Using Student-Teacher Conferences to Create Opportunities for Learning
By Louisa Danielson
I was fortunate to have a wonderful teaching mentor who had some excellent ideas about teaching and the methodology behind getting students to write. It wasn’t so much a spoken theory he had, but a method he followed that made the process simple and straightforward.
One of the major parts of his course was the writing conference. Twice during a sixteen week semester, he held individual conferences with all the students in his classes. They
would go over a paper and discuss how it could be altered – or how it was going in the right direction.
This has now become a part of my own teaching regimen. And I think it’s a good way to bridge the one-size-fits-all approach of a classroom with the individual tutoring principle that can work best for some students. Here is the method I follow when creating student-teacher conferences for my composition courses.
Student-Teacher Conference 101: What goes on?
The term “conference” means different things to different teachers. In my case, it means that I will read a rough draft of a paper, grade that paper, calculate the student’s average course grade, and give constructive feedback. This all happens before the student comes for his or her conference. When the student arrives, he or she has about 10-15 minutes of time during which we go over the paper.
This is a wonderful sign, as it means that the student is taking the comments seriously, and will probably follow through with making the modifications requested. Go ahead and suggest, if students don’t do so voluntarily, that they take some notes. “Do you have a notebook and pen? You might want to take notes here,” is a way to nudge them in that direction.
Timing: When does it happen?
Schedule student-teacher conferences ahead of time. I label the conference weeks in my syllabus at the start of the semester. That way, I can plan around the specific dates. Having it in the syllabus is also a cue to the students – no classes during these weeks.
In my schedule, I block out 10 or 15 minute increments for each student, depending on the course. For example, since papers are shorter for freshman classes, we can usually go over one paper in 10 minutes – or less. For papers that are well done, a typical student-teacher conference usually takes less than the allotted time. This is fine. It gives you a little breathing room for students who may have more questions, and will go overtime.
Conferences are scheduled for times when the class would normally meet. Only four or five meetings can be fit into a 50 minute block of time. For this reason, student-teacher conferences can take one or two weeks of steady work, depending on the size of the class.
Why only conference during class times? If you have students who must commute a long distance, or who use public transportation, or who carpool, it’s a real struggle for them to come to a conference at a non-class time. Keep it simple – it makes it easier on everyone involved.
Some instructors like to hold student-teacher conferences in the classroom where the course normally meets. It is a good way to help jostle students’ memories about where and when student-teacher conferences are to be held. And, in some cases, this may be your only option, if you are not given office space by the college or university at which you work.
But if you do have office space, it might be a good idea to hold conferences there, especially if your classroom is in an out-of-the-way place, where there is little foot traffic. While it is nice to have peace and quiet for conferences, there is a security factor to consider. Are there any witnesses or passers-by who will be present if something happens during the conference? It’s not a common occurrence; but it’s always better to be prepared ahead of time.
Leave the door to your conferencing area open, if at all possible. Set out designated chairs for the students – give them some space. And let your department secretaries know when and where you’ll be conferencing. This is important not just as a safety aspect for you, but also for students – if someone is trying to reach a student in an emergency situation, the secretaries need to know where to find the student.
Why hold conferences?
I have found that conferences allow students to clarify concerns that they don’t ask in the classroom. Maybe you have explained to the class at large how to use the library for finding sources; but there may be one step in using the library that this student is struggling with and can’t figure out.
In-person conferencing can help with this. You can show different techniques from those you used in the classroom simply because you have a specific query to answer. This one wasn’t working? Okay, here’s another way to do it. The student’s specific difficulty isn’t an insurmountable problem; there is always another way of understanding the process.
Conferencing about a paper also lets me communicate directly with the student about what is going well – and what can be improved – in a specific piece. It’s one thing to tell the classroom “use in-text citation, please.” It’s another thing to explain to a student, “Okay, I can see that you are quoting a source here. But only putting the page number here means that I don’t know which source you used – can you make this clearer?”
The lightbulb goes off. The student suddenly connects what I am asking for with what he or she did in the paper. Papers are changed when students understand their own impact with their own words.
Wrapping It Up
Writing conferences offer the instructor a chance to give careful and in-person feedback on student work. When this feedback comes through a rough draft, it means that the final draft can be corrected before it is handed in, and this can give students a sense of security. If they know what went wrong, they have time to go to the writing center, or to talk with another consultant (like a trusted friend or family member) to see how they can better meet the needs of the assignment.
Giving students information to succeed is what college is all about. We give opportunities for learning to happen – and that is what good teaching is all about.