CU grad students learn how to dole out (and receive) constructive criticism

“Your writing sucks.”

Hardly the advice that any student wants to hear, but that’s what one participant in Monday’s Graduate Teaching Program workshop said she received as feedback after a semester spent researching and writing her dissertation.

Monday’s workshop at the ATLAS building on handling and handing out constructive criticism attracted fewer than 20 students whose majors ranged from music education to French. The workshop was led by Nevada Drollinger, an energetic and positive lead teacher in the religious studies program at CU.

First, students worked in pairs to identify what characterizes good, or constructive, criticism and bad criticism.

Another student was told by her advisor, after a semester’s worth of research and writing on her dissertation, that her claim was neither interesting nor valid. The advisor should have helped that student before the end of the semester, and not when the candidate was mere days away from presenting their work. Obviously, that was quite traumatic and very poorly timed.

Constructive criticism was found to be helpful, not personal in nature, and geared towards improvement. The best criticism encouraged self-critique, was clear, objective and specific.

The group also discussed that balancing criticism between good and bad points helps to soften the blow of more difficult criticisms. Computer and electrical engineering major Zyad Hassan said he  “learned several strategies to take into account when critiquing somebody else’s work. Being improvement/goal oriented is an important one of them.”

The focus of the workshop then shifted to coping strategies while facing bad criticism and helpful hints to remember when having to evaluate others. This portion of the exercise gave creative writing student Vanessa Villarreal  “techniques for how to handle potential criticism in a defense, and how to better tailor my criticism of students.”

This portion included a role playing session, where pairs gave criticisms and played out positive, as well as negative, responses. For Tyler Lehrer in religious studies, “brainstorming essential skills for college, student, advisor, and boss feedback,” was the most helpful part of the workshop.

The careful art of critiquing others seemed to reinvigorate the group at the end of the hour’s session. Many added their ideas of how to help others more effectively. These tips included choosing your words well, making sure to focus on the purpose of the work and, whenever possible, trying to critique in a neutral environment.

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