July 18th, 2014

Peer Critique: Two Strategies for Getting Students to Give Feedback

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One of the activities I most struggle with as an instructor of visual communications is getting students to give thoughtful and detailed critiques of their fellow students’ work. The critique process for students is challenging for several reasons.

  1. Many of them are new to the concepts, theories, and language of design, so they don’t necessarily know what to say or how to say it.
  2. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so they are weary of expressing dislike for another’s design choices.
  3. They are terrified by what others may say about their work, so they don’t say anything about anyone else’s.
  4. Some simply will not care or have an opinion. As an educator, this is the most frustrating group because I have yet to find a way to combat this level apathy.

Over the years, I have employed two main techniques to encourage quality peer critique in my design courses. The first is one that I employ in my introduction to design course for journalism students. In this class, I do a silent critique session. Students are required to open the electronic version of their design on their desktops, and everyone goes to each station and writes comments on a sheet of paper.

One of the big benefits of this technique is that the critiques are anonymous, so the comments tend to be more honest and straightforward. In addition, everyone gets to provide feedback without the discomfort of speaking in front of their peers. I devote about 15 minutes to this process depending on the size and length of the class. At the end of the 15 minutes, students return to their stations and read the comments. I then provide my own. Although this approach allows me to see if students are learning the concepts, theories, and language of design, and applying them to their critiques, the downside is there is no discussion. The designer can’t explain or defend his or her choices, and the commenter may not provide a solution to a problem. In addition, sometimes the handwriting is so bad that it is impossible to decipher the written comment.

The second technique I employ is an open critique session where I put students’ work on the overhead projector, and they talk about their design process and goals. What I like about this approach is that it fuels a true and open discussion as students talk about the different designs. As with the silent critique, I still have the advantage of discovering if students are learning the concepts, theories, and language of design, and I still have the advantage of comparing my opinions with theirs.

This method also allows the students to get to know each other, and by the end of the semester the class becomes more like a community. Another benefit of this technique is that in giving a tip or how-to lesson with one student’s work, the entire class gets the benefit of it. With the one-on-one sessions, this doesn’t happen. This collaborative approach is also more like what most of the students will experiences in the real world.

One of the shortcomings of this approach is that some students don’t feel comfortable or confident to speak openly about someone else’s work. In these situations, I have to resort to calling on students to provide feedback. Most of the time the students have lots to say, but they will often apologize for their comment or qualify it in some way so as not to hurt the designer’s feelings. I often hear “maybe it’s just me…”, or “I don’t know if this was what you were going for…”, or “maybe someone else feels differently, but…” Eventually, they provide honest, fair critique, I just wish there was more confidence behind it.

One of the biggest challenges of this technique is time management. For my university’s 50-minute courses, this process takes the entire class period, and if I’m not diligent at the beginning to make sure the feedback is succinct, then those who go last are rushed and don’t get the benefit of the same quality critique. I also have to be careful that the most talkative students don’t dominant the critiques, even if the ideas they share are quite good.

Regardless of which technique I employ, I encourage students to say something positive before saying something negative. I encourage them to give meaningful criticism that goes beyond saying, or writing, that they do or don’t like something. They have to tell the designer why they like it and why they don’t, as well as offer possible solutions to a design problem. As for my role in the critique, I will step in if a critique is steering a student in the wrong direction. This becomes less of an issue toward the end of the semester when students have a strong foundation of design principles.

I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way to do peer review sessions in subjective-based courses. As I’ve pointed out, the two highlighted here have their pros and cons. In my journalism course, since it’s the foundation, I do the anonymous critique in the first half of the semester and move to the open discussion method in the second half. I think this has worked well, but I may need some critique on this.

Jessica Brown, professional in residence (layout and editing), Loyola University Chicago, School of Communication.