How to make critiques effective with art, design and media students.

Critiques can seem daunting for students at first, but they offer so much potential for developing students’ presentation, discussion and critical thinking skills. They also make students more confident.  This is a resource that looks at different kinds of critique methods.

Sometimes its hard to talk about work.

Giving students an opportunity to bounce ideas around and share what they are doing can have so many positive effects on their project development.

The formal critique is usually associated with university practice, but it can be used successfully with different levels of learners. An open critique, with anyone able to make a comment without guidance, might be too difficult for lower level learners. However, it can easily become functional through adding a few directed questions or a bit more structure.

Far from being a risky endeavour, it is actually possible to get quite specific outcomes from a critique that can relate to most elements of the creative cycle and to assessment objectives. There are many different ways of managing critiques, each will support the development of different kinds of learning and specific aspects of the creative cycle.


Open critique

An open critique is where students share their ideas in their own way and get feedback from different peers and lecturers. Students are able to say what they want about each others work and there is no formal learning objective or expectation other than communication.

The idea is that through discussing what they are doing, students actually become more aware of their reasons for making creative decisions instead of working haphazardly. There is a significant amount of feeling that they need to justify their ideas. This depends on quick thinking, self-assessment and evaluation skills.

It is easy to become embroiled in your own work as a creative practitioner and lose sight of what others will be able to read from the work. Essentially, becoming non-audience orientated. Through critiques, there is a clear opportunity for students to look at their work from a different perspective. By getting input from peers they can see what their progress and work looks like to others and be more objective about what is actually being communicated by their work.

Students also get a holistic picture of their work that can be difficult to achieve while they are practicing or producing the project. Having an overview can help them see where areas of the creative cycle might be ineffective or where they might have concentrated too much attention. It is often the students themselves that are able to assess what they are doing and how their project is progressing.


Structured critique

A structured critique can be similar to a presentation, students being advised in advance what information may be included, and that there does not need to be a specific outcome in mind at this point. It could also include information on how they found sources for their ideas or if they have any ideas for project outcomes.


This format of critique enables students that are normally shy or quiet about their work to have a stimulus to get the dialogue going. It also serves as a teaching tool to ensure that students are making specific considerations about the creative process with which they are engaged.

For lower level learners, it makes it easier to ask them to provide specific information and also to be clear about how you want them to present it. This could be on display boards, slide show or PowerPoint or simply putting work up on the wall.

Structured questions can also help students make sense of the project. As the creator of the project, everything seems to make sense and have a place. It is possible to see how one part leads to the next. However, some students may find it difficult to understand why they have followed certain steps.


Interview critique

Interview TechniquesConsider university applications. Most applications will involve interviews, of which students have very little experience. Students are afraid of being asked difficult questions and not having the answers. This is generally because they haven’t discussed their ideas enough with a varied audience. So critiques can really help with students’ progression to university through developing their communication, interpersonal and presentation skills.

Students will develop confidence whatever the critique method, but the interview critique is based on asking students questions about their work in general. Try giving them a list of general questions that you would expect them to be asked at interview. These can be about their portfolio, general interests and career intentions. Students then have to present their portfolio to the class and get feedback from the group about the presentation. They also get interviewed by the whole group.

It might seem daunting, but this method of preparing for interviews and sharing of portfolios can help the group as a whole and ensures that the portfolio gets created within a window ready for progression.


Key-point and summary critique

These are set at key points in a project that you would expect critical decisions to be made or after a set period of the creative cycle. Making critical creative decisions can be tricky for students and some they will avoid making them altogether. Teachers often set self-directed work and the summary critique can be a way of checking that the work has been done.

The teacher can ensure that progress is being made on a coursework project by setting clear points where students will have to share their work with the class. No one wants to look like they haven’t done any work, so the critique is used as a form of leverage or pressure to ensure development of work. Structured to repeat throughout a project, it is a good way of checking progress from the previous critique.

Try using critiques at key points to ensure that everyone is up to speed such as:

  • When submitting a project proposal.
  • After a period of research, development or observation.
  • When designing a first prototype.


Mini critique

Imagine setting homework for the whole class to complete by the next session. You will be able to check that it has been done at the end of the project during summative assessment, but it can be extremely difficult to identify students that are falling behind as a project progresses.

This is where mini-critiques are most useful. After a period of homework or self-directed study, ask students to present what they have achieved to the class. Keep it informal, but allow everyone to see each others’ work.

The intention isn’t to develop high level analysis or evaluation skills, but rather to quickly assess the level of success and completion. All the students can also learn from what each other has produced out of class. Try pointing out particularly impressive elements and ask students to explain how these were achieved in order to generate discussion. More often than not though, students will themselves ask questions.

While mini-critiques take some valuable lesson time, they compensate by dramatically increasing productivity out of class and maximizing the sharing of learning. If student progress on self-directed study isn’t frequently checked, then they may become complacent and imagine that it isn’t relevant or important enough to participate in this activity.


Student-led critique

Sometimes a particular group may be quiet or have difficulty participating as a studio team. This makes critiques more difficult as the lecturer becomes the driving force and the dynamics of the critique becomes flat.

The student-led critique increases the participation and shifts the focus away from the lecturer. Discuss some ground rules with the class before starting the critique. Make sure everyone is aware of how difficult it is to control a class, then discuss what questions would be useful to ask in a critique setting. Put the answers on the whiteboard and keep them there for the rest of the lesson. Also ask what kinds of methods lecturers might use to get more information, what make others feel positive about their achievements and also what might make others feel negative about their progress.

Then start of the critique with one person discussing their work and the student-leader making sure the presentation continues. They will be able to use questions from the board or manage questioning from the rest of the class.

One advantage of this process is that students get a real understanding of what it is like to teach. If there are behaviour issues within the classroom and learning is frequently being interrupted then using this method can help.

Another advantage is that students also get better at asking questions about each others’ work. If they are always relying on the teacher to lead the discussion, then they only respond to questions as opposed to probing and questioning themselves. This will improve group work, group discussions and even their ability to ask themselves questions about their own work.


Post-it critique

Post-it Critiques with art and design studentsThis kind of critique was designed to make it easy to generate discussion and get those students involved that may avoid participation. Each student has to prepare a piece of work for viewing by the class. Students then walk around and look at others’ work. They are armed with two different colour post-its, on which they have to write one positive criticism and one area for development and post these on or around the work that has been presented.

Once this is complete, the group walks around each of the pieces of work and reads the comments. These are included in the students’ sketchbook at the end. The discussion is guided by picking comments from the post-its at random and asking for more explanation.


Prepared question critique

In this process, students are given time to look at the work on display for the critique. While they are viewing they need to write down a strength, an area for development and a question they would like to ask about the project. They do this for each of the pieces of work.

The group then walks around each of the pieces up for discussion and the lecturer picks members of the group to discuss using their notes as a guide to the critique. The focus is moved slightly away from the creator and involves others in justifying their opinions and views.


Blind critique

This kind of critique is very much about getting feedback from someone that has very little idea about your project. Fresh eyes and thoughts can give a real insight into what students’ work is communicating to a wider audience.

Without any discussion, students look at each others work and try to explain what the work is about. This can be done in a lecturer led way, with the lecturer asking specific people what the work communicates to them. It can also be done in a written way with students making some notes about what they can read into a piece of work.

It is tricky to do this more than once in a project as the class will start to have more of an idea of what each other’s work is about. It also only really works where students are undertaking personal projects, such as a final major project. It works particularly well on a Foundation Diploma.


Surprise critique

This process can involve any of the above methods. The only difference is that it is designed for larger groups that inhibit the discussion of everyone’s work in a single session. To ensure that all students anticipate that they might have to present and so keep up to date with work, the lecturer doesn’t disclose who is going to present until the critique begins. As such, the risk of students not producing work because they don’t have to present is reduced.

Daniel Freaker Daniel Freaker Educational Consultant, Painter, Writer, Designer