Timely written feedback on student writing can be a powerful tool for guiding revision. Similarly, brief conferences with students about their writing can have a transformative effect on their development and learning. For those who can secure the time, combining written feedback with a conversation can provide optimal support at key junctures in an assignment. This page offers suggestions for why instructors might consider using conferencing in their classes along with practical strategies for integrating conferencing into assignments and course designs.
Benefits of Conferencing
Conferencing is a tried and true pedagogical approach. Writing in the late 19th century, the educator Brander Matthews noted that the art of teaching requires instructors “to guide students to work independently to discover principles” for themselves, and, through “private talks with every individual student,” the instructor should assist students in expressing themselves “easily and vigorously" (cited in Lerner 2005). Educational research affirms this longstanding practice. As measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Consortium on the Study of Writing in College, students are more engaged in their learning when they frequently discuss their writing with peers and teachers as an interactive process. In their decade-length study of undergraduate education, Chambliss and Takacs (2014) identify the impact of personal connections as a “central mechanism and daily motivator” of student learning. Their study concludes that “a single meeting with a professor to work through a paper could have a decisive effect on a student’s writing.” Likewise, Richard Light’s research, based on interviews with over a thousand students, underscores the importance of faculty–student relationships, which conferences foster. Ultimately, along with supporting student writers, conferencing can serve as a cornerstone for many high-impact educational practices.
By establishing an environment of productive and engaging talk between student and instructor, writing conferences can be used to:
- Focus on various stages of the writing process, including invention, drafting, revising, and editing.
- Model and discuss deliberate disciplinary writing conventions and practices (including organizational strategies and steps in the research process)
- Reinforce and build on course, departmental, and disciplinary learning goals
- Provide specific instruction, tailored to the needs of each student
Tips and Strategies for Conferencing
Set the stage for effective and engaging conferences.
Because students may be unaccustomed to one-on-one discussions of their own work, instructors should describe the purpose and expectations for a conference in their course syllabus and provide helpful guidelines. A brief statement, written in a collegial tone that warmly invites students to use office hours and scheduled conferences, can be helpful in debunking potential notions of a conference as a punitive or deficit-oriented event. As Ken Bain has pointed out, instructors who signal a promising tone in their course materials and who use immediacy and approachability cues in class can do a great deal to establish a culture for effective dialogue, which can greatly enhance conferencing.
Establish an efficient and productive routine for conferencing.
Conferences that allot a specific amount of time to discuss student writing and follow a basic protocol can ensure a consistent and productive experience. Applying research in sociolinguistics to an ethnographic study of academic writing tutorials, Terese Thonus offers a useful and adaptable structure for conferences that consists of four segments, each of which is designed to give agency to the student:
- Opening: The instructor asks the student what they want to talk about. To avoid feeling surprised or overwhelmed by this opening question, students can prepare in advance for the conference by writing a reflective memo or considering some initial questions, such as those outlined below.
- Diagnosing: The instructor and student set an agenda with the student providing most of the input. The student can be prompted with questions or provided guidelines in advance that help them come prepared.
- Directive: The instructor works with the student to achieve the goals the student set in the agenda. This is almost always the longest stage.
- Closing: The instructor summarizes with the student what they’ve accomplished in the conference. The student articulates their next steps and the specific strategies for reaching them. The instructor thanks the student for coming in.
Tailor the conference to fit the stage of learning.
Three opportune times for conferencing are during the planning stage, when students are brainstorming and developing ideas; the monitoring stage, when students have produced a draft; and the evaluative stage, when students may want to reflect on a project. When conferences are aligned with the stage of learning, they can often be conducted efficiently and provide students with actionable next steps.
Use positive nonverbal cues when conferencing.
Research in immediacy and teacher-student relationships strongly suggests that nonverbal cues can do a great deal to establish psychological closeness, which increases good communication. Even small cues, like meeting across a large desk in an office filled with books, can be intimidating for novice writers. When possible, faculty can mitigate some of these environmental factors by removing or limiting barriers that reinforce hierarchies. Instructors can also create a productive environment for conferencing by being mindful about their body language. For example, standing up to invite students into your space can be a welcoming gesture. Similarly, sitting side by side when discussing student writing can make a conference more conversational and collaborative.
Let the student lead the discussion.
Conferences are most effective when student writing is central to the meeting and when students are actively involved in the discussion. To support their students, instructors can ask questions, take notes, and listen for opportunities to respond. Donald Murray (1979) found great success in using these questions to activate student participation and agency in conferences:
- What have you learned from writing this piece?
- What do you intend to do in the next draft?
- What surprised you in the draft?
- Where is the piece of writing taking you?
- What do you like best in the piece of writing?
- What questions do you have of me?
Provide descriptive and revision-oriented comments.
Conferences can be one of the most effective ways to support students at becoming better revisers of their own writing. When instructors describe where they are confused or persuaded as readers (such as, “I struggled to understand the connections between these sentences,” or “I found myself nodding in agreement here”) they can provide students with opportunities to discuss revision strategies. In contrast, comments that are evaluative and prescriptive (such as “This is confusing,” or “this is good”) can often diminish student agency and make them more dependent on instructors to provide the solution to writing issues and challenges.
Let the student ‘hold the pen.’
As with leading the discussion, students are more apt to retain control of their writing when they are annotating and editing their own texts. Though it may be hard to resist the urge to edit the student’s writing, doing so will allow more opportunities for students to learn or discover what they want to say. Rather than editing the paper, instructors can take notes on their own copy of the student paper and give students a chance to read them over before they leave, so they can ask for clarification about any words, abbreviations or comments they may struggle to decode.
Provide multimodal options for conferencing.
When in-person conferences are not practical or desirable, instructors should provide students with opportunities to confer remotely through Zoom, Google Meet or other electronic conferencing platforms. When conferencing remotely, instructors and students should have a shared understanding of the protocols for an effective conference conducted remotely, such as using screen share and agreeing on whether or not to have the video camera turned on.
Reflect on conferences.
After conferring with students, it is often valuable to spend a few minutes in class reflecting on the process and identifying what you, the instructor, have learned from talking with students. Likewise, asking students to identify insights they gained from conferencing about their writing and encouraging them to integrate those insights into reflective memos can deepen their knowledge of their own writing practices.
Challenges and Potential Solutions
While conferences can provide significant educational benefits, there are some possible challenges as well. Here are a few key concerns and potential solutions:
Large class sizes and multiple sections can make individual conferences unfeasible.
Potential Solutions: For large classes or multiple sections, instructors and their teaching assistants might create a schedule for recommended yet optional conferences during extended office hours. Conferences can also be scheduled periodically over the course of the semester, so that students will have a chance to have at least one individual discussion with their instructor or teaching assistant. Before a course begins, faculty supervisors of multi-section courses can work with section leaders to build conferencing protocols into lab or discussion section schedules.
In courses where instructors are unable to hold a conference with students—and even where they can—instructors should provide students with information about the resources on campus, such as Student Writing Support, Peer Research Services, Academic Planning and Exploration, Academic Skills Coaching, and Student English Language Support, to name but a few, where students can experience the tremendous benefits of one-on-one conferences.
When students visit Student Writing Support in the Center for Writing, they typically experience a 40-minute conference. For many instructors, this length of time for an individual conference might seem daunting and untenable.
Potential Solutions: In many instances, especially when they are aligned with specific stages of an assignment, conferences can be conducted in 10-15 minutes, and in some cases in as brief a time as five minutes. If conferences are conducted remotely, students can use Google Calendar invites, a Google Doc or Sheet, or online scheduling tools like YouCanBookMe and Calendly, to schedule meetings with instructors as needed. Mindful of time restraints, instructors can establish the times in the week when they are available. As an added bonus, students can indicate their specific reason for meeting with the instructor at the point of sign-up.
Roles and Responsibilities
Even when class size and time are not deterring factors, some instructors and students may find the roles and responsibilities of conferencing unfamiliar. Instructors accustomed to roles as lecturers or discussion facilitators may rely on more didactic or prescriptive approaches to conferencing. Likewise students who may believe, as Linda Nilson (2013) has noted, that “learning happens to them, and that it’s the teacher’s job to make that happen,” may not take advantage of optional conferencing and/or resist taking an active role during conferencing. In both cases, the default roles of instructor as transmitter of information and student as recipient of information may greatly curtail the potential value of a conference.
Potential Solutions: As mentioned above, providing a rationale and guidelines for conferencing can benefit instructors and students alike. Moreover, spending a few minutes in class discussing the roles and expectations for conferences in advance, can help to signal and reinforce the shift from traditional classroom expectations and behaviors to conference expectations and behaviors. In some cases, reframing office hours as check-ins or coffee breaks and letting students set the schedule and mode for conferencing can do much to shift the roles and responsibilities for effective conferencing. Finally, to acknowledge and alleviate some of the potential discomfort or anxiety that comes from an unfamiliarity with one-on-one conferences, instructors might consider sharing this playful video created by Arizona State University.
Some students may be exceptionally uncomfortable with one-on-one conferences, whether for cultural reasons or as a result of a cognitive or learning difference. If you notice that a student has chosen not to sign up for a conference, ask whether another form of dialogue would be preferable or if they can recommend modifications to your conferencing protocol.