Is Criticism Better When it Comes From Novices?

An Inside Higher Ed article from earlier this year highligted an interesting effect of using an automated system to grade writing:

Andrew Klobucar, assistant professor of humanities at NJIT, said that he has also noticed a key change in student behavior since the introduction of E-Rater. One of the constant complaints of writing instructors is that students won’t revise. But at NJIT, Klobucar said, first-year students are willing to revise essays multiple times when they are reviewed through the automated system, and in fact have come to embrace revision if it does not involve turning in papers to live instructors.

Students appear to view handing in multiple versions of a draft to a human to be “corrective, even punitive,” in ways that discourage them, he said. Their willingness to submit drafts to E-Rater is a huge advance, he said, given that “the construction and revision of drafts is essential” for the students to become better writers.

Think about it this way. If you’re an aspiring director and Steven Spielberg explains why the short film you made is terrible, you might take his criticism in stride, but there’s a good chance you will feel shame or sadness and engage in a painful re-evaluation of your ability. It will be difficult to accept the criticisms and use them constructively because accepting the criticisms brings the emotional pain of acknowledging weakness or failure.  In the end you will be less motivated to edit your film and you may even decide to abandon the project — after all, if Spielberg thinks your best effort led to a terrible film, how could you be capable of turning it into something great.

Now imagine a random person on your street explains to you why your film is terrible. Unlike with Spielberg’s criticism, this man’s lack of expertise means you will probably not have a severe emotional reaction to his words, and therefore you are more likely to consider his criticism with an open mind. Moreover, because he is no expert, his criticism will not substantially lower the imagined ceiling your have for the quality of the film. With your belief in your ability and the quality of the film still intact, you will be more motivated to edit the film.

When criticism comes from a non-expert who is judged more likely to be unreliable — for example, E-raters that are not your teacher — it is easier to internalize the critique without interpreting it as evidence you lack ability.  This is counter-intuitive when it comes to giving feedback to children because it means feedback from teachers may be less helpful. Overall, it’s more evidence that we need to put greater effort into considering the emotional and psychological consequences of taken-for-granted aspects of our education system.


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