Giving students practice with constructive criticism

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Giving students practice with constructive criticismMark Mulligan, Associate Professor in Practice of Architecture, requires students in Tectonics Lab to work collaboratively on design-build projects of increasing complexity over the course of the semester that are subject to critique by peers, guest experts, and Mulligan himself. For example, with an assignment such as construction of a simple joint between two pieces of wood, “I tell them that we’re actually going to test the joint to its breaking point, so they know that they have to build something that can withstand real force; and to make it fun, I get everyone to predict where it is going to break”—a metaphor for gaining practice with receiving constructive criticism.

The benefits: Students learn the value of being receptive to the input of others, the important role of self-critique for designers, and that “there is no such thing as coming to the end of a project without room for improvement or further investigation.”

The challenges: It is natural for high-achieving students to feel defensive at first when their work is critiqued in a public setting, and Mulligan works hard to diffuse the tendency to take it personally and to normalize the exchange of feedback. Sometimes Mulligan asks students to move away from their work at the front of the room to sit with the rest of the class to view it with critical detachment.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Set expectations. Mulligan conveys to students the difference between critiquing a project and criticizing a person. The ethos of his approach is that good design responds to a variety of inputs.
  • Encourage self-organization within groups. For the final project, students design and build a small habitable structure in teams. Having already gained confidence in teamwork from earlier projects, this one tests their ability to negotiate the design, assign roles, manage time, and be accountable to one another.
  • Assign individual portfolios. Although the course is built around group work and constant exchange of feedback, each student must prepare and submit an individual portfolio that documents—in text, drawings, and photos—every assignment they completed in the course. The portfolio affords each student a chance to reflect individually on their personal design trajectory.

Bottom line: Practicing the public exchange of feedback builds important academic and life skills, including how to lead a discussion about strengths, as well as being genuinely receptive to others’ input.