But What If I Hurt Their Feelings?: Supporting Students to Give Authentic Peer Feedback



The Common Core standards deem that students should engage in constructive feedback of peer’s work and ideas from kindergarten and beyond. But what does this really look like? What do students experience on a social-emotional level when they are asked to give constructive criticism to a peer? Moreover, what supports do they need from each other and from their teachers to generate effective critical comments? These are questions Ginny Tremblay has explored through her inquiry work over the last several years.

“But what if I hurt their feelings?”

There is a look of genuine fear and discomfort in my student’s eyes as she plaintively asks this question. For a fifteen-year-old, being told that she must publically critique her peer’s artwork seems tantamount to being asked to wear all her clothes backwards for the day. It makes her feel exposed, it makes her feel like she will say the wrong thing, be perceived in a way she did not intend – kryptonite to most of us, but especially to teenagers.

Origin Story

My inquiry began several years ago, when I first became an art teacher. I knew that I wanted to implement the routine of critique in my classroom; I felt it would make the experience of making and thinking about art more Real, more authentic. It was important for students to be able to give and recive valuable feedback to improve their craft.

To give a brief background, a critique is a structured conversation between two or more individuals specifically focused on improving or analyzing an artwork, usually in terms of technique but also in terms of the artist’s intent and message. Through this process, I expected all my art students to develop their skills of observation, artistic vocabulary, and crafting specific commentary on a work. More information on the Ladder of Feedback protocol I use is available here.

When I would conduct whole-class critiques, I noticed that fatigue would set in and the quality of feedback would decrease as time went on. I conducted an inquiry and concluded that smaller groupings of students would help. The following year, I noticed that students were more engaged and alert as a result of the smaller groupings, but that they were still giving feedback that was value-based and nonspecific – saying things like “I like it,” or “ I think the colors are nice.” I had always had students generate norms around respect and tone, but found that these alone were not enough to push the conversation to a dynamic place. Students were not doing what I wanted: providing critique that push their peers’ growth in their art-making ability and/or self-concept as an artist.

Critical Feedback

With this in mind at the beginning of the 2014-15 year, I embarked on an inquiry around critical feedback. My question was, “How can I facilitate meaningful and specific critiques in my classroom?”

I had noticed from student interviews and surveys that they did not like or feel confident giving critical feedback in particular. Some students said it made them feel uncomfortable, like they were being mean, or criticizing the person instead of their artwork; other students said they just didn’t know what to say.

I was excited when I realized that students might just need scaffolds to get them started, that they simply needed a protocol or process to help them navigate the awkwardness of giving criticism. With the help of my Mills Teacher Scholars’ colleagues, I identified three indicators of success for critical feedback, three things which would show the students really got it. These were: giving actionable feedback (ideally leading to concrete changes in the artwork), using a respectful manner and tone, and using specific vocabulary relevant to the artwork being discussed.

I set out to implement scaffolds: for vocabulary I provided sentence frames and posted a bank of terminology learned together in class. For tone we revisited and revised our norms before every critique, and for actionable feedback I modeled examples of specific and nonspecific feedback. I collected audio data to determine whether these scaffolds were making a difference.

Overall, I did not observe the sea-change that I had hoped for when I implemented these new structures. I surveyed students about the process of giving critical feedback, with mixed results. Some said the vocabulary helped, but many more did not like the increased structure and felt it was limiting. I still got the same comments over and over – “I don’t know what to say”, or “I’m afraid to hurt their feelings.”

Towards the end of the year I collected my last round of recordings of Advanced Art students critiquing each other’s work, hoping to hear my indicators of success more in evidence than earlier in the year. Here is an excerpt from the conversation I collected* :

*names are pseudonyms

  1. Josephine: Yours looks pretty good – I like how you used the white to look like snow, or the shiny-ness.
  2. Ava : Thanks – I like the way you used overlapping colors, the black and the green.
  3. [Students then talk about Josephine’s cat, the subject of her print]
  4. Josephine: I like how you used the green to create a 3-D effect around the edges
  5. Ava: Yeah it didn’t actually line up all the time…
  6. Josephine : No, it looks really good.
  7. Ava: Yeah. I like the text.
  8. Josephine: Thanks. They all kept getting like….I don’t know why this one had so much black around it.
  9. Ava : I actually like the messy look of it – it adds cool colors where you wouldn’t expect it….This is the first time I’d done layered prints, it’s kinda cool.
  10. Josephine: Yeah me too – I felt weird because I suck at lining things up!
  11. Ava: Yeah it was really stressful. I guess I should label mine. I also didn’t make 10, I guess I forgot to. How did you make the letters, was that really hard, or – ?
  12. Josephine: It was actually really easy, you know I’m really good at writing backwards so that was actually the hardest part.
  13. Ava: Wow, that’s cool.
  14. {Students then talk about Josephines’ cat [again]}

While the students did successfully maintain a respectful and collegial tone, they did not use vocabulary in a nuanced way, nor did they give each other critical feedback on specific elements to be improved, changed, or expanded. In fact, the moment when Josephine expresses dissatisfaction at the color balance (line 8), Ava rushes to reassure her that she likes it and it’s fine. While this is a friendly thing to say, it also speaks to the level of discomfort she feels even at her peer being self-critical.

I felt like a huge failure – all those scaffolds and no major change on two of my key indicators of success.

So where did I go from here?

As I finished the arc of formal inquiry at my school site last year, and then began writing this post, I continued to have discussions with my Teacher Scholar colleagues about how to proceed in the coming year. These conversations were predicated upon the assumption that my inquiry was cyclical, that it would naturally evolve over time, and that struggle, uncertainty, personalized feedback and growth are a natural part of the learning process for teachers as well as students

The following are just a sample of the questions raised in the course of discussing my inquiry, many of which had not occurred to me and all of which have potential for for another full inquiry cycle next year:

  • What other ways are there to create the conditions to develop this skill of compassionate criticism? Is formal critique the only way?
  • What happens if you go back to the drawing board, talk to kids about why we do critique, ask them (and yourself) why we do this?
  • What role do the power dynamics between individuals play within the Critique process?
  • What are the implications here for female students in particular? Is there a discrepancy between their level of difficulty or discomfort with critical feedback and that of their male peers?
  • How does this question connect to the Common Core and the push for more critical analysis and exposition in all disciplines my students’ experience?

I am struck by the generative nature of the process of teacher inquiry – what initially seemed to me like a ‘failure’ in my instruction around supporting students with critique, was actually a new starting point. I want my teaching to be about continuous growth and change, more than pat answers which end in a period and fuel no further investigation. Through continued inquiry I hope to embody this attitude, which may in turn positively affect my students’ conceptions of knowing and learning.

Ginny Tremblay is an art and design teacher at Albany High School. Ginny loves all forms of visual art, and is especially excited to experiment with new printmaking and photography methods this year. Two years ago she began a collaboration with her Mills-alum colleague Miriam Walden to create Venture, a business academy that pairs design and accounting courses to help students develop an entrepreneurial spirit and the acumen to start their own business. She is also part of a dynamic leadership team who, in conjunction with Mills Teacher Scholars, design and facilitate staff professional development. In May 2015 this leadership team received the California Gold Ribbon award for their efforts to implement inquiry-based, teacher-led professional development at AHS.