How to Give Criticism – Positively

Linnea Hall, MSBA, JD. Professor, Kaplan University School of Business and IT


People generally think of criticism in negative terms.  After all, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines criticism as “the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing”  (“Criticism”, n.d.).   So how can we not take that negatively? Yet, as professors, we must constantly critique (criticize) student work to encourage improvement.

In order to understand the best way to criticize student work (and let’s face it, sometimes we aren’t just critiquing, we are criticizing) we must understand the different types of criticism.  In the psychology field, there are two general types of criticism: constructive and destructive (Peterson, 2010).

Destructive vs. Constructive Criticism

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First, let’s look at destructive criticism.  The main purpose of destructive criticism is to tear someone down.  It is meant to demoralize and make someone feel inferior.  It may even be based in personal negative feelings towards the person to whom the criticism is being offered (Raver,  Jensen,  Lee,  & O’Reilly,  2012).   According to Raver, et al.  (2012), those who receive destructive feedback are more likely to be angry at the individual giving feedback and are more likely to blame the feedback giver for any failures on the part of the recipient.

On the other hand, constructive criticism should encourage the recipient to improve by giving helpful suggestions. Constructive criticism should also include a promise of additional support (Bernat, 2008; Petress, 2000). The tone should be professional with a goal toward helping the student to understand how to improve upon future assignments (Petress, 2000).   Most importantly, constructive criticism should be “encouraging, affirming, and supportive for the purpose of building confidence” (Petrass, 2000,  para. 3).

So how do we know whether we are offering constructive criticism or    destructive criticism?  Let’s look at two examples of instructor comments on a student paper:

Destructive criticism

Bob, while I appreciate your efforts, it’s really clear that you did not put much effort into this paper.  You have only one source, your information is minimal, and you have demonstrated no independent understanding of the subject matter.  If you want to pass this class, you are going to need to spend a lot more time researching and put forth significantly more effort on your content.  Please let me know if you have any questions.

Constructive criticism

Bob, your paper has some good content but could use improvement.  For instance, the statement regarding the increased susceptibility of intellectual property to theft as a result of digitization is very good.  However, some additional information would demonstrate your understanding of the topic.  For instance, in the article you referenced it explained that while analog copies are degraded copies of the original, digital copies are exact replicas.  The article also discussed the methods of distribution and how they have changed with digitization.  This information would have helped to further explain the issues related to this topic. Additionally, using multiple sources can help to provide multiple viewpoints which leads to a more robust understanding on your part.  I would recommend on your next assignment that you begin with an outline.  Find two or three articles on each topic area and then identify at least two ideas in each article that you can discuss.  The Writing Center can help you to understand outlining, and then you can email me your outline before you start your paper so I can offer suggestions for improvement.

Final Thoughts

The first example is passive-aggressive.  There is an attempt to provide guidance in a positive manner, but it is very negative in its tone and offers no specific areas of improvement.  On the other hand, the second one identified where the student’s efforts were correct, encouraging the continuation of this behavior, and then it offered specific examples for improvement, and finally guidance and support for improvement.  This type of criticism is constructive; it is  encouraging and helpful and should be the goal of all instructors.


Bernat, P. (2008). Career center. Finding the “constructive” in criticism. Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology,42(2), 111-113.

Criticism. (n.d.).  Retrieved from

Peterson, K. M., & Smith, D. A. (2010). To what does perceived criticism refer? Constructive, destructive, and general criticism. Journal Of Family Psychology24(1), 97-100. doi:10.1037/a0017950

Petress, D. K. (2000). Constructive criticism:  A tool for improvement. College Student Journal34(3), 475.

Raver, J. L., Jensen, J. M., Lee, J., & O’Reilly, J. (2012). Destructive criticism revisited: Appraisals, task outcomes, and the moderating role of competitiveness. Applied Psychology: An International Review61(2), 177-203. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2011.00462.x

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7 Responses

  1. ukwriters says:

    excellent post and the topic is also well chosen. I do believe in positive criticism but mostly I find negative words.

    • Linnea Hall says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I chose this topic because I have a *really* hard time finding those encouraging words. I don’t like false praise, but encouraging students to keep working to improve is so important! I’ll be presenting more on this issue at the KU Village – “Low Carb Criticism” I encourage you to attend 🙂

  2. Sorry for the typo in my previous post, it should be “front of it” not “from of it” KB 🙂

  3. Thanks for this very important post and many times we may slip and forget to write and speak our thoughts and suggestions for improvement in a positive tone and always start the feedback with a compliment. One thing I learned in Toastmasters was not to use the word “criticism” ever because it does not matter what adjective you put in from of it “constructive” or otherwise all the person hears is the word “criticism.” So we were taught to use the word “feedback” and “suggestions for improvement.” And the Oreo Cookie Method: praise, suggestions for improvement, praise” No fear, damage to the fragile ego, or old tapes playing there in my head or theirs. Just a thought…

    • Linnea Hall says:

      Thanks for your comments KB. While I understand the idea of “feedback” instead of criticism, it’s still criticism – noting problems or faults. The idea is to ensure that it is encouraging and not discouraging. As for the “Oreo cookie approach” I recommend you attend my presentation “Low Carb Criticism” at KU Village which explains the pitfalls of using the sandwich (or Oreo cookie) approach. Thanks! ~L

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