as you talk to each student, make notes on what they need to improve. 
    • Let students know that you will come back to check their progress later on.
  • Alternatively, ask students to bring their work to your desk in groups of two or three. Having students visit your desk, rather than the reverse, makes the critique feel more official. Also, this approach will shorten the overall critique time, allow students to learn from each other, and give all students a personalized critique. 

In-class assignment

While you're working with individual students or small groups, ask the rest of the class to work on an assignment to be submitted at the end of class. For example, they can begin revising their work based on the information given during the representative critique. It’s easy for students to become distracted when they're not the focus of your attention. Requiring them to complete an in-class assignment will help students focus.

When presentations are required

In those cases where it's important to have all your students present their work — for example, for a final project critique — try these ideas:

  • Have students create a short summary or overview of their research for quick critique. This can be the first 2-3 slides of their presentation PDF. The purpose of this brief is to allow you to very quickly see all the relevant information you need to critique the assignment (the target customers, location, word list, etc.). Then you can jump right into discussion of the student’s designs.
  • Instead of having them present, ask students to say just 2-3 sentences introducing their project using their overview slides to help them stay focused. If students ramble too much, skip explanations entirely and just ask the presenting student questions to elicit the information you need to know.
  • Talk with students about presenting their work with confidence and avoiding apologies or excuses. Ask students to call each other on their excuses. Learn more: No Apologies!

Use a timer to keep everyone on schedule. To allow you to focus on critique, designate one student or your EAP support teacher as the timekeeper, whose responsibility it is to stop the critique session after a set amount of time (perhaps 6 or 8 minutes). 

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