Using the Critique Method for Peer Assessment

As a writer I have been an active participant in a formal critique group facilitated by a professional author and editor. The critique process, for those who aren’t familiar with the practice, involves sharing work (traditionally, writing and studio arts) with a group to review and discuss. Typically, the person whose work is being critiqued must listen without interrupting as others provide comments and suggestions. Critiques are most useful if a rubric and a set of standards for review is provided and adhered to during the commentary. For example, in my group, we are not allowed to say, “I don’t like stories that are set in the past.” Instead we must provide specific examples to improve the writing: “In terms of authoritative writing, telephones were not yet in wide use in 1870. This creates a problem for your storyline.”  After everyone has made their comments, the facilitator adds and summarizes, correcting any misconceptions. Then the writer has a chance to ask questions for clarification or offer brief explanations. In critique, both the creator and the reviewers benefit. Speaking personally, the process of peer evaluation has honed my editorial skills as well as improved my writing. Looking down on a group of four students with laptops sitting at a table in discussion.

With peer assessment becoming a pedagogical practice of interest to our faculty, could the critique process provide an established model that might be useful in disciplines outside the arts? A recent post on the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List, Teaching Through Critique: An Extra-Disciplinary Approach, by Johanna Inman, MFA Assistant Director, Teaching and Learning Center, Temple University, addresses this topic.

“The critique is both a learning activity and assessment that aligns with several significant learning goals such as critical thinking, verbal communication, and analytical or evaluation skills. The critique provides an excellent platform for faculty to model these skills and evaluate if students are attaining them.” Inman notes that critiquing involves active learning, formative assessment, and community building. Critiques can be used to evaluate a number of different assignments as might be found in almost any discipline including, short papers and other writing assignments, multimedia projects, oral presentations, performances, clinical procedures, interviews, and business plans. In short, any assignment that can be shared and evaluated through a specific rubric can be evaluated through critique.

A concrete rubric is at the heart of recommended best practices for critique. “Providing students with the learning goals for the assignment or a specific rubric before they complete the assignment and then reviewing it before critique can establish a focused dialogue. Additionally, prompts such as Is this work effective and why? or Does this effectively fulfill the assignment? or even Is the planning of the work evident? generally lead to more meaningful conversations than questions such as What do you think?

It is equally important to establish guidelines for the process, what Inman refers to as an etiquette for providing and receiving constructive criticism. Those on the receiving end should listen and keep an open mind. Learning to accept criticism without getting defensive is life skill that will serve students well. Those providing the assessment, Inman says, should critique the work not the student, and offer specific suggestions for improvement. The instructor or facilitator should foster a climate of civility.

Inman offers tips for managing class time for a critique session and specific advice for instructors to insure a balanced discussion.  For more on peer assessment more generally, see the University of Texas at Austin Center for Teaching and Learning’s page on Peer Assessment.  The Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence also has some good advice for instructors interested in Peer Assessment, answering some questions about how students might perceive and push back against the activity. Peer assessment, whether using a traditional critique method or another approach, benefits students in many ways. As they learn to evaluate others’ work, it strengthens their own.

********************************************************************************************************* Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Meeting. CC BY-SA Marco Antonio Torres