Conferencing With Students

A one-to-one conference with a student about her or his work in progress has long been recognized as one of the most effective ways to teach writing and speaking. However, the ideal of this conference–instructor and student engaging in meaningful conversation about the student’s work in progress–will not happen automatically. Instead, preparation before the conference, careful listening during the conference, and a follow-up post-conference are all essential. The following questions are frequently asked of conferencing:

How long should the conference be?
Some advocates of teaching writing primarily via conferences believe that very brief conferences are most effective. In this way, an entire class might be working on some task and the instructor (or multiple instructors including TAs and WAC Lecturers) might circulate through the room, having roughly 5-minute conferences. In this way, with even a relatively large class, all students will have the opportunity for a conference in a single class session. Also common are conferences held outside of normal class time or in lieu of scheduled class time. While the latter can sometimes seem a “sacrifice” of valuable class time, the intense teaching and learning that usually occurs in one-to-one conferences more than make up for the sacrifice.

What should students do to prepare for a conference?
Conferences–particularly brief ones–will be most effective if students come to them with three or four questions that they want answered about their draft paper or talk. And these questions are most effective if they are open-ended and not answered with “yes” or “no.” Spending some time offering examples of open-ended questions particular to the assignment is often fruitful.

What should instructors do to prepare for a conference?
In some instances, instructors will have opportunities to read students’ draft paper or talk before the conference and come with their own questions. In others–particularly the brief in-class conferences described above–the instructor is seeing the work for the first time, but coming with questions based on the assignment itself will help gather a great deal of information on what students might be facing: What was easiest about this task? What was hardest? What process did the student follow to complete the task?

What should the student’s role be during the conference?
Ideally, students should be active participants in the conference. After all, this is their opportunity to ask the questions that they need asked about their work. As noted above, to play an active role, students need to be prepared to seek out your response.

What should the instructor’s role be during the conference?
The most common mistake we see in conferences is, simply, the instructor talking too much. That’s not to say instructors should not talk at all–of course, their role is to offer feedback in the conference. But often that feedback might be overwhelming. The strategies for responding to student writing  <link> are useful here, particularly the idea of focusing on the answers to the questions students have about their drafts and of dealing with no more than three or four major issues for revision.

What should happen after the conference?
Instructors are often frustrated with conferences because they do not get feedback on what students seemed to learn from the interaction. One way to fill this void is to ask students to write out a “revision plan,” based on the conversation on the conference. This plan can then provide criteria for final evaluation of the writing or talk–did students fulfill their goals as set out in the plan?