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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Critiques - How and When to use Praise

Mark Caldwell's recent post about what we owe our students brings us full circle back to one of my posts from a few weeks ago (available here). In recounting a recent advocacy course, he mentions that some instructors were substituting praise for critiquing and that the students were disappointed.

This matches my own recent experience, in which my advocacy students in a law school course commented that they wanted more critiques of their performances. This sparked a number of comments from other bloggers and readers about what it means to critique.

I can only speak for myself on this issue, but I will admit that it is sometimes easier to dispense praise than criticism after an advocacy performance. This is particularly true when the performance has been a good one.

I agree with Tom Stewart's insightful comment to my earlier post that our job is to find teachable moments and then help our students learn. This can involve using a praiseworthy performance as a teaching moment by pointing out a technique and discussing why it worked so well under these circumstances.

Most of the time, however, if we work hard enough in evaluating a student, we can find something to help improve them as advocates. This is not always true, but it is almost always true. With good students, we have to work much harder, even if we use a collaborative critiquing method such as those advocated by Charlie Rose in some of his blog postings and presentations.

What I think Mark is talking about here is the substitution of relatively shallow praise for the hard work of digging in and helping a student become better. We have to search for the teachable moment. "Good job, I thought you really made some good points on that cross-examination," doesn't really cut it.

What role should praise play? I think it should be given when it is actually needed. Most of us have worked with students who have experienced tremendous growth during an advocacy course. After days (or in the case of a law school course, weeks) of being critiqued, they deserve praise when they finally turn in that golden performance; it's their just reward. But the rest of the time--unless it's part of one of Tom Stewart's teachable moments--we ought to keep it under wraps and be about the business of helping advocates become better.


  1. I agree completely that sometimes praise is important. But in all things, “timing is everything.” This type of comment is best left toward the end of programs, when there is legitimate basis for praise, and when students are tired and may need the kudos. I find it especially important to allow other students, rather than instructors, to give praise when due. This can be done either in the comfort of the performance breakout rooms, or in public during the “wrap up” near the end of a program. Comments from peers carry far more weight and are heard more clearly than comments from faculty who are about to be evaluated themselves.

  2. We need to give honest praise to encourage students to move in the correct direction, while being clear to point out errors. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

  3. Tina is absolutely right - I like to identify particular areas that I want the students to critique their classmates on. I find that it can get them "focused" in a way that gives me some control over topic. I usually pick subjects that we have recently covered so that I have some idea that they might actually know what they are talking about.