Constructive feedback and criticism

Having been a judge in different fairs and conferences for pre-secondary, secondary and post-secondary students, I have had my fair share of listening to students presenting their work, asking them questions both to clarify what they have said and to evaluate them, scoring them based on their research topic, methods, presentation and expertise, and giving them feedback on how they did and how they could potentially improve or do more. I have always heard from the more experienced judges that the feedback should be constructive, regardless of the student’s level and I have tried to implement that to the best of my ability. The problem with this approach most often is that some of us don’t know what constructive feedback really means!

Let’s start with what constructive feedback is not. Constructive feedback is not necessarily an all-positive feedback. It is also not unduly beating around the bush before getting to a point that might upset the person. It is not faking interest and awe when what you have just heard or seen is not up to the expected level. It does not mean evaluating things you are not supposed to evaluate, either, for instance, how great (or awful, for that matter) the personality of the person is (unless, of course, this is what you are evaluating).

Now, on to the constructive feedback itself. Constructive feedback means that you are paving the way for the person to improve. Hence, commenting on things that the person can actually control and/or change. This also means that you are telling the person what is already up to the standards and what is not. Therefore, it is good to start with the strengths and move on to the things that need improvement and then summarize at the end. Speaking from experiences, students who present their findings don’t do it as a one-time thing only. They are mostly interested in doing that frequently. Therefore, the more constructive feedback they receive the better their presentation will be the next time around and the more they will appreciate your help as they continue presenting.

Last weekend, I was at a fair, judging a few projects that were presented by students who were in elementary or junior high school and I got the chance to give them feedback and see some of the other feedback sheets that they had gotten. To my surprise most of those feedback sheets had some variation of these words on them: “Great job!” and that’s it! As much as a teenager would like to hear that they did a great job, they need to know what can be improved. There is definitely something that needs to be improved and if you can’t see that as a judge, then you should probably work on your judging skills or present some sort of work and get criticized by other judges before judging someone else’s work. When I get comments from supervisors or other fellow researchers on a document I have written, whether it be a poster or a thesis or a scientific manuscript, I would like to see a “great job here” or “this is awesome” somewhere in the comments. This makes me even more inspired to continue this line of work. But, I also need to know where my weaknesses lie so that I can improve my current work or works that follow. I know that an elementary school student might be very happy to see a “Great job!” on the feedback sheet, but they are going to be our next generation of journalists, scientists, engineers, supervisors, etc. and that is why we need them to know how to fact check, how to work with the facts, and how not to give fake information or information that is not backed up by evidence. And the road to that starts from these fairs and the projects that they do during their early ages. We have a big responsibility here and that is to prepare them for all those.

All things considered, I think starting with what they did right and well, pointing out the areas that need improvement and finishing off by summarizing the points is the best way to give constructive feedback, whether we are the parents, the teachers, the fair judges or friends. As for the parts that may upset the person, it is good to follow the “is it true? is it necessary? and is it kind?” rule. If what we are trying to say will help them improve, then, why not? If we can make it less upsetting and make them comfortable before saying it, even better! Let’s bring up a better next generation, a generation that will learn from their mistakes and use what they have learned from their mistakes to improve and prosper.