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Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts on a Good Critique

Hon. Robert L. McGahey, Jr.

There have been several recent posts (all excellent) about what students expect and deserve from critiques. May I offer some additional thoughts?

A good critique is:

Clear: Students need to understand what needs to be worked on and what they can do to get better. Use simple language and precise demos.

Complete: Be thorough. Make sure you make your whole point. It’s not a good critique if the student hasn’t been given all the necessary information he/she needs to improve.

Concise: Time is precious, whether at a program for lawyers or in a classroom full of students. Remember Caldwell’s Paradigm: Limit your comments to one point, two at the most. Rattling on is usually not helpful. (Mea culpa, mea culpa!)

Consistent: A variation on “stick to the method.” Use the same general structure for critiques whenever possible. This helps not only the student receiving the critique, but also all the others in the room, who are learners, too.

Candid: Maybe the most important. Sugar-coating has no place here. We’re trying to make better lawyers, not a whole bunch of new friends. This doesn’t require us to be nasty (see below), just honest.

A good critique is not:

Copycat: Don’t give everyone the same critique, even if everyone needs help with the same thing. Find a way to vary the message, even if it’s the same message. Also, while it’s OK to steal liberally from your colleagues, don’t just parrot their teaching points (at least without attribution!)

Convoluted: Or, if you prefer, “confusing.” Be direct and to the point. Don’t bounce around within your comments. Don’t be obscure. Don’t start and stop. Remember Mies van der Rohe: “less is more.”

: Everyone has their own style. However, we have to show the students that we care, that we are engaged with what they are doing, that teaching isn’t just something we do to show off how great we are. You don’t have to be over-the-top, but you do have to be dedicated and invested; remember the difference between the chicken and the pig. We can’t be emotionally distant from the students or from the process.

Condescending: Yes, we all have far more experience than most of our students. Yes, many of us have had much professional success. Yes, some of our experiences are frightening, funny, memorable. But that just makes us different, not special – and certainly not better. We are dealing with professionals, or folks that want to be professionals. We need to treat them as such.

Cruel: We’ve all seen a student completely broken by an unfeeling critique. It’s a dreadful experience – and sometimes it happens because of nothing more than a careless word or tone of voice. We also all remember that Kingsfield-like professor in law school who thought that psychological abuse was a necessary component of teaching lawyers. Again, we don’t have to sweet talk everyone, but we must remember the power of words and the trust our students put in us and act accordingly. Lawyers and would-be lawyers have big egos – but those egos can be fragile.


It’s very difficult being told that you need to improve something you think you already do well. It’s even more difficult trying to learn how to do something you don’t know how to do but want to do well. When the critique of your performance comes from someone you respect and trust, you can learn and get better. As teachers we need to show our students that we are people who can be respected and trusted – and believed. After all, persuasion is ultimately about credibility. As teachers we need to remember that every time we open our mouths and say: “Ms. Smith, I’d like to talk to you about……”

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