How Constructive Is Your Criticism? (Simon, Paula or Ellen)*
Submitted by Ex Lab Junkie on Wed, 2010-09-29 19:49
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(I am interrupting my "how did I get here" posts, to discuss something that happened at work this week.)
 
We have all heard the term "constructive criticism" and most of us have been on the receiving end of it, thinking unprintable thoughts about the person offering their assessment. But if you are the person doing the critiquing, you discover how difficult this role truly is. I encountered a situation at work that clearly illustrates the issues and pitfalls.
 
In my government department there is a position available for a co-op student and every four months we (meaning me) train a new student to help us with our literature search. As part of the co-op program the student is required to write a work report that will be graded by their university. Our students write a research essay on a relevant topic for our work group, which is also given as a Powerpoint presentation.

 For the past two years, I have mentored many students through this process. For the current term a colleague of mine was given the task to gain some experience supervising. To help in the preparation, I briefed my colleague on the requirements and summarized my experiences.  
I had planned to not micro-manage the situation, but had to intervene when I heard the student did not want to give a presentation. This had never happened before. How could it have gone so wrong?


I talked to the student, who was devastated and demoralized by the feedback from her mentor. My colleague had started the "constructive criticism" of the student’s first draft of the paper by announcing that "half of it had to be thrown away". With Simon-like tact, she continued with a litany of mistakes, ending with a pronouncement that the student was "incapable of writing this type of report".
 
I read the first draft of the report myself. My colleague had been accurate with the problems of the report. However, given how wounded the student had been, it was tempting to offer exaggerated praise to balance the harsh comments. But these Paula-like gushing gold stars would have been as meaningless as parents announcing each finger-painted drawing a masterpiece. The student might feel better, but would learn nothing.
 
Watching the judges on American Idol*, one can see many different ways to offer feedback. Of all the judges, I think Ellen best achieves that fine art of balancing positive statements with needed input for improvement.
 
I talked to the student and tried my best to be Ellen. I said that it was obvious she had done a lot of research and spent a lot of time on the report, but had gotten lost in the details. I asked the student if she was unclear about the points she wanted to make because the report reflected uncertainty and a lack of focus. I explained how she had wrongly mixed two concepts, which added to the confusion, but also commented that I understood how that could have happened. Given my experience with other students, I was able to tell her that the mistakes she had made were very common problems for young university students with limited practice writing big reports.

 I also told her about mistakes I had made with my own writing. Even though I felt much of the report would likely have to be discarded as my colleague had concluded, I emphasized aspects of the report that were useful. The student agreed some sections were too heavy with unnecessary detail, while others presented distracting tangents. Together we were able to talk about the main points of the report and ways to better present these ideas. I reminded the student that this was a unique opportunity to get feedback and learn. The student then left – ready to work on her presentation and make the necessary improvements. Most important, the student left with a smile.
 
The next time you need to offer constructive criticism, think about your comments and check to see if they are mean (Simon), meaningless (Paula), or meaningful (Ellen).



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