Author: Nathan Allison
Department of English
Editor-in-Chief: Alex Bower
February 20, 2022
As a writing instructor, my favorite part of teaching is hosting conferences: feedback sessions in which the instructor and student walk through the student’s essay together.
On its face, student conferences seem to rely on a structure similar to the “sage-on-a-stage” model, in which the instructor is treated as the sole authority on a given topic. However, we now know the limits of this model.
Beyond its potential inefficacy, its focus on the instructor rather than the student can reinforce various forms of inequity.
Outside of the context of student conferences, we know of several methods that are both more effective for student success and for closing “opportunity gaps” (Mooney, 2018).
For our purposes, some of those methods include: encouraging metacognition (Parrish, 2021), using “transparent pedagogy,” cultivating a sense of belonging (Mulnix, 2021), “giv[ing] students the opportunity to be the expert” (Mulnix, 2021), and helping students adopt what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” (Ahmed & Rosen, 2018; Dweck, 2013).
So, what might it look like to use these methods in the context of a student conference?
Having a good conference with students, for me, starts the first day of the quarter. After students turn in their intro videos on the first day of the quarter, I create a Word document with each student’s name and any notable facts they share about themselves: where they are from, what they do for fun, what their major is, etc.
On the day of the conference, these are the steps I follow to host successful student conferences.
In an effort to model what I am advocating regarding the use of “transparent pedagogy,” this guide includes directions followed by an explanation of the principle underlying any particular action step.
- Greet the student and ask them about something in their file. For example, if a student plays piano as a hobby, ask if they have learned any new songs recently.
- Principle Behind 1: We are primarily teachers of people, not problem solvers of papers. It may seem obvious, but making a point of being kind to your student (even, and especially, when you are overwhelmed with your work and responsibilities) is vital. They are all going through a lot. You may be the only instructor who treats them as a person and shows them compassion. In my limited experience, students who know you care about them are more inclined to ask for help if they need it – which can translate into better grades.
- Tell your student how the conference time will be structured.
- Let your student know how the assignment and the conference fits with the aims of the course, as well as how it relates to their major and chosen career path.
- Explain that composition courses are designed not only to teach writing, but to empower students to evaluate their own writing.
- Principle Behind 2-4: Always be explicit about what you are doing. This fosters healthy communication and sets clear expectations.
- Review your student’s paper.
- Ask your student where they think the paper is going well and where they think it still needs work.
- Principle Behind 6: Never miss an opportunity to let students practice metacognition (i.e., encouraging students to think about their own thinking). Doing so will help them care more deeply about their work, take further ownership of it, and be more receptive to criticism of it.
- Praise your student’s assessment and paper in general as much as you can.
- Kindly point out areas that can be improved. Spend most of the time working with your student on substantive issues, rather than lesser concerns like grammar.
- Principle Behind 7 and 8: Praising the specific areas of the paper that are already going well shows your student that they have the ability to replicate those strengths in other places of their paper that aren’t as strong yet. Students, in this way, become models that they themselves can follow. Spending the majority of the time on substantive issues shows students that there is more to revision than proofreading.
- Solicit student feedback throughout. For example, ask if they have any questions about a particular suggestion before moving on to other parts of their work.
- Principle Behind 9: Ensure that the conference remains a collaborative dialogue, rather than a one-way monologue (which presupposes that the instructor is the sole authority). Soliciting feedback increases the clarity of communication.
- Ask what questions your student still has after you have addressed their self-assessment and your own concerns with the essay.
- Principle Behind 10: Asking students what questions they have is an open question. The question implies that your student has questions to ask (they likely do) and gives them permission to ask. Open questions elicit open responses. Asking students if they have any questions is a closed question and therefore elicits responses that are closed. Often, if you use the closed version, a student will say “No, I don’t have any,” before asking a question. Asking questions can be intimidating and can make students feel as though they are imposing on the instructor, even though this is part of the course. So, do your student a favor and ask the open version. The exception to this is if the meeting is about to run over into the next meeting block (say, minute 43 of a 45 minute conference). At this point, I will ask students if they have any other questions. A student may ask another question but, in my experience, few more follow.
- Ask your student what was most beneficial to them about the conference.
- Principle Behind 11: This gives your student one last opportunity to practice metacognition in the conference. This gives you an idea of your student’s main takeaways and solidifies in their mind what those takeaways are. And, if your student misconstrued this takeaway (which is very rare if you are checking in with them as you should be throughout the meeting), you have an opportunity to reframe that takeaway before they leave.
- Evaluate how substantial the workload of this revision is likely to be.
- Principle Behind 12: Estimating how substantial the revisions will be gives students a clear idea of how much work they will need to do if they want to do well on the paper.
- Tell students that where the paper is and where it can be by the final draft can be drastically different, but that this difference is partly determined by the one thing they can control: how much time they are willing to devote to it.
- Principle Behind 13: This encourages students to think about the quality of writing not as a natural ability, but as a product of effort.
- Finally, tell your student you look forward to reading their final drafts and wish them a good day.
- Principle Behind 14: This lets students know you care about their work and what they have to say. It also sets a standard for students to live up to: that their drafts will be improved.
Conducting student conferences successfully takes time. It took me years of experimentation before I arrived at my own method.
If this feels like a lot, don’t worry. Less than any particular step, what’s important is to convey to students that we care about them and their growth.
If we get that right, we are setting them up for success.
Ahmed, Shazia, and Lisa Rosen. “A Growth Mindset: Essential for Student & Faculty Success: Faculty Focus.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 19 Dec. 2018, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/philosophy-of-teaching/a-growth-mindset-essential-for-student-and-faculty-success/.
Dweck, C. S. (2013). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.
Mooney, Theresa, et al. “Why We Say ‘Opportunity Gap’ Instead of ‘Achievement Gap.’” Teach For America, 11 May 2018, https://www.teachforamerica.org/one-day/top-issues/why-we-say-opportunity-gap-instead-of-achievement-gap.
Mulnix, Amy B. “From Inclusion to Equity: Pedagogies That Close Achievement Gaps.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 25 Mar. 2021, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/equality-inclusion-and-diversity/from-inclusion-to-equity-pedagogies-that-close-achievement-gaps/.
Parrish, Gillian. “Boosting Student Motivation Through Connected Reflection.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 15 Feb. 2021, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/boosting-student-motivation-through-connected-reflection/.
“What Is ‘Transparent Pedagogy’?” Learning Technology Blog, 27 Feb. 2019, https://blogs.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/2019/02/27/what-is-transparent-pedagogy/.