On Critique (vs. Criticism) in Network-based Education

In a previous post on my blog http://www.sustainableengineeringsystems.com, I explained a concept called Network Based Education that described: Self Learning, Learning from a Teacher, and Peer-to-Peer learning. That particular blog post pointed out that peer-to-peer learning has some of the greatest potential for improvement and is subject to the Network Effect in which more students = more knowledge = more interaction = a better experience for everyone.

Now we can start describing what this “better experience” is in relation to Peer-to-peer learning. To start, let us take Howard Rheingold, the man behind the Peeragogy Handbook. Peeragogy can be simply defined as self-organized peer learning. The handbook itself is a resource for co-learning based around the Peeragogy concept of peers learning together and helping each other to learn. The Peeragogy project seeks to empower the worldwide population of self-motivated learners who use digital media to connect with each other, to co-construct knowledge of how to co-learn.

The Handbook provided 29 chapters of information, too much to grasp at once, so the following is a summary of some of the general concepts the handbook promotes:

We are human because we learn together. Ever since the ye old days, people have gained experience, knowledge and progress by working with, collaborating and communicating with the people around them. “It is the essence of human culture”. Why change that now?

“Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” John Dewey.  Engage, participate and be present. You might actually learn a thing or two if you do.

Ideally, the need for peer review should not exist! In a perfect world. People should be in constant and open peer review dialogue so that the need for a formal peer review wouldn’t be necessary.  To make this ideal situation a reality, it starts with small steps. It starts with questions and curiosity, with in class assignments and with the desire to make yourself and others better.

Personal Supports Peer.  How we cultivate living, responsive webs of inspiration and support that help us be more effective learners. It is the “personal learning network”

Peer Supports Personal.  You have something to offer and something to learn. You can learn a lot from your collaborative efforts.

Peer-to-peer review is a teaching technique widely used in design disciplines, like the arts.  In courses where students are expected to create original artwork, it’s essential that they understand how to give and receive what is called critique.

But peer review is also an effective way to teach writing.  The following video, No One Writes Alone, provides some noteworthy tips for how to be an effective reader providing feedback to a peer author:

  • Provide the experience of the reader, don’t get caught up about what you “ought to say.”
  • Be constructive and provide your perspective.
  • Remember that you are a collaborator – be focused and specific.
  • Point out what they did well (but don’t overdo it).
  • Ask Questions, be curious – Even the most basic questions can help.
  • Help improve the quality of the work.


Welcome to CritViz

Critviz is a program created by Loren Olsen and David Tinapple, faculty in Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University to facilitate peer review. In the arts, such review is typically called critique.  When reviewing the work of peers, it is important to keep in mind that critique is not the same as criticism.

Criticism (bad) is personal, destructive, vague, inexpert, ignorant, selfish and individual.

“Your presentation sucks because you don’t even do the math right, and I wanted to know the best option for the truck because I’m thinking about buying one. You also mumble too much and speak too quiet so I can’t hear what you said so I just skipped ahead in the video to the conclusion.”

Critique (good) is impersonal, constructive, specific, expert, informed and selfless.

“The presentation could be improved by including a comparison of net present values calculated for the truck’s lease and finance options with multiple discount rates to allow the audience to identify more closely with the analysis. There seemed to be an audio problem with the recording that made it difficult to hear, so I would recommend re-recording the audio portion using an external microphone to ensure high sound quality.”

In this clip from Crazy, Stupid Love, Jacob (Ryan Gosling) exhibits characteristics of both criticism (personal, destructive, vague) and critique (impersonal, specific, expert, informed and selfless).  Whether Carl (Steve Carrell) benefits from this feedback depends entirely on whether he gets defensive, makes excuses (“They have a lot of support”), deflects, flips, or receives the criticism constructively.

Structuring Critique

Many students are new to the practice of providing critique.  To help structure their critique, they might consider adopting a reliable outline, such as this:

I. Summarize the author’s work from the authors point of view.  In the Summary, it is essential to empathize with the author to understand the purpose of their work as they might understand it themselves.  Only after the author is certain that the critic understands will they cease the struggle to be understood by explaining, rebutting, or seeking to debate the critic.

II. Critique the work.

  • Place the work in context.  What makes it original in comparison to related works?
  • Diagram (or “map) the logic.  Are the conclusions or arguments supported by the evidence presented?
  • Evaluate the importance of the work.  Are the principal points of the argument important?  To whom?
  • Assess the quality of presentation.  Is the writing clear, concise and comprehensible?

III. Make actionable recommendations, which could mean suggesting revisions, additional sources or related works, or reframing the work (i.e., looking at it from a different perspective).

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