Offering Constructive Criticism to Students: Tips for Educators

16 Feb 2007

0611critarted1_600x583_1Offering constructive criticism to students is one of the most important parts of the teaching process. Here we offer educators tips and exercises for facilitating successful critiques among students of different age levels.

by Leanne MacLennan

Constructive criticism is essential to one’s growth as an artist; critiques from peers and educators help students expand their horizons as well as create better art. Because criticism is so essential to an artist’s progress, instructors must understand the difference between offering meaningful criticism that inspires students to reevaluate their artwork and dispensing criticism that discourages students from trying again.

Veteran artist Betty Carr offered a student constructive criticism during a recent workshop that taught the fundamentals of light and color.

Some educators struggle to draw out responses from students during peer critiques and worry that the person whose work is being critiqued will be too sensitive to the critic’s comments. According to Nancy House, author of “Critiques in the K-12 Classroom” (2001, National Art Education Advisory), getting schoolchildren of any age to expand their comments past a simple “I like it” is her primary challenge. House suggests, among other solutions, using prompts to engage students of all age levels in discussion. For example, she often provides students with a variety of art-vocabulary cards, which the students are then asked to place on paintings they feel the words best describe. This exercise succeeds because it involves students in critical discussion while simultaneously teaching them important art terms that expand their critical vocabularies. The exercise is also useful because it can be used as an icebreaker to initiate active discussion among students.

Educators may also want to consider playing a game with students called Put Your Two Cents In, in which each student chooses one piece of his or her artwork to exhibit. Each student is then given two pennies, and when a student wants to discuss or critique another student’s work, he or she places the penny on or in front of that work. This activity, frequently used in high school art classes, often alleviates students’ anxieties about participating in class discussions. Assigning written responses to artwork can also be helpful for ensuring full student participation in critiques. Classmates can give their written critiques directly to one another or students can respond to a predetermined list of questions in journals. Then students can meet as a group to discuss their journal entries or the written critiques they’ve exchanged.

The critique process is also important because it helps students learn to differentiate between constructive criticism and its more negatively-connoted counterpart, criticism. Debra Ronning, an art teacher who specializes in drawing and painting, has been teaching high school for 13 years. She believes that an early introduction to the critique process is essential for an artist to grow. “I always have a group critique after every assignment,” she explains, “in which I start by talking about the differences between destructive and constructive criticism. My students are encouraged to use phrases such as ‘This isn’t working because...’ instead of ‘It’s bad’ or ‘I don't like it.’ This technique helps the students look for a solution to the problem instead of just focusing on the problem.” Ronning also expresses the importance of offering positive reinforcement to her students: “I emphasize the positives and look to my students to find the good in the work as well as explanations of why the work is good. I see all of this as a growing and learning process for them—not only about how to be a better artist but also how to be kind to one another. I hope to provide a nurturing environment in my classroom, in which students are free to express themselves, experiment, and be comfortable with taking creative risks.”

Betty Carr offered a student advice on his painting.

Caroline Buchanan, an artist and art educator who has been running adult watercolor workshops for over 20 years, believes that it is also important for educators to keep in mind what the word criticism really means. “Criticism is a word that has gotten a nasty reputation, similar to how ‘chauvinism’ has come to mean male chauvinism. Criticism has come to mean negative criticism, when actually it is a teaching word that means ‘to move the student one step further.’” She suggests asking students questions about their work, the responses to which can then guide an instructor’s critique. “‘What is the artist saying with the elements he or she chose to use: the shapes, the colors, the values, the design? Did he or she say it? If not, why?’ These questions give you a handle on how to help. I believe it’s very important to start from what the artist is trying to say,” Buchanan emphasizes.

Incorporating constructive criticism into the teaching process can be intimidating, but if educators keep in mind that the objective of a critique is to help a student grow as an artist, then offering constructive criticism becomes a labor of love and not a source of anxiety.

Leanne MacLennan works in publishing and is also a freelance writer. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in English literature.

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