5 Ways to Make Constructive Criticism Work for You

By Manda Perkins Published on September 8, 2016

“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” — Rumi

Many years ago, when I was studying to teach college writing, my mentor advised me to be gentle when providing constructive feedback to students. Any creative endeavor, including writing, serves as expressions of the ego, he argued. To criticize one’s expression, then, may be taken more personally than intended. Unfortunately, I dismissed his advice as being too “touchy-feely,” believing it more important to teach writers to develop a thick skin.

Years later, another mentor reminded me that teachers wield great power as students look to instructors as experts to offer wisdom and insight. An instructor’s feedback can motivate a student to succeed just as easily as it can intimidate a student from taking on greater challenges. I now weigh my criticism more carefully, trying to frame it in such a way that doesn’t trample on feelings, but still corrects behavior and motivates the student to try even harder.

It isn’t easy to accept criticism, even when it is meant to be constructive. So, how can students learn to accept criticism in a manner that promotes growth?  Here are some of my humble suggestions:

1. Accept mistakes as opportunities

You’ve chosen to seek an education, which means you are already out of your comfort zone. Throughout your educational career, you will be asked to attempt work that likely will not be easy. While most of us tend to remember mistakes more readily than our successes, keep in mind the necessity of mistakes to cultivate success. Your teachers and instructors know this; that’s why we take time to create assignments that will make you stretch a little and grant you those learning opportunities. Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes, knowing such mistakes provide opportunities to learn what is necessary to strengthen your skills to succeed at future tasks. If you aren’t making mistakes, you likely aren’t learning what you need to be.

2. Don’t take it personally

When we share our work with others, it is a lot like sharing part of ourselves, even if we don’t recognize it. However, keep in mind the criticism is of your performance, and not necessarily of you as a human being. As a student, you will be exposed to a variety of temperaments, some of which may be a little gruffer than others in the delivery of criticism. Thank the instructor for his or her feedback and find ways to use the criticism to help improve your future performance.

3. Be open to discussion

Instructors are human and are subject to their own mistakes. While we try our very best to communicate our thoughts and responses, sometimes we fail to look beyond our own perspective when assessing a student’s work. If you feel a criticism lacks merit, why not discuss this with your instructor?  Do not be defensive, but frame the discussion in such a way that you are seeking understanding so you may improve your performance. For example, when you receive a comment on a paper noting an idea of yours isn’t well developed, ask your instructor how you could have developed the idea more clearly.  This initiates a dialog that may clue you in to any adjustments and improvements you will need to make to be more successful in the future.

4. Be humble

Your instructors are subject specialists; they know the material inside-out and their primary focus is to impart their knowledge.  Listen attentively to what your instructors share. Any corrections your instructors suggest are likely for a good reason. Trust their experience, as they are tailoring their comments to prepare you for your career.

5. Don’t give up

Some criticism will hurt more than others, but learn to set your emotions aside by considering the feedback objectively. Your work throughout your career will be judged, so be prepared to accept judgment. Think about what you can change (for example, you can work with a tutor or with a colleague to brush up on those subjects which challenge you most). Do what is within your control and stay focused on the task at hand, and the steps you need to take to correct your mistakes.

Accepting criticism and using it to your advantage is perhaps one of the most vital lessons you will learn in college. If you are unwilling to listen to and accept criticism, you may find yourself repeating your mistakes and unable to progress. If, on the other hand, you consider the feedback offered, you will find a way to polish your work and progressively give your best with each attempt at any task.

About the Author

Elizabeth Sanchez is the associate dean for the California College San Diego, San Diego campus.