How to teach students to critique in project-based learning

By Jenny Pieratt

Giving and receiving critical feedback is definitely not an innate skill, something we’re reminded of when a friend unintentionally hurts our feelings or that meeting with coworkers goes haywire. Yet traditional education rarely teaches peer feedback, much less critique, which implies a detailed analysis and judgment of a person’s work or ideas. Critique goes much more in-depth than peer feedback and is a fundamental part of the culture of art, science, and design – it actually stems from the Greek expression “critical art”! Figuring out how to teach students to constructively critique in project-based learning might seem daunting, but it’s actually not that hard. Most importantly, it’s a skill we must scaffold, not only for students to appreciate the value of peer feedback, or to comply with ELA CCSS ‘Production and Distribution of Writing’ standards, but also because critique is a crucial component of the PBL culture. When considering the creation of authentic work that will be seen by an audience, it is important we know how to give and receive critical feedback. 

Here are ten tips to teach students to critique in project-based learning. 

Tip #1: Value first, critique later

The growth mindset and student agency are essential to project-based learning, so it’s only natural to teach your class the value and importance of critique first. Your students will only become fluent in critique as a skill when they understand why it should matter to them!

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Tip #2: Model after a butterfly

Try to analyze and review a few of the interesting critique models that already exist online to show you how to teach students to critique in project-based learning. Take a look at the “Austin’s Butterfly” video, in which elementary school students are asked to give kind, specific, and helpful feedback to improve butterfly drawings.

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Tip #3: Fishbowl protocol

If you’re not sure how to start, the fishbowl protocol is a go-to classic. Students alternate between “listening” and “speaking” roles, dipping in and out of the fishbowl. Before you begin, pair up students in “feedback teams” – after careful observation, they will inform their partner on what they could improve as speakers and listeners.

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Tip #4: Establish norms

Teach your class to differentiate between criticism, useless feedback, and effective critique by establishing norms. Keep it simple! Standards like “kind, specific, and helpful” are perfectly appropriate. You can also encourage your students to reflect and construct their own norms.

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Tip #5: Frame it

It’ll take a bit of time for your students to become masters of critique. In the meantime, provide sentence frames for your class to use, based on the “good, better, best – never let it rest” mantra. Phrases like “I thought it was good how you___” and “To make this the best it can be, you should think about ________” can go a long way.

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Tip #6: Rules of Engagement

Structure often makes students feel more secure and stable. Ask your class to abide by a few rules of engagement: each student should comply with the norms of critique, be held accountable for his or her feedback (own it!), and move with purpose (the goal is always to improve).

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Tip #7: Feedback the feedback

There might come a time where your students will want your feedback on their feedback skills. If you’re confused about how to teach students to critique in project-based learning, start by practicing what you preach. Show them what the art of critique is all about by giving them helpful tips to improve their feedback.

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Tip #8: Take & Toss

Make sure each student actively takes in, filters through, and acts upon the feedback they receive. After a quick “take and toss”, have them write down three new goals based on the detailed critical assessment they’ve gotten from peers.

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Tip #9: Scaffold to success

Learning how to teach students to critique in project-based learning is absolutely essential not just for product improvement but for the students’ personal development. Scaffold around feedback and assess your class’ improvement within the broader frame of an agency rubric, which helps students perceive effort, setbacks, and challenges as a growth path to success. 

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Tip #10: Stand on the shoulders of giants 

Two of my favorite resources are excellent books written by Ron Berger, “Leaders of their own learning” and “An Ethic of Excellence.” If you want to dive deeper into how to teach students to critique in project-based learning, particularly when preparing for a PBL exhibition, take a look at CraftED’s exhibition e-course to improve your projects. 

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Other resources