Pitch & Catch: Maximizing Peer Critique and Feedback

In an entrepreneurship course a colleague of mine used to have a “pitch and catch” session in which one team would pitch their idea and another team would play the role of investors or critics while the rest of the class watched. The catching team’s job was to help the pitching team sharpen its presentation. The rest of the class would watch the presentations.

I’ve been evolving a variation on this technique in other courses over the last few years. Here’s how it works.

Suppose students in a class of 40 students are working on individual semester-long projects. After about the middle of the semester when a few installments or drafts of the projects have been submitted to me and returned with feedback, we move into pitch and catch mode. During each class session we set aside an hour or so. The basic structure is like a conference at which there are simultaneous sessions running in parallel.

We break the session into four 15 minute rounds. During round one 10 students will pitch and the other 30 will catch. And then in round two, a different set of 10 will pitch and the others will be assigned catching roles. The catchers are shuffled between rounds so students are not simply listening back and forth to one another’s ideas.

Pitching and catching assignments are projected from a page in our LMS as shown below. We also use this page to link catchers to pitchers’ work in progress so they can consult it (and ideally offer feedback) between class sessions.

The “charge” to the catchers is to make their pitcher’s project as good as it can be. I tell them they want to get into a mindset in which THEIR grade is dependent only on the quality of the work done by the three pitchers they will meet with during the session. We talk about the learning outcome we are aiming at here: the capacity to be a helpful, constructively critical teammate/colleague.

The animation below gives a sense of what the classroom movement looks like.

By the end of the session, each student has had fifteen minutes and the attention of three classmates dedicated to her work and she has caught three times. The pitcher gets serious feedback and repeated engagement with interested listeners and each catcher participates with two classmates in a total of 45 minutes of focused conversation about other students’ work.

In one hour this yields 10 student-hours of presentation experience and 30 student-hours of feedback-experience. The pitch-catch conversations tend to be taken rather seriously – with just three critics there’s some informal pressure to participate and do one’s share of the thinking and talking and in most groups I’ve seen a regression to serious rather than the casual.

Following a pitch and catch session, each pitcher has an assignment to “evaluate” the catching she received. They post a short, private reply to the LMS saying who their catchers were and what advice/feedback stood out. This is designed to motivate the pitcher’s taking notes and reflecting on the feedback received and the catchers to give serious advice. The instructions for the assignment mention that they only need cite helpful feedback, that they should attribute it, and that one of the things I read these four is so that when I’m writing letters of evaluation I’ll have concrete things in mind – e.g., “during our pitch and catch sessions, Jesse’s classmates consistently appreciate their feedback on marketing issues.”

Here’s just one example of post pitch-and-catch session reflection:

My assigned catchers were – Q, T, and A. I found T’s input very helpful. My workshop is targeted towards helping entrepreneurs bring design into their startup using a version user centred design thinking and T suggested taking a look at design hackathons. Hackathons are already popular among my audience so using that concepts will help me connect. I also found Q’s input very helpful. She suggested for the prototype step that I could guide participants toward simple mockups. This was helpful because creating an MVP is a common hurdle.

Pitch-and-catch combines the best elements of small group discussion and presentations of work-in-progress, supercharging both in a manner that yields a lot of bang-for-your-buck. It allows us to get serious small class payoffs in arbitrarily large classes by exploiting the insight that not everyone has to hear from everyone and that with sufficient structural constraints we can get high quality conversations happening in parallel.

If one hour of class time were split equally among a class of forty, with half the time hearing about project and half the time offering feedback to peers, on average each student would have 45 seconds to communicate their ideas and each would receive about 45 seconds of feedback. Pitch and Catch yields about 10 times as much student experience.

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