Critique

is a practice integral to many classes in SIAT. Whether it be design, art, research, or coding, at some point in the labs your role as a TA will likely involve taking a look at student work and providing feedback on it in a written or oral form.

When providing feedback, there are some important pieces to remember, which are discussed further below. Encompassing the entire practice though is that critique is meant to help direct or guide a student. When critiquing, we are providing feedback to support learning, not to belittle or berate.

Directive and facilitative feedback

are two distinctions in critique that you should consider when critiquing work. Directive feedback is 'direct', it states that something is incorrect and how it should be remedied. This type of feedback is most useful when students have committed an fundamental error for which there is a clear (and close to singular) solution. You will likely use this type of feedback most frequently when students are first learning new concepts and have not developed a clear understanding of how they work. For example:

"The statement 'everyone loves red cars' needs a citation to support the statement and your argument."

With facilitative feedback you are 'facilitating' the student's process by highlighting an area of concern, or an idea to consider. This type of feedback is most useful when there is often not a singular answer or solution to a given problem, as it leaves the decision making to the students. This type of feedback comes up frequently in design critique in particular, as there are often many potential approaches to solving a given design.

"Consider what your use of the colour black connotes, as I do not believe it is helping support your message of recycling awareness."

While different kinds of feedback are important to consider, one piece that is essential to providing effective and consistent critique is a rubric.

Rubrics

provide students and instructors with a common set of expectations around projects and grading. In a perfect world every project would have a rubric, every piece of material taught in the course would speak to the rubric, and every rubric would be perfectly clear and understandable. This is more often not the reality though.

Rubrics are a complex balancing act of abstraction and clarity. On the one hand trying to ensure that the complex concepts students need to exemplify are all included, while ensuring that the language is clearly and concisely tied to grading outcomes. As a result, discussing rubrics with your instructor helps solidify the consistency in the expectations across your labs and the course as a whole.

Within rubrics themselves there are also different types, but as you should not have to design rubrics yourself — this is the responsibility of the course instructor — we just have an example of a more holistic rubric for consideration:

Category: Focus (how clearly you connect your writing to your artifact).

A: Clear connection between artifact & written analysis. Maintains exceptional focus on the topic. Provides relevant supporting details w appropriate documentation in APA..

B: Clear connection between artifact & written analysis. Maintains consistent focus on the topic. Provides adequate, relevant supporting details w appropriate documentation.

C: Some lapses in connection between artifact & written analysis. Demonstrates inconsistent focus on the topic Includes some supporting details; may include extraneous or loosely related material, and inappropriate documentation.

D/F: No connection between artifacts & written analysis. Demonstrates little or no focus on the topic. Includes inconsistent or few details which interfere with meaning of the text; inappropriate or no documentation.

The example above provides a brief look into how terminology and concepts covered in the course are woven into the language of the rubric. Without having spent time in the course, the terms and expectations seem somewhat odd or alien.

Using appropriate language

in a critique is important as it will strengthen your criticisms of the student's work, as well as provide them a clear understanding of how to improve their work. The most important considerations of 'appropriate' language in critique are:

  1. Speak to the work.
  2. Remember scope.
  3. Explain why.
  4. Avoid empassioned language (with exceptions).

Speaking to the work

means that you should always be talking about the student's work whenever providing feedback. The biggest violator of this consideration is the use of personal pronouns such as 'you' or 'your' when critiquing work. Now, removing those from your vocabulary when critiquing can be an exceedingly difficult task as even those with years of experience will let it slip once in a while.

The best approach to trying to avoid the use of personal pronouns when critiquing is to swap in 'the work' or 'project' instead. As these keep the focus of the critique maintained on the work itself, not the individual who is creating the work (who is not being critiqued).

Remembering the scope

of the project is important as critique that speaks to considerations not outlined (or expected) of students is unfair and unexpected. Students come in to a project with a set of expectations set before them — in the form of the project brief and rubric — and if their critiques start to discuss expectations beyond the brief and rubric, there is no perceivable rationale for that criticism in the eyes of the student.

Now this being said, there are times where you may want to push particularly strong students to explore the project in more depth than expected of the brief. In these kinds of cases it is important to buffer your critique with that expectations. To help illustrate this, here is an example of a 'buffered' critique:

"This is a consideration a bit beyond the scope of the project, but I think it would be worthwhile for you to think about _______________ as it may strengthen your final result."

Explaining why

to students is not only integral to their understanding the validity of your criticism, but also to helping them improve their own understanding of course concepts. It is also the most difficult piece of critique to accommodate as a new TA, as it expects a fairly comfortable understanding of course concepts. To help ease into critiquing as a new TA, keep in mind that there are two possible means of 'explaining why'.

Buffering critique in your own experience is one valid means of explaining why. Keep in mind that as a TA, students see you as an authority. As long as you can be clear about your own reasoning for a criticism, students can take your critique and consider it as they see fit. For example:

"I don't believe this photo helps express the joyful nature of this design as the dark tones feel very serious to me."

Looking at the example above, the rationale for the criticism uses personal experience. This often will not come across as strongly as a critique supported by a course concept, but it at least provides the student with clarity as to why you believe the criticism to be valid. The student can consider the criticism as they see fit.

The other means of explaining why is simply through citing a concept covered in the course or prior courses. This is the ideal to strive towards, as it further reinforces course concepts for students, and helps them connect their work's strengths and weaknesses to the rubric — which hopefully contains the same sort of language.

Empassioned or 'absolute' language

such as swearing, "this is an A!", or suggesting work is 'garbage' does not help critique. By insinuating that work is poor using terminology such as 'garbage' or swearing, you are not showing the student where they can go. It tends to only serve in shutting down a student's interest in improving or enhancing their work. Similarly, by stating absolutely that a student's work is of a particular calibre (A, B, C… etc) it does not necessarily help the student in improving their work, and it can additionally create unrealistic expectations that may or may not be fulfilled when their grade is returned.

The exception to using empassioned language is on the positive end of student work. If a student has done exceptionally well, saying 'wow' or 'excellent work' is entirely acceptable. This expresses a personal critique of how impressed with their work you are, and does not shut down their project. In this positive critique is the one safe time to use personal pronouns, as it serves to reinforce the positive attributes that they have created in the project.

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