Three types of critiques
I  N  T  E  R  A  C  T  I  V  E    D  E  S  I  G  N    F  O  R  U  M 
Issue 4   |   October 1999 


More ideas:

5 Tips for Better Crits

Tag, Teams, and
"The List"


Book review
The Education of an E-Designer
by Steven Heller



Evaluating student work
Highlights of an article by Bruce Cline, PhD.
[read complete text here]

The classroom critique presents us with important learning opportunities but also with certain challenges.

In our culture, the term "criticism" has acquired negative connotations. It has become synonymous with ridicule and denigration for many people. So, it's no wonder many students experience apprehension about having their images critiqued. To mitigate these fears, we need to make clear to our students - and to ourselves - what we mean by "criticism."

The critique is the primary vehicle through which students get feedback on their work. Improvement in image making is almost always based upon the reactions we get from others after they look at and consider our work. Few of us could survive in the art world if we lived in a critical vacuum. We gain an important kind of objectivity in relation to our work when we listen to what others have to say about it.

Two things of great importance are established during the critique: standards and values. Standards are solutions to technical, creative or aesthetic problems commonly accepted by a group of peers working toward similar goals. Values, on the other hand, are priorities or an order of importance that the group assigns to individual standards.

However, it's not as simple as handing out a list of rules. Students are often required to deal with some very complex issues during the critique. It seems to me that the critique is much like a living laboratory in that you add a stimulus - the image - to an active environment - the audience - and you often get some unpredictable results.

Types of Critiques
All of the critiques I've experienced can be laid out on a horizontal line representing the degree to which the teacher or the students participate in the discussions.

On the left I place all the approaches where the teacher does most or all of the talking and on the right I place all the approaches where the students do most of the talking. In the middle I place those approaches where theparticipation is more evenly divided between the teacher and the students.

Type 1 Critique
In this approach, the teacher sets the agenda and does most of the talking. The students can choose to pay attention or not as the communication is mostly one way. The advantage of the Type 1 critique is that it is a very efficient way to get through a number of images. On the other hand it is a lot of work for the instructor, and you don't know if the students are learning anything or not when you're doing all the talking.

Type 2 Critique
These are typified by several different approaches. One of the most common is where the instructor makes an observation to start the dialogue or asks the students to comment on a print.

When this type goes well, it can be exciting and informative. However instructors often find it difficult to get students to participate beyond grunts and nods - especially in an early morning class or right after lunch.

In response to this problem, I came up with an approach I call the small group critique. To use this approach, the instructor outlines some basic guidelines by which to conduct the critique. The class is then broken down into groups of five or six students each and prints are distributed so that no group is holding any image made by a member of that group. This allows for candid discussion without worrying about hurting anyone's feelings.

What I have found is that student participation went from about 60% with the Type 1 critique to over 90% with the Type 2 approach.

I usually let the the groups run their course until I see someone looking around for the next prompt. Then I reconvene the whole class and the secretary from each group recounts what was discussed. It is at this point that the instructor can attend to things that might have been missed or correct misconceptions. The advantage of this approach is the remarkable level of student participation.

This approach works for all levels of students. The only drawback is a trade off of depth of analysis for breadth of coverage.

Type 3 Critique
There is only one example that I have found of this type of critique. It is the deep reading approach devised by Minor White. In this approach a small group of students give their undivided attention to one image at a time while suspending all value judgments about the image. The purpose is to allow the print to reveal its meaning to the viewer. The question for the viewer is not "Is this a good or bad photograph?" but "What is the image about and what does it have to say to me?"

The advantage of this approach is that if it is done correctly, the students learn something about themselves and this can be a deeply meaningful experience resulting in a highly motivated audience. The artist gets responses to his or her image on a much deeper level compared to the other approaches.

Which should you choose?
Each of us should experiment with different approaches so that we have several available to fit our teaching style, the learning styles of our students and the goals of the course we are teaching.

-Dr. Bruce Cline is Chair of the Photography Department at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio. [E-mail him at]




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