Teaching How to Give & Receive Critical Feedback

Mar 03, 2023

When I was in high school, my best friend and I built an electromagnetic engine for the school science fair. Using the power of electromagnets that we assembled using old copper wire found in a garage, we invented a device that could cure the world’s need of fossil fuels and save the planet from Global Warming. At least that is what we thought we did at the age of fifteen, and we had an incredible device to prove it. My science teacher liked our ingenuity so much that we were even allowed to bypass the school science fair and move on directly to the state competition. 

This would be our huge break, and we dreamed of patenting our product after winning the gold medal, and heroically declining to sell our design to giant oil companies and make sure every person in America would be able to afford to drive a car with an electromagnetic engine in it. 

The only problem was, we arrived at the state science fair having forgot to create a poster board to explain our design. And neither my best friend nor I rehearsed our pitch to the judges, and we rambled our way through the presentation and left out major points. And the battery we purchased to power the electromagnetic piston was almost dead when we plugged the machine in at our science fair booth. The stupid thing was completely dead by the time the judges came around.
Needless to say, my best friend and I did not win the state science fair, and we left that convention hall defeated; not by the other participants, but by our own lack of preparation. (We experienced a second round of defeat when Google was invented a few years later, and we learned the electromagnetic piston had already been invented).

The Tuning Process

Sometimes ingenuity is not enough, and success depends on more than an idea and even hard work. Every single project that has ever occurred within the walls of my classroom has been through a process to ensure the product’s excellence. This process is called tuning, and it serves to enhance and augment a product or idea. Tuning can happen in large and small groups, and serves to provide students with critical feedback to improve their project. Essentially, a collaborative team of students present the material that they are working on to an audience, and receive critical feedback from the audience to tune and enhance whatever it is they are working on. There are 3 stages to the tuning process:

  1. Presentation
  • The presenting group describes and displays their existing material to the audience (Entire class or small group).
  • During the presentation, the audience takes notes on what they like about the presenting group’s material, and what they wonder could be done to improve it.  The audience may not ask questions or give comments during the presentation, as this time is reserved only for the presentation group to focus on.

       2. Feedback

    • The presenting group turns away from the audience and cannot respond to the audience during this stage.
    • The audience first shares with each other (aloud so the presenting group can hear) what they like about the presentation’s group project.

Example: I like how they use vibrant colors.

                I like their use of images on the website

  • Next, the audience shares what they wonder could be done to improve or enhance the project

           I wonder if they can make the font bigger on the pamphlet

           I wonder if their idea relates to the theme of this project

  • While the audience shares feedback, the presenting group writes down and creates a list of everything they hear. They will use this list to revise and tune their project.
  1. Respond and Clarify 
  • Presenting group is given an opportunity to clarify and respond to any feedback they were given. Groups do not have to take advantage of this stage if they do not want to, as they can choose to respond with the final product that they create.

The purpose of tuning is to use the collective ideas and feedback from a large group to ensure that each individual group does not miss important details on the way to creating a strong final product. When presenting groups must stand silently during the feedback stage, there is often a temptation to interject and provide clarity to the audience. However, providing a response is not necessary, as this process is entirely for the presenting group’s benefit, and they can take or leave whichever feedback they choose. If the audience gives a piece of feedback that the presenting group does not want, they can choose to not use it. 

Oftentimes, tuning reveals errors and confusion that goes unnoticed by creators. Anyone who has spent many hours creating something knows the propensity to miss details because of being so immersed in the project. This is why a second, or extra thirty set of eyes can be so useful. 

Tuning can be used for different stages throughout a project. First, students can tune ideas and concepts that they developed during brainstorming. This can ensure that ideas are strong and relate to the theme before students begin working. I have skipped tuning product ideas before on projects, and deeply regretted it when students worked for two weeks on a product that was not strong or did not relate at all to the project idea. This was an error on my part, because I could have used the tuning process to prevent this time from being wasted. 

Using Tuning for Checkpoints

Tuning can also be used at checkpoints throughout the project as products develop and need to be refined. Whenever I am planning for my students to present their final products to a professional audience at the climax of the project, I have them go through the tuning process with their presentation. During this time, the audience is focused less on the product students are presenting, and more on the presentation and how effectively ideas are communicated. 


 I like how they made eye contact.

 I like how they smoothly transitioned between speakers

 I wonder if they can use note cards so they don’t miss information

 I wonder if they can have better posture during the presentation.

Again, the purpose of tuning is so that students achieve excellence. It is one of the most important tools in a project, and can be the difference between a successful resolution to a conflict and students feeling their work was incomplete. Giving critical feedback can be a very difficult task for anyone, especially students who are working with their peers.

It is the job of the teacher to model this process, and show how being critical can be different than being negative. Join the audience during tuning. Praise positive work. Don’t hold back what you wonder can be done to make existing work better. I can’t help but think that if someone would have wondered aloud why I did not have a poster board for my science project, or suggested I write down my presentation on note cards, I could be a rich and influential inventor right now hanging out on a superyacht with Leonardo DiCaprio talking about how Global Warming used to be a thing.

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